Where the Bills stand with the salary cap


Releasing Kelsay, others would save Bills money (buffalobills.com)

If you're looking for Marshawn Lynch coverage this morning, we've got it, and will continue to have it.

To put it lightly, things aren't going well for the Buffalo Bills at the moment. The team's decision to retain head coach Dick Jauron was met with vitriol from its fan base; those sentiments will remain prevalent until the Bills make the playoffs or the team moves in a different direction. Buffalo has also seen two of its players get arrested in less than two months since the 2008 regular season ended. They've got an upcoming contract squabble with left tackle Jason Peters, and did I mention that the team has gone nine seasons without a playoff berth?

If Buffalo wants to sell tickets, let alone try to put together a winning football team (I know! What a novel concept!), they're going to have to shell out a little dinero this off-season. They've got several weaknesses to fix while simultaneously waiting for their starting quarterback to mature. The team is skating on thin ice, and they've got the weight of off-season issues, an irate fan base and mountainous contracts on their back. They need to get to work; if they don't, they'll find themselves in the icy depths of NFL obscurity.

Thankfully, Buffalo should have the means to re-energize the fan base this off-season. After all, if you can't put a winning product on the field, you might as well make a splash somehow, right? According to recent Buffalo News figures, the Bills could very well find themselves with over $40 million in spending money. That is, if they have the stones to make some bold (for them) moves.

The 2009 NFL Salary Cap
Next year's salary cap - the one that becomes important when the free agent signing period opens on February 27 - is set at $123 million. Currently, the News projects Buffalo's team salary at around $99 million. The $24 million difference is the baseline amount of cap space the team can use to sign free agents in under two weeks' time. However, as Mark Gaughan points out, there are several ways in which the Bills can increase that figure.

First thing's first - the $123 million league cap figure isn't static. NFL teams use what are called "Not Likely to be Earned Incentives" to increase their cap figures on an annual basis. These incentives are built into contracts and count against the salary cap for a given year; however, if they're not earned in a given year, the total of the bonus is added to the salary cap next season. (For example - if Spencer Johnson was to earn an extra $1.5 million last season if he picked up ten sacks, that $1.5 million counted against the 2008 salary cap. Since Johnson obviously did not pick up ten sacks, that $1.5 million would then be added to the $123 million figure this year, thus "increasing" Buffalo's actual salary cap figure.)

The News projects Buffalo's NLTBE Incentives at roughly $10 million. That increases Buffalo's actual cap figure to $133 million, and their actual spending money to $34 million. And for those of you who don't think the Bills spend to even the league cap figure, well, Gaughan's got you covered there, too (emphasis mine, not his)...

In 2007, the Bills spent about $3 million more than the league-wide cap of $109 million. Last year Buffalo was about $12 million under the $116 million cap in real cash spending, according to News figures. That was fairly common for the NFL. Only 10 of 32 teams spent more than $116 million in actual cash, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

Obviously, the fact that the Bills have over-spent the league cap within the past two years isn't an indicator that they'll do it this year, particularly in the current economic climate. But it's proof that the team is willing to spend money, if handing out ridiculous contracts to free agents over the past two years wasn't proof enough. With the extra $10 million in NLTBE Incentives in mind, the time is ripe for Buffalo to once again spend a little extra, even if it's only to placate the fan base.

Releasable Players
Gaughan also gets into the finer print of Buffalo's current salary structure, offering up cap figures for several of Buffalo's pricier veterans. In the article, he lists TE Robert Royal ($2.23 million) and DT John McCargo ($1.83 million) as high-priced players who may be released. I'll add one more name to his list: DE Chris Kelsay, who is scheduled to count $5.6 million against the team's salary cap next season, making him the team's fourth-highest paid player (behind Lee Evans, Aaron Schobel and Derrick Dockery).

I understand that Buffalo's coaching staff likes Kelsay, but he simply can't be on this team for $5.6 million considering his current production level. At a minimum, the team should ask him to restructure his deal. If I had things my way, they'd cut him outright.

Assuming the Bills release all three of these players - and if there's anyone on the team with high chances of being released, these are the first three guys likely to be named - Buffalo would save an additional $7 million against next year's cap (subtracting the bonus money of Royal and Kelsay, which would still count against the cap). That would mean that even without possibly restructuring deals (Schobel? Dockery?) or cutting additional roster fat like FS Ko Simpson, the team could easily find itself with $41 million to spend.

Dear Bills: SPEND IT
Buffalo is already a team that annually hovers at around .500. They're going to have to deal with one of the league's toughest schedules next season, as they're slated to face one of the league's toughest divisions (NFC South), the AFC's toughest division (AFC South), and an AFC East which is constantly improving and will feature the return of all-world QB Tom Brady. If the Bills want to sell themselves as competitors against a slate like that, they're going to have to make some moves to fortify their many weaknesses.

"Cash to the cap" isn't going anywhere. Buffalo will still keep themselves under that $133 million inflated figure, and at best, they'll stay as close to the $123 million figure as possible. (If they aim low, they'll still have just under $34 million to spend.) But the money is there, and the Bills had better use it.

Gaughan is bang on when he calls Peters the big question surrounding what the team does via free agency. If the Bills find a way to extend him, how likely is it that they pursue a center via free agency? If they did that, their entire offensive front would have received lucrative deals; that rarely happens. So not only does the Peters decision effect their salary cap structure, it very likely will have an impact on how they strategically approach adding players via free agency as well.

Bottom line is this: I don't care how it's done. The Bills need to get better on the field (and we'll leave the off the field stuff for previous threads, but they could certainly use a boost there as well). They've got an opportunity to do it, and that $41 million figure isn't going anywhere. They should have that much to spend. If they don't end up with that total, then the team, simply put, isn't doing everything it can to get better. If that figure isn't reached, you can add their approach to the off-season to the mounting pile of angst that surrounds the Buffalo Bills organization.

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