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NFL salary cap: Buffalo Bills could save $8 million in space releasing John Brown

Matt Warren is Associate Director of NFL coverage for SB Nation and previously covered the Bills for Buffalo Rumblings for more than a decade.

The Buffalo Bills are currently projected to be over the 2021 NFL salary cap. There are a few players on the roster they could move on from to save cap space for free agents and one of them is wide receiver John Brown.

Brown was injured during a large chunk of the 2020 season and the Bills’ offense kept humming along. Sure he has a great rapport with quarterback Josh Allen, but the Bills drafted Gabriel Davis and Isaiah Hodgins in 2020 for this reason; to replace John Brown in 2022. The salary cap and the injuries could just accelerate that process.

At 31 years of age, Brown is scheduled to make $7 million in base salary during the final year of his deal. He receives a $500,000 roster bonus on March 22 and can also receive up to $500,000 in per-game active bonuses this season (at $31,250 per game). The Bills can save nearly $8 million in cap space and actual cash by releasing Brown before the league year opens.

Buffalo could also restructure his deal, turning portions of his salary into Not Likely To Be Earned bonuses that would not count on the 2021 cap. As an example with some round numbers, if he wants to stay they could drop his salary down to $1.5 million, pay him the $500,000 roster bonus, up his per-game roster bonus total to $1 million ($62,500 per game), give him a $1 million incentive for reaching 1000 receiving yards, a $1 million incentive for 60 receptions, a $1 million incentive for playing 75 percent of the team’s snaps, a $1 million incentive for a Pro Bowl nod, and a $500,000 incentive for scoring five touchdowns. That adds up to $8 million if he hits the incentives but the cap hit would only be $2.5625 million in 2021. He would only be guaranteed to be paid $2 million in actual cash.

Another way Buffalo could lower his cap hit in 2021 would be to add years to the deal, something I doubt the Bills would want to entertain at this stage in his career. A voided year or two (like Buffalo did with Percy Harvin) where the 2022 salary immediately voids after the season could allow them to spread out a cap hit for Brown, but they’d still be paying an aging receiver coming off a bunch of injuries $7 to $8 million for his 2021 season. A contract extension seems even more unlikely.

Finally, he could just agree to a straight pay cut to stick around. Right now, he’s the 28th-highest paid receiver in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. Dropping back to $3 or $4 million (54-45th in average earnings) to be part of the run could be an option.

All of this seems like jumping through hoops for a veteran they already have a plan to replace. In an ideal world, Brown is around for the 2021 Super Bowl run. In a COVID-shrunk salary cap world, I think it’s likely he is gone in a coupe weeks.