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Buffalo Bills have to decide what to do with Tyrod Taylor

The Bills have a franchise-changing decision to make. What should they do? What will they do?

The final deadline for the Buffalo Bills to make a firm decision on the future of Tyrod Taylor is quickly approaching. The situation regarding Taylor and the Bills has been heavily dissected since he signed his unique contract extension this past August.

As the situation nears its resolution point, there are two main questions that are being asked, in one way or another:

  1. Should the Bills pick up the remainder of Taylor’s deal?
  2. Will the Bills pick up the remainder of Taylor’s deal?

There have been many national and local writers who have weighed in on the subject. Generally speaking, it seems like the answer to the first question is a resounding “yes”. Glancing at the mock drafts that are out there, though, would lead one to believe that the same group thinks the answer to the second question is “no”.

Why is that the case? Why are so many sportswriters convinced that the Bills are going to make what they feel would be the wrong choice?

Point: Taylor was benched for Week 17 last season
Counterpoint: A lot has changed in the last month and a half

Tyrod’s benching prior to the season finale against the New York Jets, after Rex Ryan was fired, seemed to be the tipping point for most observers. That seemed to primarily stem from the fact that Anthony Lynn implied that the front office decision makers didn’t want to risk triggering Taylor’s injury clause in what he termed a “business decision”.

That game was played on January 1. Since then, the market for available quarterbacks has developed, the names of early entrants to the NFL Draft have been finalized, and in the next couple of weeks (prior to the deadline), the NFL Scouting Combine will take place in Indianapolis. The Bills also have a new coaching staff in place, which leads me to my next point:

Point: Taylor lost his biggest supporter in Rex Ryan
Counterpoint: Sean McDermott’s coaching staff seems to be built for a QB like Tyrod

Rex was known to be a very big fan of Taylor, wanting to acquire him for about as long as he’d been in the league. It’s also been reported that, while Rex was on the outs anyway, his firing was accelerated primarily due to the decision to bench Taylor prior to the final game of the season.

What isn’t known, however, is how McDermott feels about Taylor. He hasn’t really said much with regard to how he feels about keeping Taylor in town (for that matter, he hasn’t really said much about anything), so we can’t go off of his words in deciphering his feelings.

What we can do, though, is look at some circumstantial evidence on the staff itself. McDermott, for his part, spent the previous six seasons as the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator, where his unit practiced against another mobile quarterback, Cam Newton. His offensive coordinator, Rick Dennison, coached Taylor for a year in Baltimore and runs a system that would seem to play to Taylor’s strengths. The quarterbacks coach, David Culley, has spent the last two decades coaching wide receivers who share many of the athletic gifts that Taylor brings to the table (not to mention that the last quarterback who played under him as a position coach went on to become the NFL’s all-time leader in return yardage).

That’s a coaching staff that seems to be built for someone in the mold of Tyrod Taylor. Now, yes, I know that Sean McDermott doesn’t have roster control, but I would expect him to have some pull when it comes to the starting quarterback.

Point: Taylor isn’t willing to take a pay cut
Counterpoint: A restructure without a pay cut is possible and just as useful

The biggest bit of “news” around the situation that’s broken in the last few weeks was the tidbit from Vic Carucci that Taylor isn’t willing to accept a pay cut to remain with the team. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody, given the current market outlook for free agent quarterbacks and the cap space available to the teams that need one. If Taylor hit the open market, he could easily fetch a nine-figure deal from the likes of the Cleveland Browns or San Francisco 49ers.

There is an important point, though, that was addressed by’s Ian Rapoport. It’s possible that Taylor could take an up-front pay cut in exchange for some more guaranteed money down the road. Such a move would give the Bills some much-needed cap space without lowering the total Taylor would eventually receive (and possibly even increasing it, if he were to not play out the entirety of the contract).

Taylor’s current deal has an average salary right in the middle of NFL starting quarterbacks, and his place on that list only figures to fall as rookies move on to their second contracts. Expecting him to take a lower amount of money is entirely unreasonable, but some creative bookkeeping to give the team some more wiggle room this year is something he could absolutely consider.

Point: Taylor’s recent surgery seemed to really irk the team
Counterpoint: It was a necessary surgery that they did, in fact, know about

This is the only point that really gets to me, if only because I can’t really offer up a solid counterpoint that addresses the original issue.

A refresher: Taylor had been suffering through some groin issues for the latter part of last season. He was a frequent sight on the injury report, but was never limited in practice. He had a surgical procedure performed on January 5, and the team put out a statement in response that seemed to shirk any responsibility for (or even prior knowledge of) the surgery. The next day, ESPN reported that the Bills were, in fact, involved in the decision for Taylor to have surgery.

The timing of the surgery was especially notable given the fact that Taylor’s signing bonus is guaranteed for injury; if he cannot pass a physical as of March 11, the team has to pay him the bonus whether he stays on the roster or not. In the past few weeks, though, he’s taken to social media to share his progression, including some physical activity at a team facility.

Bills general manager Doug Whaley, for his part, doesn’t seem too concerned about the whole thing. It was a very hectic couple of days right when it happened, but at this point it may very well be water under the bridge. It’s still worth pointing out, though, given the initial reaction from the team.

So, if they’re going to keep him, why not just announce it already? Why play the waiting game? Well, there’s an argument to be made against holding onto Taylor, too.

Point: Taylor is the best available QB on the market
Counterpoint: The market isn’t very good

The go-to argument for keeping Taylor on the Bills seems to be something along the lines of “there isn’t anybody else out there”. A look at the pending free agent market backs that up: Bleacher Report’s list of the top quarterbacks set to hit free agency is headlined by Kirk Cousins, who seems primed for a second franchise tag from Washington. The list is so threadbare that EJ Manuel is listed at number ten.

