Jairus Byrd will dominate the conversation when it comes to which free agents the Buffalo Bills should bring back.
The Pro Bowl safety’s bargaining position seems to have been strengthened this season, despite missing the first five games of the year because of injury. Byrd on Friday was named a second-team All-Pro safety – for the second straight year – and last week was named to his third Pro Bowl.
The 27-year-old played the 2013 season under the franchise tag, which guaranteed a salary of $6.916 million. The Bills have the option to use the tag on Byrd again, but to do so would require a 20 percent raise, meaning his salary would be $8.299 million.
Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said the team plans to make an offer to Byrd, and that it will “leave all options on the table” in regards to possibly franchising him again.
For his part, Byrd told The Buffalo News this week that he’s open to a long-term contract extension.
“It’s a wait-and-see approach as to what’s going to happen,” he said.
While Byrd’s negotiations will be the most high profile, they aren’t the only ones Whaley and Jim Overdorf, the team’s senior vice president of football administration, will enter into.
Including Byrd, there are nine players set to become unrestricted free agents when the 2014 NFL league year begins at 4 p.m. March 11. They are:
• TE Scott Chandler: The 28-year-old led the team in both catches (53) and receiving yards (655), setting single-season career highs in both categories.
“I think that Scott Chandler had a fine year. He really did,” coach Doug Marrone said.
Chandler would like to return. He’s found a home in Buffalo after bouncing between three teams in his first four seasons.
“I love Buffalo,” Chandler told The News prior to the season finale against New England. “It’s hard to imagine anything else, but you know, this business is funny. I didn’t imagine myself not being a Charger, but pretty quick I was no longer a Charger. I was a Cowboy, wasn’t a Cowboy, was a Giant, wasn’t a Giant, then I was a Cowboy again.
“We’d all like to have careers like Jason Witten and Antonio Gates, where you just stay with one team, but that’s not the reality of the league. I don’t know what the organization’s plans are, but I owe a lot to the organization.”
Chandler, who played 79.1 percent of the offensive snaps, finished a two-year contract that had an average salary of $2.725 million, 24th highest at his position in the league in 2013.
The Bills have three other tight ends – Tony Moeaki, Lee Smith and Chris Gragg – under contract for 2014.
• DE Alex Carrington: The 26-year-old had earned a starting job out of training camp as the 5-technique defensive end on the strong side (where the tight end lines up), but his season was cut short after he suffered a torn quadriceps in Week Three and subsequently went on injured reserve.
Carrington played 66.1 percent of the defensive snaps before his injury. He also told The News prior to the season finale he’d like to return.
“I like it here in Buffalo, I really do,” he said. “It’s the perfect defense for me and everything. I love the community.”
The Bills gave themselves some insurance at the position by re-signing Carrington’s replacement in the lineup, Alan Branch, last month.
For what it’s worth, Carrington’s agent is Eugene Parker, who also represents Byrd.
• LB Arthur Moats: The 25-year-old started the first 12 games of the year at weak-side linebacker, but his playing time fell off a cliff the final month of the season – when he took just three defensive snaps.
For the year, Moats played 293 of 1,145 defensive snaps, 25.6 percent. He finished with 54 tackles and earned $1.35 million in the final season of his four-year rookie contract.
“This is my first time going through this whole process,” Moats said of impending unrestricted free agency. “I’m going to listen to the older guys on the team, get an understanding of the whole process, and just go from there.
“I told myself during the season that I wouldn’t even think about it until the season was over. Now that it’s over, I guess I’ll start thinking about it.”
Moats shared time on the weak side with second-year man Nigel Bradham, with neither distinguishing themselves. It’s possible the Bills will pursue an upgrade at the position – particularly looking for a player who is strong against the run – either through the draft or free agency.
• FB Frank Summers: The 28-year-old played 15 games, making nine starts. He carried 12 times for 46 yards and caught seven passes for 79 yards and two total touchdowns.
Summers said he spoke with Whaley on the day the Bills cleaned out their lockers, and that there is a mutual interest in him coming back.
“Nobody is going to outwork me this offseason,” Summers said. “I’m already looking forward to next year.”
• S Jim Leonhard: Signed the week before the start of the regular season, Leonhard ended up appearing in all 16 games, with seven starts. He made 41 tackles and finished with four interceptions, tied for the team high, giving the Bills quality depth while Byrd was out at the start of the season.
“I just tried to bring leadership to a young secondary, and felt like I accomplished that,” Leonhard said. “Obviously we would have like to have better results in the win-loss columns, but I think this team is moving in the right direction. Coach Marrone is doing and saying a lot of the right things. You get some young guys to take that next step, and you never know what can happen.”
Leonhard, 31, has played nine seasons, and hopes for a 10th before retiring.
“I want to play one more,” he said. “That’s it, and I’ve known that for a couple years. I wanted to get 10, and whether that’s here or somewhere else is yet to be determined, but I’m definitely open to the possibility of coming back.”
That includes returning in a reserve role.
“I think this is the best scheme in the NFL,” Leonhard said. “Year Two in this system, it’s going to be a lot of improvement. I think you’ll see more consistent play out of everyone … kind of understanding the ins and outs of everything.”
• OT Thomas Welch: Had an important job as the team’s third tackle, but ended up playing only eight offensive snaps all year – on tackle-eligible plays – with starters Erik Pears and Cordy Glenn taking 100 percent of the offensive snaps this season (1,161).
Welch still appeared in all 16 games, playing 68 special teams snaps.
• K Dan Carpenter: Signed to fill in for injured rookie Dustin Hopkins, Carpenter ended up having one of the best seasons by a place kicker in franchise history. His 33 made field goals tied Steve Christie’s team record set in 1998. And his make percentage of 91.67 on field goals was second best in franchise history to Rian Lindell’s 92 percent in 2006.
“We’re going to reach out to his agent pretty soon and see if we can try to get something done,” Whaley said about bringing Carpenter back.
The Bills should have competition for Carpenter’s services – an enviable spot to be in for a player who was cut three times during training camp.
“I’m open to anywhere,” Carpenter said. “I haven’t even spoke with my agent yet about it. My wife and I are going to sit down and have a talk after we start finding out what’s going to happen and we’re going to make the best decision for my playing days and also our family.”
• P Brian Moorman: Whaley said the Bills also are interested in bringing back Moorman. The 37-year-old is likewise open to a return.
“I would love to continue my career, and I’d obviously love to continue it here in Buffalo. I’m thrilled to be back,” Moorman said. “The way the community opened their arms and kind of wrapped them around me as well as the organization and my teammates. It’s been a great experience, and these guys make me feel young, that’s for sure.”
The Bills also have a pair of exclusive rights free agents in guard Antoine McClain and receiver Chris Hogan. They are players with two or fewer years of NFL experience. The Bills can retain their services by making them a contract offer at the three-year veteran minimum salary for 2014, which is $645,000. McClain and Hogan do not have negotiating rights with other teams - they can either take that deal or leave the NFL.