Despite a 2018 season that was often a disappointment on the field, the future of the Buffalo Bills looks bright for 2019 and beyond. The upcoming offseason is the first in which the pains of “The Process” are gone and in the past, and for the first time under the Brandon Beane/Sean McDermott regime, the team has significant salary-cap space.
After subtracting out a draft-pick pool of $9 million or so, the Bills have approximately $78.5 million in cap space for 2019 according to Spotrac. In addition to such salary-cap space (and as a result of roster turnover and lower usable salary-cap space due to dead money), the team also has sizable CBA cash-spending requirements in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Note here that the penalty for not meeting these requirements is simply that the team has to gross-up the current players to reach the minimum (no team has been forced to do this under the current CBA).
With no highly valued free agents, a young core that is still a year or two away from needing veteran-level contracts, and the previous regime’s dead money fully expunged, the Bills have considerable flexibility for 2019. And although reasonable minds can differ on whether they should spend significant salary cap dollars in 2019, under the CBA, the Bills need to spend significant amounts of cash dollars regardless of what they do with the salary cap.
Based on publicly available figures from Spotrac and the NFLPA, the Bills are required to spend about $213.95 million in cash dollars between 2019 and 2020 (assuming a $10 million salary cap increase in 2020) in order to comply with the CBA-required 89% team minimum cash spend. Currently, the Bills are at around 88.3% for 2017 and 2018 (the minimum is computed-based on a 2017-2020 average), and need to spend around $83.1 million in 2019 in order to be on pace to meet the minimum of 89%. The team already has $87.375 million in 2019 committed cash, so it shouldn’t be difficult. If only the minimum cash spending to be on pace is equaled in 2019, the team would then be required to spend a whopping $130.85 million in cash in 2020. The Bills currently only have $46.25 million in committed cash for 2020.
Thankfully the Pegula family is very wealthy, as an aside. It is cash concerns, not cap concerns, that created the rumors that the Oakland Raiders had to trade Khalil Mack because owner Mark Davis did not have the cash to pay the $34 million signing bonus plus $7 million 2018 salary that Mack eventually received.
However, despite being very large numbers, it should be noted that cash can be spent relatively quickly in free agency. For example, 2018 free-agent signing Star Lotulelei’s five-year, $50 million contract had a 2018 cash hit of $17.1 million, but a cap hit of only $6.7 million (due to a $13 million signing bonus paid in 2018 but prorated over the life of the contract). In addition, if the Bills draft a player at number nine overall, such player would have a sizable 2019 cash hit of around $12 million, despite a reasonably low cap hit. Even so, the team’s first-round pick and a precedent five-year, $50 million contract only equal approximately $29.1 million in 2019 cash spending, meaning that whatever way they end up doing it, the Bills need to spend some cash money in the next few months.
If it comes down to the end, the Bills can spend a whole lot of cash in 2020 re-signing some of their young players. The Bills will have to decide before too long on whether to pick up 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson’s expensive option for 2020. If not, he’ll be a free agent in 2020. Budding star Matt Milano and dependable offensive tackle Dion Dawkins will reach unrestricted free agency in 2020 as well. Signing bonus money will all count toward the cash spending, allowing Buffalo to easily break the cash floor with Lawson, Milano, and Dawkins—or their replacement—in free agency.