As for the NFL Draft, assessments of the incoming quarterback crop vary from “relatively thin” to “a good quarterback class”. There are no surefire franchise guys (a la Andrew Luck) in this draft, and even if there were the Bills aren’t in a position to pick one without giving up a king’s ransom to move from tenth overall to first.

The fact that there aren’t any guarantees out there, however, doesn’t mean that Taylor is particularly good. It just means that he’s the least bad option for the Bills in 2017. Don’t let the low quality of available quarterbacks fool you into thinking Taylor is better than he is.

Point: Taylor is the best QB the Bills have had since Jim Kelly
Counterpoint: The Bills have had a lot of bad quarterbacks since then

This was an argument in favor of Taylor that his agent brought up last offseason. In terms of quarterback rating, yes, Taylor’s two seasons both rank in the top four in Bills history, alongside two years from Kelly’s prime. While Doug Flutie and Drew Bledsoe have both been voted into Pro Bowls since Kelly retired, there is a strong argument to make that Taylor has been the best quarterback the team has had since Jimbo retired after the 1996 season.

That’s really not saying much, though. Since 1997, Ryan Fitzpatrick leads the Bills with 53 starts at quarterback; in that same time span, only Washington (Jason Campbell, 52) failed to have a quarterback start at least that many games.

The Bills have tried everything in that span to find Kelly’s heir: first-round picks (Manuel, JP Losman), trades (Bledsoe, Rob Johnson), free agents (Fitzpatrick, Kyle Orton), projects (Trent Edwards) and nothing has seemed to stick.

That can make Taylor seem appealing: he compares very well to the motley crew the Bills have tried under center in the last twenty-plus years. I’ll echo the point I made above: the fact that he’s better than what the Bills have had doesn’t mean he’s particularly good.

Point: Taylor’s deal is one of the most team-friendly contract possible for a starter
Counterpoint: If he’s not the starter, he’s a seriously overpriced backup

I touched on the point earlier that Taylor’s deal is fairly team-friendly; it sits around the middle of the NFL in terms of average annual value (AAV) and only figures to drop to the lower half of the league as soon as some promising rookies earn their second deals.

Of course, it’s only a bargain so long as he’s a starter. I went through the average annual salaries of 2016 backups that weren’t on rookie contracts based on numbers available from Spotrac, and I found that while the average starter had an AAV about $19.16 million last year, the average backup (not including Tony Romo, whose injury status created an unusual situation that shouldn’t be considered representative of the Cowboys’ depth chart) only had an AAV $2.58 million. Among the backups, the highest-priced quarterback was Chase Daniel of the Eagles, whose $7 million AAV is an extreme outlier. The next-highest priced backup who didn’t start a game in 2016 was Chad Henne of the Jaguars, who carries an AAV of $4 million.

My point here is simple: Taylor makes too much money for the Bills to carry him as a backup for any significant length of time.

Point: Taylor could serve as a bridge to a long-term QB draftee
Counterpoint: There are better options available for that

Speaking of Romo, he’s one of a few quarterbacks who aren’t slated to be free agents but could hit the market in the next couple weeks as teams trim their rosters prior to the start of free agency. It’s a group that also includes Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Nick Foles of the Kansas City Chiefs, among others.

These quarterbacks, if they latch on anywhere, are expected to serve as “bridge” quarterbacks - guys who can play reasonably well for a time while their team grooms an eventual starter that they pick up in the draft.

Prior to signing his extension, there were reports that Taylor and the Bills were working on a bridge deal, in the range of two years and $30 million. Even under the current deal, it’s still possible for the Bills to cut ties with Tyrod in a couple years if they find a better option among the incoming crop (or Cardale Jones develops into a bona fide starter).

If the plan is to move to a new quarterback in the next year or two, however, they should cut ties with Tyrod and sign one of the players I mentioned above. I can hear you scrolling down to the comments section already. Hear me out for a second, please?

Taylor’s contract is a five-year deal. If he’s released prior to the end of the deal, the team is going to incur a dead cap hit, which is based on the remaining amount of guaranteed money that the player is owed. This number drops over time, and eventually reaches a point where the team can gain cap space by releasing a player because his dead cap hit is lower than his actual cap hit. I touched on this a bit when Spotrac’ Michael Ginnitti wrote an analysis of Taylor’s deal, but my basic issue is this: dead cap should be avoided whenever possible, and using Taylor as a bridge would incur a pretty decent chunk of it.

With a guy like Cutler, though, the Bills could reach a shorter deal for an equal (or lower) amount of money and, importantly, a much shorter term. A two-year deal, for example, would allow a rookie quarterback to develop while Cutler played, and after two seasons Cutler could walk with zero ramifications to the team’s cap situation, because there’s no dead cap hit at the end of a contract.

So, with all of that in mind, I drift back to my two initial questions: what should the Bills do, and what will they do?

I’ll answer the second question first: I’m pretty much convinced that Tyrod is sticking around in Buffalo. Everything that has happened since the surgery, from Whaley downplaying the communication to the arrival of McDermott and the coaches I discussed earlier, point to the team holding on to Taylor, especially if they can re-work the contract to lower the 2017 cap hit.

Should they, though? Anybody who’s followed my writing for the 2016 season might recall that I don’t think much of Taylor as a quarterback. I know there aren’t any better options available, but I don’t see him turning into a franchise savior, and if he’s not going to be that...well, a Will Ferrell movie quote comes to mind here.

That said, it really does seem like McDermott is building a staff with the impression that someone like Taylor is going to be his starting quarterback in 2017. If that’s what he wants, that’s what he should get. The Bills have plenty of needs that could be addressed with high-end talent using the tenth overall pick, and in the right situation Taylor could lead the Bills to the playoffs. If McDermott thinks he can, he should get that chance.