With the Buffalo Bills already in 2016 offseason mode, placing contract extension and salary cap conversations in full focus, let's take a look at the team's current situation under the 2016 salary cap.
While the exact 2016 salary cap figure has yet to be determined, it is reported by Pro Football Talk to be between $150 million and $153.4 million. For this preliminary look, let's split the difference and use the rounded number of $152 million as our projection.
First, it's necessary to look at how much money the Bills can expect to roll over from the 2015 salary cap. Looking at the 2015 Bills salary cap table from Spotrac.com, the Bills can roll over $7.73 million. However, this number will drop significantly based on earned 2015 incentives and per-diem workout amounts (about $500,000) that Spotrac has not yet included. Notably, Richie Incognito and Tyrod Taylor earned an additional $1.15 million and $1 million, respectively, in 2015 pay that has not yet been calculated into Spotrac's figure. When these deductions are taken out, the Bills are left with approximately $5 million remaining.
Additionally, there are numerous players who have incentives that were not reported in detail (for example, Jerry Hughes' sack incentive, maxing out at $1 million). As Hughes will certainly not be maxing out his incentive - he only had five sacks - and considering that these incentives are generally smaller than Hughes', they should not move the needle too much. But it's still necessary to conservatively remove another $2 million to be safe. This leaves the Bills with about $3 million in 2015 cap space to roll over to 2016.
For 2016, Spotrac's 2016 Bills cap table has no 2015 rollover for the Bills, and states that the Bills are $683,117 over their projected salary cap of $154 million. Even if this number is slightly off from where the Bills realistically will find themselves, it demonstrates the obvious: the Bills are going to be pressed up against the salary cap next year.
At the present moment, Spotrac's calculation is actually a bit low, as the $1 million salary escalator that Taylor earned in 2015 has not yet been added into his 2016 salary cap hit. With this adjustment, when the $3 million in 2015 rollover is added back in, the Bills find themselves about $1.3 million under Spotrac's projected 2016 salary cap of $154 million, or right back where we started at $683,117 million over a projected 2016 salary cap of $152 million.
While already surpassing the 2016 salary cap appears to place the Bills in a very difficult situation, the Bills have numerous potential roster moves or contract restructures that can free up significant space.
Mario Williams: cut
This all-but-guaranteed move would save the Bills $12.9 million on the 2016 salary cap. The Bills would be foolish not to cut Williams before the payment of a $2.5 million roster bonus becomes due, which is reportedly March 13. Unfortunately, the Bills will not be able to push $1.6 million of Williams' total of $7 million in dead money into 2017 by designating Williams a post-June 1, cut because they will need the massive amount of freed up cap space to re-sign players prior to June 1, the date the money would come off the books if Williams was designated in that fashion.
2016 cap space following move: $12.2 million
Charles Clay: convert roster bonus to signing bonus
Clay's $10 million roster bonus, if converted into a signing bonus, can then be prorated over the final four years of his deal, cutting that $10 million into four chunks on the cap and creating $7.5 million in savings in 2016. This move seemed obvious at the time the contract was signed, and still appears likely today. If Clay's injury history is as serious as sometimes reported, the Bills may attempt to structure their newly extended contracts differently in order to bite the bullet now on Clay's bonus, rather than push money down the line.
2016 cap space following move: $19.7 million
Leodis McKelvin: cut
While McKelvin has expressed his desire to remain in Buffalo, cash compensation of $3.9 million for a fourth corner or backup safety is too steep a price to pay. If McKelvin is willing to take a significant pay cut, the Bills being forced to absorb $1 million in dead money to cut him may work in his favor. A decision on McKelvin will need to be made quickly, as he has a sizeable $750,000 roster bonus due on March 11.
2016 cap space following move: $23.6 million
Dan Carpenter: cut
This move could not have been anticipated entering the 2015 season, but Carpenter's struggles in 2015 put him squarely on the hot seat. Carpenter has a $250,000 roster bonus (payable March 15) that dictates the difference between the two savings numbers of $2.3 million or $2.05 million. Carpenter also has $1.075 million remaining in prorated signing bonus money that could be split between 2016 and 2017 if he is cut prior to his roster bonus being paid, and designated as a post-June 1 cut. Unlike with Williams, Carpenter's relatively low cap hit could be kept on the books until after June 1. It seems probable that the Bills will accept paying Carpenter's $250,000 roster bonus in order to buy the time to more fully evaluate other options at kicker.
2016 cap space following move: $25.7 million
Kraig Urbik: cut
Urbik has served as a suitable backup guard and center, but has shown in spot start duty that he can, and maybe should be, upgraded. If the Bills are unable to re-sign starting left guard Richie Incognito, however, it seems very plausible that Urbik will be retained. Like Williams, McKelvin, and Carpenter, Urbik has his own roster bonus of $300,000 payable on March 13, which might make sense to pay with only $1.775 million in cap savings coming before that date.
2016 cap space following move: $27.4 million
From the negative $683,117 figure outlined at the start, the above five moves would increase the Bills' 2016 salary cap space to $27.44 million. With that cap room, the Bills should have the salary cap space to make reasonable offers to impending free agents Cordy Glenn, Incognito, and Nigel Bradham (if they so desire). Where the Bills' cap situation for 2016 could become very tenuous is if the Bills are also forced to expend significant 2016 cap room on an extension for Taylor.
If this becomes (as I believe it will) a necessity, the Bills could make further moves to increase their cap space, such as:
- Signing Stephon Gilmore to a long-term extension, lowering his 2016 cap hit of $11.082 million to create a potential savings of $2-3 million); or
- Cutting or negotiating a pay cut with veterans such as Manny Lawson (potential savings of $2.65 million), Corey Graham (potential savings of $2.7-3.7 million), Jarius Wynn (potential savings of $1 million), or Jerome Felton (potential savings of $1-1.65 million).
While cutting significant contributors such as Lawson, Graham, or to a lesser extent Felton would create holes in the Bills' lineup, each of the above players will be 30 years or older at the start of the 2016 season.