Bills 2023 free agent tracker: Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips bolster D-line

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- NFL free agency is off and running, and we're keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2023 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The first round of the 2023 NFL draft begins April 27 on ESPN.

After making a splash in free agency last year with the signing of pass-rusher Von Miller, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane cautioned that the team will not be making a similarly big move this offseason. Even once the Bills create some cap space by restructuring some of their larger contracts, the team will only have so much room to work without doing more restructuring and pushing even more money down the road -- something Beane doesn't like to do.

The Bills still do have some major needs to address this offseason. Most of the holes come on the offensive side of the ball, with help needed on the interior offensive line and at all the offensive skill positions, especially wide receiver.

While Beane and coach Sean McDermott often talk about drafting, developing and re-signing their own, Beane also likes to try and fill needs during free agency to set up the team up for the draft.

Here's a breakdown of every 2023 NFL free agent signing by the Buffalo Bills, and how each will impact the upcoming season:

Jordan Phillips, defensive tackle

Phillips agreed to a one-year deal.

What it means: Defensive tackle is a sneaky area of need for the Bills, with few options to take considerable snaps behind Ed Oliver and DaQuan Jones. Bringing Phillips back for another season adds a solid veteran who has continued to produce when healthy.

What's the risk: Injury history is the biggest risk when it comes to Phillips. He is coming off offseason surgery on a torn rotator cuff and has only played a full regular season three times in his eight-year career. He played in 12 regular-season games last year and logged 19 snaps in the season-ending loss to the Bengals despite the shoulder injury. In January, Phillips said he expected to be ready for training camp.

Shaq Lawson, defensive end

Lawson agreed to a one-year deal.

What it means: The Bills needed to continue to add at defensive end with Von Miller coming off his season-ending right knee injury. Lawson started six games in his return to Buffalo last year, all at the end of the season. Two of his 3.5 sacks on the season came in the last four games. He improved on his performance from the previous season with the Jets, finishing with nine quarterback hits vs. five the previous year. Adding Lawson gives the defense another experienced pass-rusher.

What's the risk: There's not much risk involved with bringing Lawson back on a short-term deal. Lawson is well known to this coaching staff and front office and talked in January about how comfortable he feels in the building. Exact contract details aren't out yet, but having him back for another year is a logical fit.

Damien Harris, running back

The former Patriot agreed to a one-year deal.

What it means: The Bills replaced Devin Singletary, the team’s leading rusher over the last four seasons, with Harris, who was selected by the Patriots just 14 picks after Singletary in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft. What Harris presents is a bigger back (5-foot-11, 213 pounds) to pair with smaller rushers James Cook and Nyheim Hines, and someone who can have success in short-yardage situations (averaged 4.0 yards per carry on third down and in short-yardage situations, ranked 15th among running backs in 2022) and take advantage of light boxes. Harris adds a different skill set to the room and is someone the Bills have seen be successful firsthand — he ran for over 100 yards in three of his five games against Buffalo.

What's the risk: There is some injury concern with Harris. He missed six games last season with a thigh injury and has yet to play a complete 16- or 17-game season. If he can stay healthy, Harris makes a lot of sense in the Bills offense, but his availability is something to keep an eye on.

Dane Jackson, cornerback

Jackson will return to Buffalo on a one-year contract.

What it means: Just two days after originally placing an original round tender on Jackson, who was a restricted free agent, the Bills signed the cornerback to a one-year deal that lowers his cap hit from the about $2.7 million it would have been, but provides him some guarantees. Jackson started 14 games for the Bills last year and the seventh-round pick had some up-and-down moments. With Tre'Davious White now healthy and first-round pick Kaiir Elam, who ended the season on a positive note, going into his second year, Jackson will likely provide depth at outside corner.

What's the risk: While the Bills adding in some guarantees adds to the risk, bringing back Jackson on a short-term deal fits Buffalo's theme of re-signing players the team has developed on one-year contracts. Jackson now has starting experience and had 12 passes defensed and two interceptions in 2022. There isn't much for the Bills to lose with having him back, especially since the team was able to negotiate a contract that creates cap relief.

Jordan Poyer, safety

The Bills agreed to terms with Poyer to return on a two-year deal.

What it means: The Bills' big question mark at safety is gone and the strong duo of Poyer and Micah Hyde will be back for at least another season (Hyde is a free agent in 2024). Prior to free agency, Poyer had expressed his excitement in exploring the market, but clearly the 2021 first-team All-Pro did not find the offers he was looking for. Poyer, who turns 32 in April, instead returns to fill a big hole at safety for the Bills opposite Hyde, whom he has started alongside since 2017. While the Bills still need to add depth at the position, a key defensive starter is returning and Buffalo only lost one game with him on the field last year (13-1).

