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Marcell Dareus contract: how the Bills can pay big without crippling their salary cap

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Marcell Dareus is the Bills' best player, and will command a massive contract extension in the next year-plus. What can the Bills do to preserve cap flexibility while paying Dareus a huge amount of money?

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

As Brian simply stated yesterday in his breakdown of the Buffalo Bills' best players age 25 and under, Marcell Dareus is a stud.

Dareus, who turns 25 next month, has 17.5 sacks over the past two seasons to go along with 119 tackles. While inconsistency may have been an issue in his first two pro seasons, Dareus has since become one of the elite interior defensive lineman in the NFL, anchoring Buffalo's improving run defense while still managing 10 sacks in 2014. Although dinged up at times, Dareus has also been ever-present on the field; this year's meaningless Week 17 game against New England was the first game Dareus has missed in his four seasons with the Bills.

The preceding paragraph leads to a single conclusion: Dareus is soon going to be a very rich man. Although Bills GM Doug Whaley has stated that a Dareus extension is not an immediate priority, it's easy to imagine that the pending mega-deal is looming over all financial matters this offseason.

I do not plan on using this article to argue an exact amount or length of a new contract for Dareus (although Bills fans should be closely monitoring the amount of money that Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh receives early next month, as it should definitely affect Dareus' contract). Rather, I would like to discuss the structure and some tactics the Bills can employ to utilize their current cap space - much of which is available because of the team's dearth of options at quarterback - to pay Dareus the money he will require, while keeping his cap charge low for the years in which the Bills will hopefully face the prospect of paying a franchise quarterback.

Acknowledging that Suh is in this group as well, the best comparable for Dareus is Gerald McCoy of Tampa Bay. McCoy was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft - one year before Dareus was picked in the same slot - and received his contract extension last October, during his fifth season in the league. McCoy signed a seven-year extension worth $95.2 million in new money, averaging $13.6 million per year. McCoy's guarantees are multi-tiered, with about $14.8 million fully guaranteed at signing and $51.5 million guaranteed for injury only. Just under $32.3 million became fully guaranteed this February, and then the full $51.5 million will become fully guaranteed next February.

A McCoy-level contract will be (and rightfully should be) the floor for the beginning of Dareus' negotiations, whenever those begin. Under this assumption (and prior to seeing what type of contract Suh receives), a ballpark estimate of Dareus' extension would be seven years, $105 million dollars for an average of $15 million per season. This number would be a $1.4 million increase in average over McCoy's, yet still well below the six-year, $100 million extension that J.J. Watt recently signed in Houston.

Although he has had his off-field concerns, those issues have been of the immature variety. No one has ever suggested Dareus is a bad guy, and his continual year-to-year improvement (and durability) suggest that Dareus is a hard worker who will continue to grow on the field and off. The risk created by front-loading a contract is worth it for a player of Dareus' talent. If the Bills are willing and able to extend Dareus' contract during the 2015 offseason, then they should utilize their 2015 cap space to front-load Dareus' contract as much as possible.

Dareus' 2015 salary is a fully guaranteed $8.06 million, so that will not be included in the new money extension calculations that begin below. Now for the proposed structure of a new Dareus deal:

  • 2015: $11.94M roster bonus (paid, essentially, at signing and fully guaranteed); $20M cap hit
  • 2016: $11.06M fully guaranteed salary; $11.06M cap hit
  • 2017: $13M salary guaranteed (for injury at the time of signing, fully in 2016); $13M cap hit
  • 2018: $6M fully guaranteed roster bonus, $8M salary guaranteed (for injury at the time of signing, fully in 2017); $14M cap hit
  • 2019: $12M salary; $12M cap hit
  • 2020: $14M salary; $14M cap hit
  • 2021: $14M salary; $14M cap hit
  • 2022: $15M salary; $15M cap hit

As the Bills seem to be making a strong effort to sign Jerry Hughes, therefore decreasing their cap space in the near future, the second ($6 million) fully guaranteed roster bonus has been hypothetically placed in the 2018 season (the first year that the Bills will be out from under Mario Williams' massive contract) - but that bonus could easily be moved depending on how the Hughes contract is structured.

The Bills should be acutely aware that Dareus is in line for a massive deal, and should be planning accordingly. If a Hughes extension necessitates it, the proposed 2015 cap hit of $20 million could also be lowered, by splitting the $11.94 million roster bonus into a roster bonus and signing bonus. For example: creating a $6.94 million roster bonus and $5 million signing bonus would allow the Bills to prorate the signing bonus over five years, and free up an extra $4 million for the 2015 cap.

As for guaranteed money, if the $6 million second roster bonus was left in 2018 (or moved up), the Bills would essentially be signing Dareus to a four year, $50 million fully guaranteed contract, which would only run through Dareus' age-28 season, and which would contain a yearly option to keep Dareus at the above salary or cut him with no loss. The reward for taking this type of risk would be relatively low cap hits in the remaining four years of the contract, plus the cap flexibility that comes from not having large dead money hits tied to a player.