Safety Jairus Byrd and left guard Andy Levitre are the Buffalo Bills’ big-ticket soon-to-be unrestricted free agents.
But they’re far from the only meaningful contributors from the 2012 team to have played out the final year of their contracts. General Manager Buddy Nix, along with new coach Doug Marrone and his staff – whenever it’s finalized – face several key decisions on which players the team is interested in bringing back, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Here’s a look at that “second tier” of unrestricted free agents for the Bills, excluding Levitre and Byrd.
DE Kyle Moore: Inactive for the first four games of the season, Moore developed nicely over the final three months of the year, eventually making seven starts. At times, he was the team’s most consistent pass rusher. He finished with three sacks and 24 tackles in 12 games.
At 26 years old, and with Drew Rosenhaus as his agent, Moore picked the perfect time to flash potential as a pass rusher in a league that’s always looking to find players with that skill.
“I’m just going to sit back and watch everything unfold,” Moore said. “This is a fun time for me.”
Moore, who played 61 percent of the defensive snaps (491 out of 810) after becoming active, is one of the front office’s better finds. They plucked him off the Lions’ practice squad in 2011. He’s got support in the organization.
“They gave me my opportunity here,” Moore said. “They believed in me. First when I made the squad, and then they allowed me to play and start. All I can do is be loyal to the team that did that.”
One of the big questions for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is how he would use a player like Moore, whose best fit is as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme.
CB Leodis McKelvin: He’s had his ups and downs defensively, but McKelvin, the team’s 2008 first-round draft pick, has proven to be a dynamic return man. He led the NFL in punt return average at 18.7 yards per return, and was the only player to take two punts back for touchdowns this season.
McKelvin also started four games at cornerback as the Bills played musical chairs at the position behind Stephon Gilmore for most of the season.
He said he’ll be looking for an opportunity to play defensively in free agency.
“Most definitely we’ll be considering the positions I’m playing,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for. [The] return game is always going to be there, but I’m going to be looking for a chance to play on defense.”
He hopes that comes with the Bills.
“I’ve been here for five years. This is the first team that ever gave me the opportunity to play the game that I love [professionally],” he said. “Buffalo is family first. It’s a great group of guys here.”
LB Bryan Scott: The nickel linebacker was one of the team’s better playmakers, with six takeaways (four interceptions, two fumble recoveries), two forced fumbles and the defense’s only touchdown of the season. He also finished with 66 tackles.
Scott played 2012 on a one-year contract with a base salary of $825,000.
He’s been with the Bills the past six seasons, making him the longest-tenured player among unrestricted free agents.
“Hopefully everything works out and I’m back here next year,” he said. “That’s what I want. That’s where my heart is, in this city and in this locker room with this team. I want to be part of that team that turns things around here, that makes the fans really proud of us.”
Scott played a lot this season – he was on the field for 590 of the team’s 1,088 defensive snaps (54 percent) and there is not an obvious replacement on the roster for the 10-year veteran.
DL Spencer Johnson: The versatile defensive lineman was limited by an ankle injury that forced him to miss two games. He finished the year with just 19 tackles, a personal low with the Bills.
“I didn’t have the season I wanted to this year,” he said.
Johnson’s cap hit in 2012 was $4 million – a number the Bills will likely seek to lower if they are interested in bringing him back.
“I’ve been here a long time, and we’ve got a good core group of guys,” Johnson said. “To be a part of a winning team here would be awesome for me.
DE Shawne Merriman: The presence of Moore in training camp meant the Bills considered Merriman expendable, but the team re-signed him shortly after defensive end Mark Anderson was hurt in Week Five at San Francisco.
Merriman played in 10 games, starting the season finale against the Jets, making 17 tackles and one sack.
“I feel good, man. It took a while. I had to work through it and get to the point I’m at now,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t get a second opportunity in this game, and I took advantage. I’m proud of that.”
Merriman played 31 percent of the defensive snaps (206 out of 669) after re-joining the team.
