Running back Mike Gillislee was one of the bright spots for the Buffalo Bills in 2016. Gillislee carried over the momentum he had to finish 2015 and quickly made Bills fans forget about 2015 rookie sensation Karlos Williams.
Gillislee led the NFL in yards per carry at 5.7 and ran for 577 yards and 8 touchdowns. (This will be the only mention of him, but maybe the team’s quarterback has something to do with whatever running back the Bills seem to play being extremely successful. But maybe not, Gillislee did come to the Bills in 2015 with 6 carries for 21 yards in two seasons and 5th round pick pedigree.)
As a restricted free agent (RFA), the Bills still possess considerable control over Gillislee, but as they saw last year with Chris Hogan, an RFA tag is not insurmountable. Gillislee is not all that young (he will turn 27 in November) but was extremely productive as a change of pace and style in combination with LeSean McCoy. As such, the Bills would be wise to try to retain Gillislee.
Without the 2017 numbers, we can look at the 2016 RFA tenders to evaluate the Bills’ options. The 2016 original round tender (which would net the Bills a 5th round pick in return and the right to match any offer received) amount was $1.671 million. The 2016 second round tender (which would net a 2nd and the right to match) was $2.553 million and first round (with same rights as 2nd) was $3.635 million. With the cap increasing, these numbers should grow by a couple hundred thousand each.
It is hard to believe anyone would give up a 2nd round pick for a backup running back with very limited experience handling a full workload, so the Bills would realistically be safe with a 2nd round tender, if they choose to go that route. The Bills may also view Gillislee as somewhat replaceable (they drafted running back Jonathan Williams in the 5th round in 2016) and worth the receipt of a 5th round pick, if someone decides to pry Gillislee away. But for these purposes, let’s assume the Bills value Gillislee and want to keep him. This leads to two follow-up questions: Should the Bills attempt to extend Gillislee now? Should Gillislee sign an extension now?
Running back is arguably the most brutal position in football. Careers are short and players can have even shorter periods in their prime. At 26, Gillislee should be in his prime. Does it make sense for Gillislee to refuse the Bills, bet on himself (and make over $2.5 million in 2017) and hit the market at 27 as an unrestricted free agent? This seems like a tough call for Gillislee and the market for running backs makes it even tougher.
If Gillislee were to sign now, the comparable precedent contract would be about three years, $11-$12 million total. Bilal Powell of the New York Jets, Theo Riddick with the Detroit Lions, and Ryan Mathews of the Philadelphia Eagles all signed contracts in the past 12 months in this range. Powell and Riddick were both back-up types who have been very productive when healthy and getting touches. Mathews has consistently battled injuries but has generally been good when healthy. Gillislee can argue upside, but he’s also already 26 and has never had more than the 101 carries he had this year. C.J. Anderson helped lead the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl and had two seasons of, worse per carry but, more overall production before the Broncos matched a Miami four-year, $18 million contract last offseason. If Gillislee can get Anderson-type money (including $7.9 million guaranteed), he should jump; if it’s the lower-tier, the question is a bit tougher.
For the Bills, a contract around the Riddick, Powell, Mathews tier makes sense for 2017 and going forward. Assuming they want Gillislee and would need to use the 2nd round tender, that could be close to $3 million in 2017 cap dollars. An extension would most certainly drop that number and keep the Bills’ control over Gillislee into the period when McCoy may take a lesser role or eventually even be cut (even though McCoy still looks amazing and there is no reason to think he doesn’t have at least one or two more great years in him, especially with Gillislee helping reduce his workload).
Following the models if the Bills were to give Gillislee a three-year, $12 million contract, with a $4 million signing bonus (higher than the models but incentive to Gillislee, who did lead the league in yards per carry), his 2017 cap hit could be just over $2 million, saving the team almost a million in 2017 cap dollars. The future cap hits, assuming the remaining salary money is split $3.5 million in 2018 and $3.81 million in 2019, would be $4.833 in 2018 and $5.143 million in 2019 (Gillislee’s age 28-29 season).
The team could also drop the 2017 cap hit by adding a fourth year to the deal. A four year, $16 million contract, with a $4.5 million signing bonus (to compensate up front for the extra year) would carry cap hits of $1.815 million, $4.375 million, $4.875 million, and $4.935 million. The fourth year keeps the cap hits lower and keeps Gillislee under team control through his 30th birthday. The Bills could guarantee a portion of the 2018 $3.25 million salary on an injury basis with a rolling full guarantee at the start of the 2018 league year to provide more security for Gillislee as well. If Gillislee can receive over $6 million guaranteed ($4.5 million signing bonus, $690k in 2017 salary, and a portion of 2018 salary guaranteed), the security that grants may outweigh the $2.7-$2.9 million in 2017 and potential for a bigger contract in 2018.
Additionally, if the Bills go in a different direction at QB, it is highly unlikely the team will have the rushing volume or production that they have had in the past. 2016 may very well have been Gillislee’s best year as a Bill. The counterpoint is that this reality may also make the Bills less likely to commit long-term money to Gillislee, but until the Bills make a decision on Taylor, most everything related to this team has to be highly speculative.