Well, this isn't exactly debating Drury or Briere, is it? It has been a long time since two Bills players will earn somewhere between 6-8 million bucks a year have hit the market at the same time. That's what happens when you suck for so long. You don't have players other teams want.
I think you'd have to go back to the 2000 offseason when Eric Moulds and Marcellus Wiley were set to be free agents. Unlike today, the Bills were in salary cap hell then. They couldn't bring back both guys even if they wanted to. They picked Eric Moulds and gave him a 6-year, 42-million dollar deal. Wiley ended up following John Butler and Doug Flutie to San Diego. He got almost the exact same deal at 6-years, 40-million bucks.
At the time, both deals were the highest in their team history. It was kind of shocking for Wiley to get that much, especially since he had only had one decent season (10.5 sacks in 2000). It wasn't his fault, as the Bills didn't start him until they cut Bruce Smith after the 1999 season. Moulds, on the other hand, had put together three straight seasons in which he was our best offensive player so I had no issues with him getting money. I think most fans at the time preferred him over Wiley.
In the end, the Bills were right. Wiley had a nice 2001 season in SD (13.5 sacks), but he started getting hurt and his career fizzled out. He played five more seasons for three different teams and had just 12 sacks over that time. He was done. Moulds had a great 2002 season, followed by a few decent seasons. However, the Bills sucked and he'll never get his due from people outside of the 716. In a way, it was kind of like Drury/Briere after their new contracts kicked in. One guy was still the same, but the other guy pretty much fell off the face of the planet.
12 years laters it's deja vu all over again.
What will the Bills do? They are only 22 million under the cap. If Bird and Levitre get 14 million between them and then you factor in the 5-6 million for the draft, they'll have like 4 million bucks to sign other free agents. That's not good, especially since the Bills obviously need to make improvements to their roster. I think it is one or the other. For this piece, I'm going to weigh out every single angle imaginable. History, importance of position, jersey coolness. Anything goes.
Bills history of re-signing players in the secondary and offensive line
For the better part of almost two decades, you could set your watch to the Bills drafting a CB to replace a CB who was leaving. From Nate Odomes to Nate Clements, the list is pretty lengthy. However, the Bills changed strategies in 2009. They extended Terrence McGee to a deal that paid him almost 6 million a year and in 2011, they gave Drayton Florence 5 million a season. Alas, both deals kind of blew up in their faces as McGee started battling injuries soon after getting his contract and Florence had a terrible 2011 season. Now both players are gone.
As for safeties, when you break it down, the Bills have paid for the position. Henry Jones was here for 10 seasons. They paid Lawyer Milloy what would have been considered top tier safety money at that time (4 million a year). Donte Whitner made almost 6 million a year here though that was mostly due to his draft status.
As for the offensive line, from 1992-2012, the Bills used six picks in the first two rounds on offensive linemen (John Fina, Ruben Brown, Mike Williams, Eric Wood, Andy Levitre and Cordy Glenn). Surprisingly, that's the same number of picks the Bills have used on WRs (Moulds, Price, Reed, Evans, Hardy, Parrish). However, the difference was that their OL picks weren't replacing guys who were leaving like the CB position. Instead, they were replacing holes that had been there already.
Pay-wise, the Bills have dished out more money for OL than they have for the secondary. Ruben Brown and John Fina both got lucrative contract extensions, Fina twice. Dockery and Walker got 75 million between them. Mike Williams made 10 million a year. Will Wolford would have stayed here if the Colts hadn't poison pilled his offer sheet in 1993. The only two guys who left without the Bills trying to re-sign them were Jonas Jennings and Howard Ballard. Ballard was more about the cap issues while Jonas was decent as a player, but not worth the lucrative money he got in San Fran.
When the Bills have had talented offensive lineman on their roster (a rarity from 1995-2009), they have tried keeping them. You can't really say that about the secondary even though they did it with McGee and Florence. Also, those contracts for OL were more lucrative than the ones they gave to the secondary. You bet your bottom dollar Byrd would get more money and more years on his deal than McGee and Florence got on theirs. Historical advantage: Levitre
I still don't get the whole Russ Brandon has final say thing. Seriously, Ralph can't stop him from giving out 1 billion dollars for Chris Kelsay? I mean, if I had complete autonomy over Ralph's bank account, I'd go to fucken town. Look, as much as Russ Brandon yells to the heavens about money not mattering to Mr. Wilson, it does. Not just in the black/red department, but in the football capology department. We all know by now that Byrd will probably get less money than Levitre. Offensive lineman make bank. Dockery, who sucked, got 7 million a year in 2007. Levitre is going to get 7-8 million while Byrd will probably get 6-7 million.
Also, because the franchise tag applies to OL as a whole, Levitre's salary for one year would be close to 10 million bucks if the Bills use the tag. Funny, but they don't have that rule for the secondary, as corners are corners and safeties are safeties. So Byrd would get 6-7 million a year. That's a difference of 3 million bucks. So, yes, it would cost less to re-sign Byrd to an extension or franchise him. Money Advantage: Byrd
Who is better?
This is a lot tougher than I think people are thinking. Both players have the Christian Ehrhoff effect. Their stats don't exactly jump off the page, but they do more than meets the eye. There seems to be a lot more love for Byrd because safety is a position the naked eye can judge. It's easy to tell when he is awesome and when he is awful. He also played around a lot of trash in the secondary so he seems like a diamond in the rough. As for Levitre, he's kind of in the shadow of Eric Wood and offensive line seems like a more team-oriented position while the secondary is mostly based on individuals.
