The Buffalo Bills are faced with a really big decision, or at least situation, this offseason when it comes to linebacker Matt Milano, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.
He’s been a very good and important player for the Bills since they selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, as part of Sean McDermott‘s first draft class, and has been with McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane for their entire tenure in Buffalo. He’s homegrown and developed by the current regime, which always means something.
However, that draft class has already seen two players earn extensions, cornerback Tre’Davious White and left tackle Dion Dawkins. At some point, it’s hard to retain everyone you’d like to, and the Bills are at a crossroads now with Milano.
There are a lot of ways this could play out. Let’s examine them:
Given the lower salary cap projections for 2021 across the league, it’s hard to tell exactly what Milano‘s market value will be. However, the website Spotrac calculated that to be close to a $14 million per-year contract.
As it stands right now, the Bills are currently over the salary cap by about $6 million on a $175 million cap. If the cap is in the low $180 million range, that would put them within a couple million to right about even, plus there are veterans they may release or restructure to give them more flexibility.
They also have offensive linemen Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano as pending free agents, and other places they’d like to improve on their roster. So keeping Milano already won’t be easy, and if he commands that type of salary, it’s going to be very difficult.
The Bills could use the franchise tag on Milano, which projects to be between $14-$15 million for a one-year deal. That would also buy the team time to get a longer-term contract done, but there’s no guarantee that can happen before the mid-July deadline to reach a long-term agreement, and they would have to pay that money and be in the exact same situation next year if not.
There is also the transition tag, which should fall around the $13-$14 million range. That would give the Bills the right to match any offer made by another club for Milano‘s services. However, if they do not match, they would not receive any compensation. Just like the franchise tag, they’d have to be willing to pay that price for his services. Are they? That’s the question.
Milano’s play and injury history
Milano is an instinctive, sideline-to-sideline linebacker. He’s athletic and good in coverage. In fact, this past season, teams averaged 6.16 net yards passing per-play against the Bills defense while Milano was not on the field, and only 5.40 net yards per-pass when he was. That 0.76 yards difference was the biggest margin on the entire team.
That said, many fans will point right to the AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs and the team’s inability to cover tight end Travis Kelce, and directly at Milano. I don’t think that’s totally fair, considering Kelce is a future Hall of Famer and the Bills did not use Milano strictly one-on-one on him. But he certainly didn’t do himself any favors in that particular contest.
There’s also a bit of an injury history and concerns with Milano.
He broke his leg a couple of seasons ago and missed the team’s last three games in 2018. Those kinds of things happen in football, but he’s also had some hamstring issues that have popped up, including costing him a game in each of the past two seasons. When he came back from that hamstring injury this season after missing Week 2, he suffered a pectoral injury in Week 4. He missed two more games, then tried to play through it for a couple of contests as a part-time player. Milano was ineffective, so the team put him on Injured Reserve, costing him three more games.
Overall, Milano missed six games due to the injury in 2020 and has played 58 of a possible 68 games, including playoffs, over his four seasons.
The hamstring and pectoral muscle are both soft tissue injuries. Teams are very careful and weary of paying players, especially top-dollar, when it comes to those. The Bills will no doubt talk to their medical and training staff to assess whether or not they believe Milano will continue to have those types of injuries going forward. If that’s the case, and they believe they won’t get a full 16 (or most likely now 17) games from him, they won’t want to pay him the kind of money he may fetch on the open market to retain him.
Do the Bills feel they have a replacement in-house already for Milano if he were to walk?
A.J. Klein certainly isn’t the athlete Milano is, and he struggled when he filled in early on. But as Klein became more acclimated to the defense, he started playing terrific football, even earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his Week 12 performance against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Klein tied for the team lead with five sacks in 2020. He’s under contract for two more seasons.
Tyrel Dodson is an athletically gifted linebacker in the same mold as Milano. He’s played 10 NFL games, mostly on special teams, but did see significant defensive action in four games in 2020.
However, Dodson also suffered a hamstring injury in Week 6, shutting him down for six games. Dodson is going into his third season and under contract next year for less than $800,000. How much of a drop-off to the Bills feel it is from Milano to Dodson, and is that drop-off enough to justify paying 13 or $14 million more?
There’s also the player’s side of this equation.
How much will Milano seek? Does he want to be paid as much as possible, or is he willing to take a bit less to stay in Buffalo and be a part of what the team has built?
We know he loves it here, he’s stated that on multiple occasions. However, he’s given no indication that those feelings translate into taking anything less financially on his next contract.
Milano’s played four years and put himself in a very good position. A position that may only come around once. Players work hard to earn that second contract. He’s done that and earned the right to become a free agent, and at least gauge his value.
Whenever Beane has talked about him, he’s echoed those same sentiments, noting the team would love to have him back, but also stating several times since last offseason that it’s going to be challenging to continue to keep everyone. That obviously sounds like the Bills understand very well they may not be able to do that with Milano.
Ultimately, this will most likely come down to what the market bears for Milano, which is very uncertain right now. Although possible, I don’t expect the Bills to use either the franchise or transition tag on him, but rather expect them to make him an offer they feel is competitive and in-line with what their value is on him.
From there, I expect him to test the free agent market, see what offers are out there, and weigh them against one another, including the Bills.
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