The Buffalo Bills re-signed cornerback Nickell Robey to a two-year contract extension last weekend, locking up one of the many important players whose contracts will expire at the end of the rapidly approaching 2015 season.
Marcell Dareus tops that list of future free agents, by the way, and the ongoing contract negotiations between the Bills and his representation loom over all discussions of the Bills' salary cap situation at the moment. In particular, people are starting to wonder how many more new contracts the Bills can afford to hand out before re-signing Dareus to what is expected to be an enormous deal, let alone some of his teammates also deserving of extensions.
While the Bills may indeed roll over a few million dollars from their 2015 salary cap into 2016, that number will most likely not drastically change the club's projected salary cap space. As of today, the Bills' projected 2016 cap space is being reported as roughly $5.5 million. While this would seemingly place the Bills in salary cap jail, that number does not account for the numerous different ways that the modern NFL salary cap can be (and routinely is) manipulated.
How can the Bills manipulate that number to free up money on their books for more than just Dareus? Here are a few different options, listed in order by the approximate amount of money saved. If you find any of this confusing, consult the salary cap jargon guide that we published earlier this offseason.
Void the Harvin deal ($8 million)
While there were varying reports as to whether the Percy Harvin contract automatically voids after the 2015 season, or if the team has a unilateral option, it seems pretty unlikely that Harvin will be a Bill in 2016 under his current contract. Voiding the remaining two years of Harvin's deal will save the Bills his $9 million 2016 salary, while accelerating his $1 million 2017 prorated signing bonus onto the 2016 salary cap, netting savings of $8 million.
Converting Clay's roster bonus ($7.5 million)
Unless the Bills truly plan on having a tight end with a $13.5 million cap hit next year, this move seems like a lock to occur. Converting the $10 million roster bonus into a prorated signing bonus will flatten out the Charles Clay cap hits to $6 million in 2016, and $9 million each from 2017-19, as opposed to the current structure of $13.5 million next year, then $6.5 million from 2017-19.
Converting Mario's salary ($3.7 million)
We have discussed this idea before; the idea is to convert some of Mario Williams' 2015 or 2016 cash pay into a signing bonus, which can be prorated. In 2015, $11 million could be converted, saving the Bills around $3.7 million in 2015 that, rolled into 2016, spreads out the back-end costs of the move over two years. This move is less feasible in 2016; as an example, $13.5 million could be converted, saving $6.75 million in that year, but also creating a 2017 salary cap hit of over $23 million.
Sign Gilmore long-term ($3-5 million)
Right now, cap projections for the Bills include an $11.082 million hit under the fifth-year option exercised on Stephon Gilmore. A long-term extension for Gilmore would undoubtedly lower that cap number by a significant amount. It's difficult to argue today that Gilmore deserves to be paid like the league's elite, so while things might change with a strong 2015 campaign, the Bills could try to aim Gilmore's next deal into the second tier of cornerback contracts. For comparison, the top non-Darrelle Revis free agent cornerback contract for 2015, given Byron Maxwell, contained a cap hit of $8.7 million in its first year. A more appropriate comparison might be Jimmy Smith in Baltimore, a fifth-year-optioned Round 1 pick who signed an extension averaging $10.275 million per year, but only containing a cap hit of $3.6 million in its first year. If Gilmore slots in somewhere between Maxwell and Smith on a new contract signed after the 2015 season, but before the 2016 season, the Bills should save a few million from his current 2016 cap number.
With the exception of Harvin (whose contract essentially plays as a one-year deal in any scenario), none of the above moves will have any effect on the Bills' personnel for the 2016 season, but would conservatively increase their 2016 cap space by over $22 million. Even if the Bills choose not to take the risks which would come with pushing Mario Williams' cap hits down the road, the team's 2016 cap space can still conservatively increase by $18.5 million.
The team can also release aging veterans, re-sign more players at more cap-friendly deals, and enjoy the added room of increasing salary cap figures in future seasons. Concerns over running out of cap room to sign Dareus and others (Cordy Glenn and Nigel Bradham come to mind), at least for now, are misplaced.