The past few years have seen the Buffalo Bills dole out numerous large contracts to players via free agency (Charles Clay), following a trade (LeSean McCoy), or extending their own players (Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, and most recently, Cordy Glenn). Analysis of these contracts has led to this:
#Bills up front cash flows on their contracts are generally massive. Probably the most player friendly front office in the NFL.— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) May 4, 2016
It is hard to disagree with this sentiment. From salary cap management and business perspectives - and especially in light of the fact that the team's playoff drought continues - one would assume that this is a bad thing. But is that always the case?
Looking at the Clay and McCoy contracts, which were both arguably too rich (and in McCoy's case, probably unnecessary), it does appear that the Bills will go the extra mile (and hand out extra money) to sign a player they want, or to make a new player happy to be in Buffalo. If those contracts don't work out, the front office's eagerness in dishing out money will hurt the team.
Additionally, the Bills have made some interesting decisions in extending or re-working the contracts of their veteran players. As we said when it was initially signed, last spring's extension for Kyle Williams was unnecessary, and was compounded by the unforeseen circumstance of his 2015 injury. Williams could very well return to his fine form in 2016, but he was already under contract for 2016, and the extension just created unnecessary additional injury risk.
Another odd player-friendly move the Bills engaged in was the restructuring of Corey Graham's contract, even though it dealt in much smaller amounts. From all reports, it appears that the team simply moved money that was an incentive into a bonus that was then prorated over the remaining two years of his contract. While the move saved the Bills a small amount of cap space, it moved incentive money to guaranteed money, when the same cap space could have been saved by moving contract money to a bonus. Not knowing the exact incentive, even if it was basically a lock to be earned, it still had to be earned; injuries are a way of life in the NFL, and if Graham suffers a season-ending injury before the 2016 opener, I am unaware of an incentive that he would still be able to earn. But the Bills removed the possibility of that risk in his restructure.
Player-friendly deals can be a win-win, however, and play a role in quality cap management. They have been willing, especially in the cases of Dareus and now Glenn, to put large, up-front payments into contracts. The Bills guaranteed a higher percentage of Dareus' contract than New York and Jacksonville did with this year's big-money defensive linemen, Olivier Vernon and Malik Jackson, respectively. But despite the guaranteed money, Dareus will receive less total compensation annually over the course of his contract than Vernon or Jackson. It is important to note that while the Bills have doled out large up-front sums, their recent large contracts (with the possible exception of McCoy) have fit right in (or just below) the market in terms of annual average or total value.
Glenn's contract also has high guarantees and up-front money, and while his contract puts him at the top of his position, compared to what Oakland paid for Kelechi Osemele (five years, $58.5 million) and Denver for Russell Okung (one year, $10.6 million), the Bills signing Glenn at five years for $60 million appears to be right in the sweet spot for both player and team.
Is it more player-friendly to pay someone more total money, or more up front? Generally, the latter is preferred by players; for players like Dareus and Glenn, an argument can be made that guarantees are less relevant, and total value is equally important. Dareus and Glenn play premium positions in the NFL. As linemen that rely on size and strength, it is less likely that either of them would see their effectiveness diminished by an injury. If released, both would see a very active market in free agency.
For both of those players, the Bills used the (seemingly) limitless annual cash spending budget that they are provided by the Pegulas to make the most of the salary cap. Large signing bonuses allow players to be paid now, and keep cap hits low in the early years of a contract. Glenn will make $19 million in 2016, but only count for $6.2 million against the salary cap. The cap continuing to rise is almost a foregone conclusion, and spreading out money for top, young talents like Dareus and Glenn is good business.
It is also easy to underestimate the human aspect of it. It is easier to negotiate with someone when you're willing to pay them large sums of money now, and the Bills' success in retaining talented young players has been commendable. Although the large bonuses the Bills pay limit future flexibility (as may end up being the case with Clay and McCoy), when paid to the right player, they can be both player- and team-friendly.