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“Process” dead money limits Buffalo Bills salary cap options

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After big trades and injury retirements, the Bills have dead cap issues.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Coming in to replace Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley, respectively, Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane made dramatic moves to shake up a roster that had hovered in the 7-9 to 9-7 range the past three years.

We all know what happened next. The team exceeded expectations and finished 9-7, breaking a 17-year playoff drought. Andy Dalton found Tyler Boyd. The drought is over and the “Process” is hot.

Unfortunately, the moves made in 2017 will limit the team’s ability to retain and sign free agents in 2018. $69 million in (likely) dead money for 2017 and 2018 will account for 20% of the the Bills’ cap space ($167 million on 2017 and $178 million in 2018) in those years.

The team’s two most dramatic moves were the trades of Sammy Watkins and Marcell Dareus. These moves garnered additional draft assets but cost the team significant amounts of dead money. The unforeseen injury suffered by Eric Wood even further exacerbates the team’s dead money issues. Even though Wood still remains on the roster, and his $10 million dead money hit is not yet included, the Bills already lead the league in 2018 dead money with almost $19 million. This number figures to rise significantly with Wood’s retirement and the possibility of trading or cutting Tyrod Taylor.

Assuming Wood retires and the Bills move on from Taylor prior to paying his $6 million roster bonus, these two moves add an additional $19 million in dead money (which could be split up between 2018 and 2019 by utilizing the post-June 1 deferral technique). This $19 million added to the existing $19 million creates $38 million in 2018 dead money. This number is rounded to $40 million due to the inclusion of minor cuts and in-season injuries and roster moves.

In 2017, the Bills had $29 million in dead money, the third-most in the league. This 2017 dead money reduced the amount of money that the team could roll forward into 2018. Aaron Williams’ own devastating neck injury created $2.5 million in dead money, but the primary drivers of the 2017 dead money were Watkins and Dareus. In the case of Watkins, the dead money was a roster bonus paid early in the off-season ($2 million or so) and prorated signing bonus money equaling $5.6 million. The team saved $690,000 by trading him (and paid replacement Jordan Matthews $1 million).

In 2017, Dareus cost the Bills about $10.6 million ($4 million or so in salary and the rest in prorated bonuses previously paid), and the Bills saved almost $6 million in salary paid by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2018, Dareus will cost the Bills $14.2 million in dead money, and the team will save $9.5 million in salary. The $14.2 million dead money hit is currently the biggest in the NFL and, by itself, more dead money than the combined amount for every other team in the league, save the San Francisco 49ers. However, if the Bills had not traded Dareus, his 2018 cap hit would have been $16.6 million. And therefore, the Bills did save $2.4 million in 2018. The question then becomes whether this $2.4 million and the 5th round pick received for Dareus are more effective in improving a defense that finished 18th in points against, 26th in yards against (20th against the pass and 29th against the rush), and 29th in sacks, than Dareus.

As said above, the Bills’ projected $69 million in dead money will account for exactly 20% of its cap space in 2017 and 2018. The dead money average for the whole league was $15.6 million last year, and was about the same the previous few years. Assuming an average around $15 million again in 2018, the Bills will have more than double the league average in dead money, or 10% less salary cap than the league average. Draft picks ameliorate this to a certain extent, but Beane and McDermott have a challenge ahead of them.