INDIANAPOLIS — While General Manager Buddy Nix and Assistant GM Doug Whaley are busy interviewing prospects, team President Russ Brandon is spending the NFL Scouting Combine conducting meetings of his own.
Brandon and Jim Overdorf, the team’s senior vice president of football administration, are busy meeting with the agents of the Bills’ 12 unrestricted free agents.
“We have a pretty good pool of free agents that will be coming up on March 12, so Jim and I have a lot of work to do,” Brandon said. “It’s an opportunity for us to get a pretty good understanding of where they’re coming from, what their focus is on moving forward, and have very open and frank dialogue on both sides. And it also gives you an opportunity, if you’re making some progress, to sit down later that day or the next day and continue that dialogue. It’ll go fast and furious over the next three days.”
Last year at this time, the Bills laid out most of the groundwork in a deal with receiver Stevie Johnson. This year, they’ve got high-profile free agents Jairus Byrd and Andy Levitre at the top of their list. Brandon confirmed the Bills will meet with Eugene Parker and David Dunn, the representatives for Byrd and Levitre, respectively, while they’re here.
Byrd has several times been mentioned as a prime candidate for the team’s franchise tag, but Brandon said that would be a last resort.
“It’s an asset that’s available to you if needed,” Brandon said, without mentioning Byrd by name. “Obviously, there’s a variety of reasons that you don’t want to use it. You prefer not to from a cap-management standpoint, but we’ll see how that goes.
“It’s a tool that’s there as collectively bargained, but from our standpoint, we’re focused on trying to get long-term deals done.”
Bills General Manager Buddy Nix specified cornerback Leodis McKelvin as the next unrestricted free agent the team is focused on, indicating McKelvin would be the starting right cornerback based on the current roster.
“It’s important for us to keep all three of those guys,” Nix said, “and I’m throwing Leodis in there and Levitre and, of course, Jairus Byrd.”
While a scintillating return man, McKelvin has been a disappointment as a cornerback, especially considering the Bills drafted him 11th overall in 2008. He was the first cornerback off the draft board, taken ahead of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (16th), Aqib Talib (20th) and Mike Jenkins (25th).
McKelvin started three games as a rookie and suffered a broken leg in his second season. He didn’t become a regular starter until 2010.
He started only six games in 2011 and four games this season after Aaron Williams got hurt in Week Nine.
Tight end Scott Chandler suffered the same knee injury in December that fellow Bills tight end Mike Caussin did in 2011.
Both injuries occurred in Week 16. Caussin was unable to play a game last season.
Given that, the Bills have a major need at tight end for 2013. Chandler, who scored six touchdowns each of the past two seasons, might not be able to contribute.
“See, I worry about that,” Nix said. “It’s normally seven to nine to 10 months recovery.
“You figure it up, and we start camp at seven months for Scott. Even if the doctor said, ‘You’re strong enough to do it,’ you don’t know confidence-wise how long it’ll take him to get back to 100 percent.
“I don’t want to get caught without” a tight end.
The Bills have Lee Smith on their roster as a blocking tight end. Caussin and Derek Buttles, an undrafted rookie last year, also are on the roster. Joe Sawyer is on the practice squad.
The notable tight ends who could be free agents are Jared Cook (Tennessee Titans), Martellus Bennett (New York Giants), Brandon Myers (Oakland Raiders), Fred Davis (Washington Redskins), Dustin Keller (New York Jets) and Anthony Fasano (Miami Dolphins).
Nix gave this year’s tight end draft class a positive grade.
“I think it’s good,” he said. “I think there’s more tight ends draftable than probably I’ve seen in two or three years.”
Brandon said season-ticket sales are pacing ahead of last year’s rate, when the team had 43,267 season-ticket holders, but that he understands if people are skeptical.
“It’ll be interesting to see where it all plays out, but there has been a good level of excitement tied into what we’ve done,” he said. “There’s also a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude I understand as well. But I think people are generally pretty excited about coach Doug Marrone and the staff he’s put in place.”
Brandon left no doubt that Assistant General Manager Doug Whaley’s position with the team is secure.
As for when the current general manager, 73-year-old Buddy Nix, will turn the reins over to Whaley, Brandon insists no time frame has been set.
“I know that’s also a popular question, but there’s no timetable for that. Doug Whaley’s not going anywhere,” Brandon said. “He’s our assistant GM. He’s in charge of all personnel. Doug, he’s locked in to Buffalo for the foreseeable future. There’s no transition timetable or plan. Buddy and I will meet on that when it’s appropriate, but we haven’t discussed that at all.”
The NFL released its tentative round-by-round draft order Thursday, with the exception of compensatory selections, which will be announced next month.
The Bills own six picks — one each in the first six rounds. Buffalo traded its seventh-round pick to Seattle for quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
The Bills pick eighth overall in the first round and hold four of the top 102 selections in the draft.