It gets mentioned ad nauseam, “We have $90 million to spend next year!” But what does that mean? Per spotrac, this $90 million of free cap space is calculated based on the players the Buffalo Bills currently have under contract for 2020.
At the moment, general manager Brandon Beane has 42 players under contract for 2020. That means he needs to sign/re-sign 11 additional players just to field a full active roster. While those slots could be filled by undrafted rookies, and cost less than $6 million total, those open slots represent players who made meaningful contributions in 2019. The team would take a step back if they are not replaced with equivalent talent.
There is no better equivalent to Shaq Lawson’s talent than Shaq Lawson. Therefore, let’s project the Bills’ 2020 salary cap based entirely on their final 2019 53-man roster. This is the cap space they must use to keep together the team that played in the playoffs this past season. The theory is that after they’ve maintained what they have, what’s left is the money they actually have to continue improving the team.
*All estimations are from Spotrac, when available.
Estimated Salary Cap $199,000,000
Est Rollover from 2019 $25,641,283
Dead Money $1,043,674
Total Available Cap Space $223,597,609
2020 Projected Player Cost $164,486,106
2020 Unused Cap Space $59,111,503
Projected player costs, for players not already under contract for 2020, utilizes various methods to estimate a reasonable dollar amount. ”Minimum salary” types are assumed to continue being paid the applicable minimum salary, and restricted free agents are assigned the appropriate tender amount. Higher profile players such as Jordan Phillips have a new contract value being projected by Spotrac. And others are a “best guess”—not the highest and not the lowest potential salaries that have been tossed around. Of course, with Lorenzo Alexander retiring it wasn't appropriate to include him in future calculations, so Harrison Phillips was swapped in since he is part of the team and should retain a 2020 roster spot despite finishing 2019 on IR.
As you can see, while nearly $60 million is still a pretty large number, it’s 1/3 less than the free cap space currently being cited. And nearly half that is extra cap space being rolled over from 2019, not unused 2020 cap space.
Estimated Salary Cap $209,000,000
Rollover from 2020 $59,111,503 (using the 2020 projection above)
Dead Money $0
Total Available Cap Space $268,111,503
2021 Projected Player Cost $222,139,196
2021 Unused Cap Space $45,972,307
2021 is an even better illustration of what Buffalo truly has available to spend. Maintaining the current roster through 2021 will result in the Bills overspending the 2021 salary cap by more than $10 million, relying on rollover money from previous years to keep all their players. And again, that’s before adding any additional talent to further improve the roster. Which is to say, rollover money is quickly going to become essential in maintaining just the current quality of the roster.
Then in 2022, the fifth-year options (or contract extensions) for Allen and Edmunds alone will eat up most of that $45 million being rolled over from 2021, and leave Buffalo deep in the hole for 2023.
Of course, the Bills won’t be keeping the same 53 players for the next two+ years, and there will be a decent amount of turnover this offseason alone. Players will leave, players will be signed, draft picks will be added, trades will be made; there’s virtually zero chance that it actually plays out like this. But it goes to show how the team can’t simply keep re-signing all its own players, no matter how much we as fans like them and how important they are to the team. Buffalo needs to continuously find new undervalued talent to replace players receiving full-market-value contracts, and strategically allow valuable players to leave so that others can be retained. It isn't going to be easy, and the challenge starts this offseason.
On a side note, it’s worth noting that this season the league has the quirks of an expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement to contend with, as well. Absent a new deal, there will be no “post June 1st” concept—no matter when a player is released, their remaining “dead money” will be immediately applied to the cap. There will be no distinction between “likely-” and “unlikely-” to-be-earned incentives—as soon as an incentive is achieved, teams must have the cap space to immediately account for it. And of course, there’s no certainty that unused cap space will even be allowed to roll over to 2021 (or even if, at least in theory, there will be a 2021 season at all). That’s negotiated in the CBA.