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Salary cap space may be the reason Buffalo Bills pass on free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins

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The only thing certain about Kirk Cousins is that he’s going to break some team’s bank in 2018. 

It is highly unlikely that Washington, which has unofficially traded for Alex Smith as well as unofficially agreed to pay him nearly $25 million per season, will hit Cousins with the franchise tag for the third consecutive season. Still, that $34 million franchise tag number is one to keep in mind as Cousins will be looking to use it in contract negotiations. He probably won’t get getting $34 million per year but he will be getting something close to $30 million.

Over the past three seasons, Cousins has started all 48 games. He has averaged 377 completions on 563 attempts (67%) for 4392 yards, 27 TDs and 12 INTs. In 2017 alone Cousins was eighth in completions, eighth in attempts, ninth in completion percentage, seventh in yards, eighth in touchdowns, but seventh-worst in interceptions. All in all, Cousins was in the top 10 in most of the desirable categories.

Cousins is not without his blemishes. His completion percentage has dropped each of the last three seasons from 69.8 to 67.0 to 64.3. While his 2016 yards (4917) were higher than his 2015 yards (4166), his 2017 yards (4093) were lower than 2015. His touchdown number went from 29 to 25 to 27 as his interception numbers went from 11 to 12 to 13. Most alarmingly, the team went from nine wins to eight to seven. While his numbers average nicely, the trend has not been heading in the right direction.

The salary cap figures to be in the realm of $178 million in 2018. The Bills have roughly $160 million on the books as it stands right now. The cap matters because Cousins has (a) proven that he’s not playing for less than he can get and (b) there will be several teams bidding for his services this offseason. Happy talk about team-friendly deal structure that allows for short term cap relief is unlikely to survive contract negotiations. Buffalo will need to have something like $30 million in cap space to sign Cousins.

The Bills could save more than $10 million by cutting Taylor early in the offseason. Shipping Cordy Glenn off to another team would save about another $5 million. The Bills could add about $15 million to the cap space. Combine that with the $18 million difference between Buffalo’s current cap obligations and the expected 2018 cap figure and the Bills are there, right?

Well, no. Because the Bills need to put about $8.5 million aside for the rookies. Each first rounder will run about $2.1 million, while the two second rounders will average nearly $900,000. Even the last 4 picks Buffalo has add up to about $2.4 million according to Spotrac projections.

The Bills can jettison Lorenzo Alexander, or at least his contract, saving about $2.8 million. Dumping coach’s pet Vlad Ducasse saves another $1.4 million. Ditching Patrick DiMarco and Andre Holmes nets another $1 million or so in savings and then it comes down to trying to gouge Richie Incognito (nearly $6.5 million savings) or trading Jerry Hughes (almost $5 million).

And that’s just to sign Cousins and the rookies without any consideration to acquiring free agents to help the Bills get back to the playoffs. It also means not attempting to re-sign Kyle Williams. Make no mistake; signing Cousins hamstrings the Bills’ ability to field a good team. The lack of quality (particularly defense) around him was offered as an excuse for Cousins’ pedestrian record (.500 over the last 3 seasons) in Washington. Signing Cousins makes it difficult to avoid that same set of circumstances in Buffalo.

There is an alternative. The Bills are in the rare position of having the draft capital needed to move way up the board to acquire a QB who head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane believe to be a future franchise QB, the kind of guy who can carry a team. The third overall pick last year signed a contract for just over $28 million. Total. Not an average for each season. Identifying a QB and trading up with Indy (or even New Jersey) would cost the Bills a bevy of picks. The benefit is that the Bills would have significant cap space to build around a rookie QB.

The greatest risk is that the Bills can’t be assured of getting any specific player in the draft when free agency opens in March. In order to maximize cap space (particularly as it relates to Taylor and Glenn), Beane has to move quickly. One of the possibilities to consider for the start of free agency is a trade between Buffalo and one of the top teams in the draft that includes a trade of Glenn and cut/trade of Taylor. The Bills would then be able to fill holes in the roster during free agency, holes that the exodus of draft picks would make impossible in April.