As the NFL Scouting Combine brings the NFL world to Indianapolis, the Buffalo Bills' tight 2016 salary cap situation has recently been publicly criticized by one anonymous current GM in the NFC, and one former prominent NFL front office executive. Is this criticism justified?
NFC GM on Bills: "They have a lot to envy, but their salary-cap situation is the worst in the NFL. ... It's criminal mismanagement."— Tim Graham (@ByTimGraham) February 25, 2016
Bills head down the predictable path to cap hell. We have seen this before.— Joe Banner (@JoeBanner13) February 26, 2016
On paper, as of February 27, the Bills have very little salary cap space. Functionally, this means very little. The team doesn't even have to be under the 2016 salary cap until March 9. With the filing of the Charles Clay roster bonus conversion, the team is currently about $8 million under a projected 2016 salary cap of $155 million. If Mario Williams is released on March 9, the team will clear another $12.9 million, bringing their total cap space up over $20 million. As we have detailed in numerous articles, there are many other smaller moves that can be made to clear cap space.
But it would be irresponsible to completely dismiss the opinions of those individuals who are critical of the Bills' cap situation. Additionally, it is necessary to remember that this whole conversation would be very different if the Bills had lived up to expectations last year. A playoff team is not criticized for being up against the cap and having to make tough decisions. An 8-8 team is. While excuses can be made, the Bills spent an awful lot of money to keep themselves mired in mediocrity.
Mario Williams' $7 million in dead money, the $8 million that will be consumed by the Percy Harvin signing, and the LeSean McCoy and Kyle Williams' contract extensions have contributed to a bottleneck for the Bills' salary cap in 2016 and 2017. The above decisions, as well as the Clay contract, seem to the driving forces behind the criticism of the Bills' salary cap management, while emphasis has also been placed on the team's current cheap quarterback situation.
Tyrod Taylor's contract situation overshadows any discussion of the Bills' cap. With just more than $3 million committed to the quarterback position in 2016, and 2017 completely up in the air, it seems prudent for Doug Whaley to sign Taylor to an extension of some kind sooner rather than later. This extension could very quickly assuage cap fears - or, it could make negative sentiments much more likely to come true.
Specifically addressing the criticism of the Bills' salary cap management, three main counterpoints need to be made.
If and when Mario Williams is released, the Bills fall from having the third-most committed 2017 cap space to eleventh. The enormity of Williams' contract is obvious in all aspects, but especially in looking at how far the Bills would fall related to the rest of the league in cash committed with its removal from the books. Without Williams on the books, the Bills would have $104 million committed for 2017, leaving at least $50 million in 2017 cap space - and that's in the highly unlikely event that the cap stays static. That means the Bills, without Williams, have $70 million over two years to sign extensions for key pieces such as Taylor, Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, and Stephon Gilmore (as well as maybe Nigel Bradham).
The Bills have a very weak 2017 unrestricted free agent class. As the list above demonstrates, the Bills' key 2017 free agents (Taylor and Gilmore) could be fully extended before the 2016 season even begins. From 2015, the only other contributors who will be free agents after 2016 are Robert Woods, Manny Lawson, Kraig Urbik, Leodis McKelvin, and to a much lesser extent Boobie Dixon, EJ Manuel, Duke Williams, and tight end Chris Gragg. While Taylor and Gilmore are necessary pieces, and Woods, Lawson, Urbik, and McKelvin bring value, the removal of any of those secondary players would not doom the Bills' roster. One Bills Drive has to be aware that they have a logjam of quality players needing contracts in 2016, with fewer players in 2017. It is unclear if the anonymous NFC general manager or Joe Banner are aware enough of the Bills' roster to know this as well.
As I said above, 2016-17 will be a bottleneck for the Bills due to the large contract of the two Williams players on the defensive lines, the Harvin and McCoy contracts, and the numerous quality players the Bills need to re-sign. But looking at 2018, the Bills have the 20th-most money (about $60 million) committed. This number really only includes five major contracts (Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Clay, McCoy, and Aaron Williams). Also, as he will be 30 entering the 2018 season, McCoy's dead money needs to be mentioned. If the Bills move on from McCoy prior to 2018, they will absorb $5.25 million in dead money, while saving $3.7 million. While the Bills will need to commit an enormous chunk of that money to the players discussed above, the team will also have two drafts to add cheap talent to the roster. If the team can continue finding starters in the draft, their cap situation can be quickly alleviated.
Long story short: criticism of the Bills' cap management does not seem to extend beyond a surface-level examination of their on-field success and their current team-wide cap figure.