“It’s very gratifying, because not only did I come back, but I was a big part of this defense. I’m happy about that,” he said.
Asked whether he was open to returning to Buffalo, Merriman said: “I would love to play with these guys. I have a long relationship with [General Manager] Buddy Nix. I respect him as more than just a GM. I look up to him. You don’t have a lot of GMs in this league that tell you what it is, tell you straight up, and I’m fortunate for that.”
QB Tarvaris Jackson: Was inactive all 16 games of this season after being acquired from Seattle for a seventh-round draft pick late in August. The Bills, however, could be without any quarterbacks on the roster come March, should they decide to cut starter Ryan Fitzpatrick to avoid paying a $3 million roster bonus.
That could mean an opportunity to compete for playing time here in Buffalo for Jackson, something he wasn’t given the chance to do under former coach Chan Gailey. It’s worth noting that the man who executed the trade, Nix, is still here.
Jackson admitted 2012 was a trying year, but said he’d be open to a return.
“Definitely, if I get an opportunity to play and compete, I’d love to be back,” he said.
WR Ruvell Martin: Martin’s biggest job was as the “gunner” on special teams. He made four special teams tackles. In limited offensive snaps, he caught four passes for 41 yards. Given Nix’s stated desire to upgrade at receiver, it would be surprising to see Martin back next year.
FB Corey McIntyre: The veteran completed his eighth season in the NFL. McIntyre plays a traditional blocking role, with no carries and just two receptions on offense over the past two seasons. His biggest contribution is on special teams, where he served as a captain.
RB Tashard Choice: Carried 47 times for 193 yards and one touchdown in 12 games as the third-string running back. Choice was a favorite of former coach Chan Gailey, whom he played for in college at Georgia Tech. Not a big factor on special teams, with just one tackle.
G Chad Rinehart: Played in seven games – making two starts at right guard in place of the injured Kraig Urbik – before going on injured reserve because of an ankle injury suffered against Tennessee in Week Seven. Made a base salary of $1.26 million in 2012. Provides quality depth along the offensive line.
QB Tyler Thigpen: Served as Fitzpatrick’s backup for the past two seasons, but over that time has thrown just 13 passes in seven games, all in mop-up duty. Thigpen, who accepted a $1 million pay cut to stay with the Bills before the season, was originally signed because of his knowledge of Gailey’s system. With the coach since fired, it would be a shock if Thigpen were to return.
The Bills have three players with three years of service who are thus restricted free agents – receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson and offensive lineman Colin Brown.
The Bills can retain a “right of first refusal” on any of those players by presenting them with a qualifying offer. That ensures the Bills would receive draft pick compensation for the player if another team signs him to an offer sheet and the Bills don’t match it. That compensation corresponds with what level of tender the Bills put on each player, and where they were drafted.
For the 2013 season, the tenders are as follows: first round, $2.879 million, second round, $2.023 million and the original draft round, $1.323 million.
For example, Brown was a fifth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009, so if the Bills placed the restricted free-agent tender on him and another team signed him to an offer sheet, the Bills would receive a fifth-round draft choice from that team if they choose not to match it.
Jones and Nelson, however, were undrafted free agents, so if the Bills are interested in keeping them, they would have to put at least a second-round tender on each player, because the restricted free-agent tender would not provide them any compensation (because they were undrafted) should Jones or Nelson sign an offer sheet with another team that the Bills don’t want to match. The second-round tender would make it unlikely another team would try to sign Jones or Nelson to an offer sheet.
The Bills also have a pair of exclusive-rights free agents in H-back Dorin Dickerson and tight end Mike Caussin.
Those are players with two years of experience. The Bills can keep them if they choose by offering the three-year veteran minimum salary, which Dickerson and Caussin have to accept, or leave the NFL. They do not have the right to negotiate with other teams. If the Bills decide not to offer a contract to Dickerson or Caussin, they would become unrestricted free agents.