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An early look at the Buffalo Bills 2018 salary cap situation

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Can they re-sign Sammy Watkins?

NFL: Buffalo Bills-Training Camp Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2017 regular season rapidly approaching, the Buffalo Bills’ 2017 salary cap situation is more or less solidified. So before the games begin, let’s take a quick look at what that means going forward for next year, specifically for players currently on the 2017 roster.

The team spent frugally in free agency (and didn’t take steps to generate additional current-year cap space by converting contracts as they have in the past) and its cap space in 2017 and going forward reflects this. According to the NFLPA Public Salary Cap Report, the Bills have just over $15 million in 2017 Top-51 cap space. Over the Cap brings the Bills in a little lower, at $12 million, and Spotrac has the Bills at $9 million or so. Using the three numbers, and assuming that the team will have to add a few more players at a net cost to the 2017 salary cap, conservatively, the Bills can expect to roll over around $5 million from 2017 onto their 2018 salary cap.

Looking at 2018, Spotrac puts the Bills at $25 million in available cap space based on a projected $168 million salary cap (which is probably a bit low). If the presumed $5 million roll-over is added in, that gives the Bills $30 million or so in available 2018 cap space. This may sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. Based on 2017 numbers, it would put the Bills in the lower-third of the NFL in terms of cap space. But unlike the 2017 off-season, when the Bills had numerous young and theoretically up-and-coming starters and contributors entering free agency, the Bills will have much more usable space due to fewer such players entering free agency (whether restricted or unrestricted).

Assuming he does not sign an extension before the end of season, wide receiver Sammy Watkins is poised to dominate the Bills’ 2018 off-season. If Watkins is healthy and plays as he has when healthy, he will demand and receive a contract that pays him in the upper-echelon of wide receivers. Watkins is still young (he just turned 24 last month) and oozes with upside. If he is on the field and healthy, someone will gamble on his remaining healthy and pay him accordingly. If the Bills are willing and able to be that team, a sizable chunk of the 2018 salary cap space will be devoted to Watkins (about $7-12 million or so on depending on the structure and timing of payments).

Despite declining his 2018 option, the Bills still retain the ability to use the franchise tag on Watkins. In 2017, this number was about $15.7 million. It will only go up in 2018. If the Bills and new general manager Brandon Beane want another year to evaluate Watkins, this is a feasible, albeit not ideal, result as well. If the franchise tag is used, the Bills’ 2018 cap space takes a sizable hit.

The other primary players without a contract for 2018 are Kyle Williams, Eric Wood, Preston Brown and potentially Gerald Hodges. Williams has already flirted with retirement, so it remains to be seen whether he will even desire a new contract, but at 33 years old and having battled injuries, he most likely will not draw another sizable extension. Wood is a leader of the Bills and has already discussed a desire to stay with the team long-term. As Wood is a good, if not great, player at a non-premium position entering his 30s, it is hard to believe an extension for him will break the bank. The Bills linebacker corps always seems to be in flux, but as non-pass rush linebackers who have not been elite-level players, both Brown and Hodges are easily replaceable.

Outside of Watkins, the above paragraph is the key difference between the 2017 and 2018 off-season. In a not-quite-worst case scenario where everyone outside of Watkins’ leaves, the Bills will only lose two aging veterans (albeit lifers who are unquestioned team leaders) and two replaceable middle linebacker types.

However, the team will have the net of $30 million or so less whatever Watkins receives and two first-round draft picks which will also reduce their 2018 cap space more than the draft pool reduced it in 2017 to improve the team. Just as importantly, although it was not done in the 2017 offseason, the Bills have about $15 million in current-year cap space available in conversions of Marcell Dareus and Cordy Glenn’s existing contracts. If Dareus is suspended, the Bills get the money back, the only real risk with such a move is that the players get hurt or their level of play diminishes.

While the media has criticized the Bills’ cap management, notably regarding the handling of Mike Gillislee (deserved), Charles Clay’s contract (sort of deserved), and LeSean McCoy (not deserved), the front office continues to perform much better than it has in its numerous iterations since the playoff drought began. The team is well-stocked with young talent on market contracts and is set-up to provide the new administration with flexibility to tune the roster to its liking.