What's the risk: The same reasons that Poyer's market wasn't quite as high as the other top safeties. The 11-year veteran played through a variety of injuries in 2022 and missed four games because of them. Prior to that, however, the safety missed only two starts during his first five seasons in Buffalo. His age is similarly a risk in terms of being in the later portion of his career.

David Edwards, guard

Edwards agreed to a one-year deal.

What it means: The Bills are bringing in more players for competition on the interior offensive line. Edwards spent the 2019 and 2020 seasons with current Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer on the Rams, which brings some familiarity. The 2019 fifth-round pick has started 45 games in his career and has postseason experience, including Super Bowl LVI, with the vast majority of snaps coming at left guard. He has also played some right guard and at least one snap at the other line positions. Edwards, 26, will compete for the interior offensive line roster spots.

What's the risk: Health is a concern. Edwards played only four games last season due to concussions. He is now healthy and played every game the prior three seasons in his career.

Trent Sherfield, wide receiver

Sherfield agreed to terms on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Bills continue to add depth to the wide receiver room and special teams. The receiver has size (6-foot-1, 219 pounds), can play both the slot (295 career routes) and outside (560), and can block. By adding a second wide receiver in the first week of free agency, the team is addressing a clear need early. Despite that, the Bills would be wise to continue to address the position more with a potential fit at No. 2 receiver, especially with Gabe Davis only under contract for one more season.

What's the risk: There's more upside with Sherfield, 27, than any risk involved. He's played in every game each of the past two seasons -- with the 49ers and then the Dolphins -- and is coming off his best season with 30 receptions for 417 yards and two touchdowns. He also had only one drop on 52 targets (1.9%) last season.

Deonte Harty, wide receiver

Harty agreed to terms on a two-year deal.

What it means: The Bills know they need to add a variety of offensive weapons for quarterback Josh Allen this offseason and signing Harty is the first step in doing just that, in addition to adding a player who has been dynamic as a returner. Harty has lined up both in the slot (126 career routes) and outside (216 career routes) and has averaged 6.59 yards after catch per reception. Adding Harty should be just the beginning in addressing the skill-position with an option at No. 2 receiver still needed. The team also now has multiple solid options at returner on the roster (running back Nyheim Hines).

What's the risk: Injuries are a concern with Harty only playing in four games in 2022 due to a toe injury suffered in October and previously missing time with hamstring injuries. The Bills, however, can get out of this deal in the second year if needed. While Harty has zero career fumbles offensively, he has had some trouble securing the ball on special teams with nine career fumbles (four lost), including one lost in 2022. There's certainly some risk involved, but there could be high upside with Harty's skill set.

Kyle Allen, quarterback

What it means: With Case Keenum heading off to Houston, the Bills needed to add to the quarterback room. Enter Kyle Allen, former Texans quarterback and good friend of quarterback Josh Allen, to compete for the backup job. The Bills already have quarterback Matt Barkley, who spent all of last season on the practice squad, set to return. But the team adds a less experienced option than Keenum with Allen, who has been on three different teams -- Panthers, Commanders, Texans -- since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He started a career-high 12 games in 2019 with the Panthers and six games since then, completing 62.6% of his career passes.

What's the risk: The Bills are going in a different direction from investing in more experienced options behind Josh Allen after Mitch Trubisky and then Keenum held the role the last two years. Allen hasn't missed a game since his rookie year, which makes investing in the spot in a tighter cap year feel less needed, and the team has emphasized adding players to the room that have good chemistry with Josh Allen. Josh and Kyle Allen have known each other for years and that relationship will provide a good dynamic for the franchise quarterback. But if the room stays as it is, there's serious risk involved in not having someone with more experience who could better fill Josh Allen's shoes if needed.

Tyrel Dodson, linebacker

The Bills agreed to terms with Dodson on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Bills needed depth at linebacker, and especially at middle linebacker with Tremaine Edmunds' signing with the Chicago Bears. Dodson, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2019, provides that and is a special teams contributor who has been active for all but one game over the last two seasons (reserve/COVID). The 24-year-old linebacker started a career-high three games in 2022, filling in for Edmunds. He finished the season with 32 tackles, one fumble recovery and a sack. Dodson continues the trend of bringing back solid special teams players, but also adds depth to the linebacker room.

What's the risk: By bringing back more of their own depth and special teams players, the Bills haven't done anything considered risky thus far. Dodson has experience, having played played in 42 games.

Connor McGovern, guard

The Bills agreed to terms with McGovern, a former Dallas Cowboy, on a three-year, $23 million deal.

