Last week, we discussed why Jerry Hughes shouldn't be the top priority for the Buffalo Bills in their long-term purview on defense. As plenty of you correctly noted, however, this is hardly a controversial take. Choosing a great player over a good player has never been difficult.
Maintaining priorities doesn't make the Hughes situation any easier for GM Doug Whaley, who knows that if he loses his back-to-back 10-sack edge rusher, he likely won't replace him this offseason. He also knows that signing a good player to a long-term deal now could cost him a great player down the road.
With that in mind, we'll look at one option that skirts both issues: applying the franchise tag to Hughes as a defensive end, which will likely cost the team about $15 million against the salary cap for one year.
Pro: It’s the only way you keep him short-term.
Assume that Hughes wants a multi-year deal. This may be the best chance of his career to cash in on a big NFL contract, which the Bills probably don’t want to sign at the defensive end position given how much money they already have sunk in there. It’s in Hughes’ best interest to avoid a one-year deal, but it’s in the team’s best interest to sign a deal just for 2015, when the team can afford it. If Buffalo wants Hughes for one year, they have to go big with the tag or go long-term with a lower annual cap hit.
Pro: It gives the Bills another year to possibly negotiate a new team-friendly deal
This is the most common reason a team assigns the franchise tag. In this situation it's also a shaky proposition, and almost certainly not going to result in a long-term deal, given who else the Bills have to pay in 2016. Still, we have no idea who could become expendable under the new coaching staff, which could create more cap space to work with.
Plus, things can change in a year. Sure, you'll overpay Hughes in 2015 now, but what if you decide he's a better fit for your scheme than Mario Williams? With the cap savings accrued in a Williams release, you could pay the younger Hughes with a long-term deal in 2016 no matter what else is happening. But that's a bigger discussion for another day.
Pro: A flush cap situation
The concern with a long-term contract for Hughes was never related to the 2015 numbers. Even with the Richie Incognito signing, the Bills should have roughly $25 million of cap space. There are no long-term fears with a franchise tag. You give Hughes his money for holding off on a deal, and come back to the table next year with nothing against the cap when the first year of a new Marcell Dareus deal hits the books.
Not only do the Bills have plenty of cap space in 2015, but they can make plenty more if need be by releasing Keith Rivers, Manny Lawson, or even Leodis McKelvin if they have a contingency plan in place. The team can absolutely fit Hughes under their cap (and re-sign their bit players, as well) if they want to make this strategy an offseason focus.
Pro: It’s worked before
In retrospect, the Jairus Byrd situation worked pretty well for the team. In a 2013 season during which he was tagged, Byrd patched a hole in the defense with a typically stellar year that gave the Bills more time to fortify the safety position for his eventual departure. In that year, they gave Aaron Williams crucial reps at safety without the pressure of being the center fielder. They also basically gave fourth-round pick Duke Williams a redshirt year to learn the position before stepping up in 2014 as a part-time player; he might emerge into something more in 2015.
Things could work in similar fashion with Hughes if the Bills can draft a mid-round defensive end this May. Hughes would play out his year with a franchise tag and contribute as he has. The rookie plays backup minutes and prepares to start in 2016 when Hughes likely walks.
Pro: It gives the Bills a chance to deal Hughes
It’s hard to imagine a team dealing for the rights to a guy who’s owed either $15 million for one year or a long-term contract extension, but in tagging Hughes, the Bills at least put themselves in a position to take advantage of a desperate squad elsewhere. Teams could either trade for Hughes, or even make an offer sheet for a tagged Hughes and give up two first-round picks for him. Obviously, these are unlikely outcomes, but Hughes will be among the most coveted pass rushers in the free agency pool. The Bills might be wise to maintain control over his rights to maximize their return on his likely departure.
Pro: It makes the Bills better in ’15
This is the crux of the pro argument. The Bills need to make the playoffs in 2015 while this defense is still chomping at the bit. If they lose Hughes, they won’t replace him this year. If you want to field the best team possible, you want to see management sign Hughes and make it work. If they can only do one year, then so be it.
Con: It costs you Hughes long-term
Aren’t we doing that anyways? Look, we all like Hughes, but the reality is we have a lot of emerging talent to pay for, plus hopefully a quarterback to pay a king’s ransom for in the next few years. It's an obvious con, but one worth mentioning for those still hoping for a long-term deal. Franchise tags often create ill will from which teams and players don't return.
Con: It rules out Iupati, no pick of the litter at QB
Signing Hughes to a big cap number via the franchise tag doesn't rule Buffalo out of the rest of the high-end free agency pool in 2015, but it doesn't give them a ton of flexibility either. The team needs another guard, and the best pending free agent at the position is Mike Iupati. If he has any interest in playing for his old coordinator, Greg Roman, this team could desperately use his help.
Additionally, the Bills must get a quarterback in free agency, which is never cheap, even if the quarterback market lacks top-tier options. If Kyle Orton can fish $5.5 million out of Buffalo this year, what can a free agent starter ask for when there are more teams than quarterbacks?
Con: It rules out Revis
This is soft for a con, because let’s be honest: Darrelle Revis coming to Buffalo feels like a pipe dream. Sure, there’s the Rex Ryan connection, but that was never good for a hometown discount before. Revis wants to make money and win more Super Bowls. The Bills may believe he can do that here in years to come, but why would he? Either way, if Hughes is tagged, it would require a lot of moves and a thinning of roster depth to make a serious run at Revis.
Con: It creates redundant money
Tagging Hughes puts the team at about $33 million against the cap in their two starting defensive ends, which might be the death blow to this entire concept.
Don’t tag him.
It seems like a good idea to get Hughes on a one-year deal at first, but when you really let the price tag and its ramifications sink in, this is an easy decision. Tagging Hughes would stunt the roster elsewhere in 2015 with a cumbersome cap figure. Even lots of cap space can be eaten quickly with a big deal. If there’s one position on which this team can handle average production, it’s the end opposite Williams.
In the meantime, the Bills should either focus on a team-friendly extension, or plan for life with a compensatory draft pick and no Hughes.