This is where we get into a Back to the Future paradox. If Byrd is so good, why did the secondary get burned so badly last year? Why do elite tight ends still trouble the Bills? Everyone gives love to Ed Reed, but is he surrounded by elite corners? No. He's pretty much been the poster boy for the Ravens secondary yet their secondary is pretty good.
As for Levitre, how good is the Bills offensive line? I'd say they have been above average over the last three years. Hell, they have been good. So, you now get into a debate about who is more important or valuable in this case, right? If Byrd is better, why isn't the secondary better? Levitre is on a unit that has played much better than the secondary. In a way, I'm of the mindst that he Bills shouldn't mess with something that is more than adequate.
According to the stats page on NFL.com, the Bills only had 8 negative rushing plays toward Levitre's side (the left) which was the 2nd fewest in the NFL. They also had 27 runs of 10 yards or more on that side, ranking 8th in the NFL. As for the right side, they had 16 negative runs which was the 11th most in the NFL. They had only 14 runs of 10 yards or more to the right, ranking 20th. Bottom line: The left side was better in rushing than the right side.
Their offensive line is probably the strongest unit on the team while the secondary is a junkyard fire. However, this isn't about who is more important, it is about who is better. I think Byrd making plays on a defense that, because of bad coaching and subpar corners, was a disaster last year is more impressive. Player advantage: Byrd
I've always said that judging what makes an offensive line good is like trying to settle the chicken and the egg argument. Do the QB and the system make the line play better or do you need to have a line filled with 1st round talent? I'm not sure. During the Gailey era, the line played great and Fitz hardly got sacked. Keep in mind that Fitz was sacked only once for every 17 pass attempts last year. In 2011, it was 25. Now if you go back to 2009, a year in which the Bills offense was a mess under Alex Van Pelt's philosophy, Fitz was dropped once every 10 passes and he only started 8 games. This all happened with Wood and Levitre here. Of course, they were rookies, but you see the point. Gailey's quick pass offense was efficient enough for the offensive line to keep Fitz upright.
But this isn't about Gailey. He's gone. It is is about Marrone.
If you go back to his Saints days, the offense didn't give up a lot of sacks either, but that was more about Brees getting rid of the ball fast. When the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, their offensive line didn't have any 1st rounders on the squad. They had one 2nd rounder, two 4th rounders, and two 5th rounders. If the Bills plan on running a west coast offense, they don't exactly need stellar offensive linemen. The offense is designed to get rid of the ball quickly.
If, however, you are going strictly by what Pettine wants to run, you are damned straight he's going to want a safety like Byrd. The defense he ran in NY had the safety cheat a ton in blitzing and supporting the run. Even if you go to Pettine's days in Baltimore with Ed Reed that still holds. The "46" has always been about having a physical safety involved. Byrd fits that. Coaching advantage: Byrd
Confession: For reasons I can't comprehend, Andy Levitre blocked me on Twitter. I have absolutely no clue why that is the case and if anyone can ask him for me, I'd appreciate it. I know you might think I ribbed on him when he posted his jersey with a naked girl behind it, but the blocking actually happened years ago. (BTW, how stupid are you to post a photo with a girl's boob in it? Like it's right there the damn boob!) Anyway, I think Byrd is much more popular amongst Bills fans. As I said earlier, Levitre is in Woods shadow and Byrd pretty much stands alone in the secondary. Plus he gets much more love from experts than Levitre does. Oh, and blocking me on Twitter doesn't help. Popularity advantage: Byrd
Next in line
I normally like to think that when teams decide to pay a player a ton of money, they look around to see who is next in line to get paid. I'm talking by position. For instance, you can't have 5 WRs making 5 million a year. I know the Bills have a ton of money invested in the defensive line, but that's kind of an anomaly by NFL standards. You usually pay like 2-3 guys kick-ass money per position. Byrd is pretty much the only commodity in the secondary who is about to get paid. Gilmore has 4 years left until free agency and everyone else pretty much sucks or is unproven. They don't have any money tied into the secondary. As it stands right now, everyone is on their rookie deals. The Bills already have Urbik for 15 million bucks and they have to deal with Eric Wood's contract next off-season. In essence, it becomes Levitre vs. Wood. Both guys will probably get at least 6 million bucks a year and you can have the debate about who is better or more important. Can we envision a Bills line that is making that much bank? Possibly. However, in terms of making everyone happy, Byrd doesn't have to worry about someone else eclipsing him in payroll in the secondary. Teammates getting paid advantage: Byrd
All signs pretty much point toward Byrd. One thing I failed to mention is that most experts say guards tend to be overrated and that you'd rather have an All-World left tackle to anchor the line because you can throw anyone in the middle. That may be true, but the Bills don't seem to have that All-World tackle on their squad. Maybe Glenn could be that guy, but we aren't there yet. As for the safety position, it has evolved over the years. With the NFL doing everything they can to get rid of lethal collisions, the days of Denis Smith taking your head off is long gone. You want guys with diverse talents. With teams running the spreads, you want your safety to act like a corner and cover guys. You also want someone who can support the run.
In the end, I think the Bills will probably franchise Byrd and Levitre will walk. It isn't about being cheap, it is about the cap. The Bills are desperate for WRs. I'd rather take Byrd and Dwayne Bowe while losing Levitre. You can't have all three guys. Now could they get creative and cut someone like Fred Jackson, Fitz, or Kelsay? Yes. But as of this writing, none of that has happened.
I can live with the Bills keeping one of the two, even if Levitre is the guy they decide to go after. That's fine. However, they better add someone else to the mix via free agency with whatever money is left over.