The biggest decision the Buffalo Bills face in 2017 is the future of Tyrod Taylor. My thoughts on this decision couldn’t be clearer. But that’s neither here nor there, at least for this article. There will be an upcoming article that describes the cap-saving moves the Bills could make in an effort to re-build (tank) if they decide to let Tyrod go, but, for this article, let’s assume the Bills retain Taylor and his $15.9 million 2017 cap hit.
With Taylor’s contract, according to Spotrac, the Bills have about $33 million in cap space for 2017. That may sound like a lot, but for two reasons it is less than it used to be (and also part of the reason why keeping Taylor should be so obvious). With NFL TV revenues rising so rapidly, the NFL salary cap has grown at (relatively speaking) astronomical rates in the past few years. The teams, agents, and players, it appears, have not necessarily kept up with this trend like the contracts in the NBA and MLB have. This factor, along with the ability to rollover every dollar of cap space, has led to NFL teams having absurd amounts of salary cap space. The median amount of 2017 cap space is $43.6 million. 5 teams have over $70 million in cap space and 10 teams have over $50 million.
The competition for young, talented free agents will be fierce and everyone will be able to pay top dollar. This means that the state of the roster and recruiting will be paramount to signing free agents. Needless to say, a team with a (young, well-liked and regarded in the locker room) QB is more attractive than one hoping to draft one.
The second reason the Bills’ $33 million in cap space isn’t as much as it looks is the number of free agents the team has. Key free-agent contributors on the, albeit disappointing, 2016 defense include Stephon Gilmore, Lorenzo Alexander, and Zach Brown. For the offense, Robert Woods, Jordan Mills, and Jerome Felton are unrestricted free agents, while Mike Gillislee is a restricted free agent. The Bills have numerous other free agents on the roster (as the negative media likes to point out, the most in the league), but relatively few players that couldn’t be replaced (or upgraded). I don’t think anyone will miss Reggie Bush, Corbin Bryant, or EJ Manuel, (not to mention Larentee McCray, Robert Blanton, Colt Anderson, or James Ihedigbo) just to name a few. But retaining those key contributors could easily eat into the majority of the Bills’ available cap space.
Gilmore, if the Bills decide to keep him, will cost close to $15 million for 2017 under the franchise tag or somewhere between $10-$12 million under a long-term contract. Woods seems destined to seek greener pastures, but his replacement could easily be $8 million in 2016 cap space. Fortunately for the Bills, the wide receiver and right tackle positions (with safety deep as well) are the deepest in free agency. There are numerous replacement options for Woods and Mills, but the Bills won’t win these players with money; the wide receiver negotiations will be especially interesting. It makes sense to think the team will be comfortable replacing Zach Brown with a healthy Reggie Ragland and Alexander with a healthy Shaq Lawson, but warm bodies will be needed to replace those that are leaving and even on rookie contracts or the veteran minimum, these players will eat up much of the remaining cap space.
The Bills do have the ability to create some cap space by cutting or restructuring current contracts. The one that pops to me as the most obvious is Cordy Glenn. He had another stellar season, when healthy, and is set to make $9 million in 2017 salary. At 27 years old, the risk of converting $8 million of that into a signing bonus to be pro-rated over the remaining four years of his contract seems low and would save the team $6 million in 2017 cap space. Marcell Dareus already has considerable dead money and off the field issues but a similar restructure could be done with his $9.75 million 2017 salary.
Outside of the underutilized Charles Clay, the Bills have done a good job providing good contracts to key players. Looking at the 2017 roster, the only obvious cut that would save material money would be Dan Carpenter, saving $2.4 million with only about $500,000 in dead money. The team could cut Nickell Robey-Coleman and save $1 million or cut Marcus Easley and save $1.4 million, but eat $800,000 in dead money. Lastly, the Bills could ask Corey Graham to take a hometown pay cut to reduce his $3.775 million 2017 cash pay. Unlike in past years where there were veterans that could be cut or additional roster moves that could be made, there just are not a whole lot of financial moves that can be made to scratch off a few million here or there from the 2017 salary cap. If the Bills restructure Glenn, cut Carpenter, and get some money back from Graham, the team could probably engineer another $10 million or so in cap space.
In conclusion, with a rising cap and salaries not keeping up, cap dollars aren’t worth what they used to be. The Bills aren’t going to be able to lure free agents with the biggest offer as they have in the past. It would be wise to make themselves as attractive a landing spot as possible for free agents, if they hope to be able to fill the spots of departing players with suitable replacements.