The Buffalo Bills just wrapped up their successful 2017-18 campaign. As they move into the offseason, the first step for the front office is to make tough decisions on key internal free agents.
After one year of the Sean McDermott era, the Buffalo Bills successfully ended the playoff drought, shed some cap space, and implemented a new culture. From the beginning, McDermott stated that this season wasn’t about tanking or playoffs, but building a culture.
The free agent signings and draft picks last year held high values on character. The Bills removed on-field talent by trading away former high draft picks, Sammy Watkins, Marcell Dareus, Reggie Ragland, and Ronald Darby.
In all the trades, the Bills never truly made a “tanking” decision. Instead, they received on-field assistance. One of the least known additions at the time of those trades was E.J. Gaines. We were told he had started with the Rams, but nobody REALLY knew much about him.
What did we learn about Gaines that would make us feature him as the third biggest priority for the Bills decision makers?
2017 Stats: 59 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 1 INTs
Career Stats: 185 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 3 INTs
25 years old, 4th NFL season
6th round pick – Missouri
Early in training camp, the Buffalo Bills traded Sammy Watkins. The returns for Sammy Watkins included a second-round draft pick, and some guy named E.J. Gaines.
In Gaines’ one year with the Bills, he replaced Sammy Watkins as perhaps the most valuable player entering free agency. Gaines has an 8-4 record with the Bills in games he plays. When you factor in the Bills had a total of nine wins this season, Gaines clearly became the team’s X-factor.
What Gaines brought that other secondary members didn’t was the willingness to tackle. He would often attack the run game, and wrap up tackles when other secondary members may hesitate to do the same. His attitude, and willingness to tackle, is a clear feature McDermott likes.
Now what is the problem with Gaines, and why would there be any hesitation to lock him up long-term? That 8-4 mark means that he played in 12 games. So therefore, he missed 5 other games. He also exited multiple games early with a variety of injuries.
According to Spotrac, the average cornerback makes a little over $10 million over three years. When looking at cornerback contracts realistically, it’s reasonable to assume that Gaines’ value won’t be in the top tier with Josh Norman, Patrick Peterson, etc.
If Gaines was to be paid at $9.7 million annually, he would become the fourth-highest paid player on the roster. Is Gaines the fourth-most important player on the Bills?
Part of the reason the Rams traded Gaines was that he was injured the year before too. Nobody will question if Gaines’ on-field talents are worth that money for the Bills. Yet, how much lower do you drop his contract for fear of the injuries? Or do you?
The short answer is yes. Sign E.J. Gaines. While the Bills may prioritize another player over Gaines, Gaines may be their biggest internal re-signing this offseason. What the Bills built on the backend of their defense with Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Gaines, and Tre’Davious White is special. Locking Gaines up on a multi-year deal means that for the next three seasons, those four will patrol the secondary.
Cultivate that chemistry that was special in year one. See if you can build upon it, and maybe even get better with depth and competition. None of Gaines’ injuries were career-threatening. If his attitude fits, keep working with the training staff and make the investment to grow the chemistry.
However, should the Bills let Gaines go, it will save them some salary as Brandon Beane continues to look to clear cap space. Cap space has value, and there are cheaper options, who maybe can be special in Buffalo too.
Let’s start with some of the free agents who may interest the Bills.