What it means: The Bills needed help on the interior of the offensive line and signing McGovern is the first step in addressing that. Last season's starting left guard, Rodger Saffold III, is set to hit free agency and McGovern primarily played left guard for the Cowboys last season (779 of 873 offensive snaps). He also has experience at center and fullback. For an offense which has revolved around quarterback Josh Allen, McGovern's pass blocking ability (93.1% pass block win rate in 2022) will be welcome at left guard.

What's the risk: Coach Sean McDermott hasn't been shy about wanting to improve the team's ability to run the football, and that hasn't necessarily been McGovern's strength. He has averaged a 72.2% run block win rate in his career and is coming off a career-low season average (69.3%). McGovern also missed his entire rookie season due to a pectoral injury, but started 15 games last season. Final contract terms will put this in more perspective, but he should be a solid attention up front for the Bills.

David Quessenberry, offensive tackle

Quessenberry agreed to terms on a one-year deal to return to Buffalo.

What it means: The Bills had a few offensive linemen hit free agency this offseason, leaving holes largely in terms of depth up front. Bringing Quessenberry, 32, back into the fold provides depth at both tackle spots. He started two games at right tackle in 2022 and one at left tackle and played in every game. Quessenberry had the lowest pass block win rate on the Bills' line (87.2%), but was second in run block win rate (75.6%). The ability to step in at two key spots is important.

What's the risk: Minimal. He is going to be 33 once the season begins, which adds a little risk. However, bringing back an offensive lineman who provided reliable depth last year and hasn't missed a game in the last two seasons doesn't come with much to lose.

Cam Lewis, cornerback

The Bills agreed to terms with Lewis on a one-year deal.

What it means: The Bills continued their trend of the day, bringing back depth and contributors on special teams. Lewis was a restricted free agent and makes sense to bring back on a one-year deal. Primarily a special teams contributor (50.6% of special teams snaps in 2022), Lewis was active in a career-high 13 games last year and the Bills tried moving him to safety after playing cornerback the previous two seasons. The versatility helps here in terms of depth. The team listed him as a cornerback when announcing the deal.

What's the risk: Similar to the Bills' other initial deals in free agency, risk here is minimal. The Bills are bringing back special teams contributors on short-term deals as important depth to the roster. Lewis tied for the most special teams tackles on the Bills last year (11). The defensive backfield's depth was an issue at times last year, so bringing back a player the Bills know makes sense as they put together next year's defense.

Sam Martin, punter

The Bills agreed to terms with Martin on a three-year deal, the team announced.

What it means: The Bills were pleased enough with Martin's production as both a holder and a punter last season to make him the team's punter for the foreseeable future. Martin was signed just prior to the start of the season last year after being released by the Denver Broncos. In 2022, Martin ranked 17th in net yards per punt (41.33), but due to the Bills' offensive success he only punted 45 times in the regular season -- fewest by a punter that played every game for his team.

What's the risk: The 10-year veteran isn't coming off his best season, finishing with the sixth-best net yards per punt average of his career, per TruMedia, but there isn't significant risk involved here. Originally drafted by the Detroit Lions in the fifth round in 2013, Martin, 33, was a consistent holder for kicker Tyler Bass last season, something the Bills prioritize. But he had only 34.8% of his punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Since 2020, the Bills have punted the fewest amount of any team (140), but a bit more consistency from Martin in 2023 would help justify this deal.

Tyler Matakevich, linebacker

The Bills agreed to terms with Matakevich on a one-year deal, the team announced.

What it means: The Bills continue to prioritize having talent on special teams and investing in that area. Matakevich has been one of the special teams captains the past two seasons and is a key part of the team's success there. Last season, Buffalo had the NFL's best special teams according to ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI). Matakevich, 30, adds depth at linebacker, but only played three defensive snaps last season so this is largely a special teams re-signing.

What's the risk: There's not a lot of risk with this move. While final terms of the deal have not yet been disclosed, bringing Matakevich back for one year is not a significant investment for Buffalo, but shows the importance of special teams to the organization. Originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the seventh round in 2016, the linebacker has not missed a game during his three years with the Bills and has missed only one game in his career due to injury.

Ike Boettger, guard

The Bills re-signed Boettger to a one-year deal.

What it means: Boettger was sent to hit free agency when the league year began, but instead the Bills signed him to a one-year extension. The offensive lineman tore his Achilles tendon in December 2021 against the New England Patriots and spent most of last year recovering. He appeared in one game during the 2022 season. Now fully healthy for the start of the offseason program, Boettger will be important depth for the offensive line and will have the chance to compete for a starting job.

What's the risk: There's zero risk involved in bringing the former undrafted free agent out of Iowa back on a one-year deal now that he's recovered. Boettger provides solid depth at multiple offensive line positions and is entering his sixth season with the Bills. He knows the offense and is well-liked in the building. Nothing to lose here.