As the offseason officially arrives for Doug Whaley, Rex Ryan, and the rest of the Buffalo Bills personnel department, it's decision-making time. Although the Bills have largely avoided major contract blunders (namely, overpaying for free agent busts Andy Levitre and Jairus Byrd) in the post- Ryan Fitzpatrick era, there are still major contractual areas in which the Bills lag behind the league’s elite.
The first such area I will discuss is the Bills' failure to first identify, and then catch up with, the practices of the more sophisticated teams in the league regarding roster bonuses.
Entering 2015, the Bills have 15 players on their roster with non-minimum salary, veteran contracts (via Spotrac.com). Of those 15 players, 13 have roster bonuses of varying amounts included in their contracts. Although information as to timing of payments is sometimes lacking, based on past reported information (i.e., Stevie Johnson, who was ignominiously paid $1.75 million on March 15, 2014, before being traded a few months later) and ESPN reports on the recently signed Chris Williams (link) and Corey Graham (link) contracts, I feel comfortable assuming that most, if not all, of these bonus payments will occur at or near the beginning of the 2015 NFL league year this coming March.
Operating under this assumption, for 2015, if all 15 players remain on the roster through March, the Bills will have paid out $5.3 million to the following players:
- Mario Williams: $1 million
- Leodis McKelvin: $750,000
- Chris Williams: $500,000
- Manny Lawson: $500,000
- Kyle Williams: $500,000
- Corey Graham: $500,000
- Dan Carpenter: $500,000
- Kraig Urbik: $300,000
- Scott Chandler: $250,000
- Eric Wood: $250,000
- Fred Jackson: $150,000
- Anthony Dixon: $100,000
Although some of those numbers seem to be overly large (Lawson really jumped out at me), this post is not about the players or amounts; rather, it's about the timing and lump sum nature of the roster bonuses Bills cap guy Jim Overdorf so willingly distributes.
The first flaw in Overdorf’s current structure should be relatively obvious. These payments are made in March, after only a few days of free agency and before many of the true roster-building free agent moves can be made. The 2015 NFL Draft and the influx of young, cheap talent it brings to a team is not until late April or early May.
The Bills need to upgrade the tight end position. Whether this is done via free agency or the draft, it may occur at the expense of Chandler and his 2015 total salary of $2,250,000 (Chandler’s cap number is $2,850,000, but if he is cut prior to the paying of the March bonus, the Bills will receive a net of $2,250,000 in cap savings). The timing of Chandler’s roster bonus forces the Bills’ hand. Despite being only $250,000, the timing of that payment forces the Bills to (most likely) pay Chandler before they will have fully had the opportunity to upgrade at a position that perennially underwhelms.
If Lawson’s contract is examined, another implication of the problem with early-paid bonuses is demonstrated. While Lawson was generally effective in Mike Pettine’s system, he was much less so this past season and may be losing some of his once-exceptional athleticism now that he's 30. Despite those question marks, the Bills will be forced to pay Lawson $500,000 in March, well before a fully-informed decision can be made as to whether he will have (or should have) a role large enough to justify his 2015 total salary of $2,350,000 (Lawson’s cap number is $3.1 million, and cutting him before paying the roster bonus would cost the Bills $1.5 million, thus creating $1.6 million in net cap savings).
The accelerated decisions that need to be made - caused by the Bills' current roster bonus practice - is reason alone to change it, but a quick look at how the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots operate shows just how far behind the Bills truly are.
Almost all of the Patriots' non-minimum salary veteran players have contracts which include roster bonuses, like the Bills. Unlike the Bills, all of those players (except for Tom Brady) have all or some of their roster bonuses tied to that player actually playing, as the Patriots almost exclusively use per-game roster bonuses. Some notable players whose contracts include (or included, in the case of Darrelle Revis) per-game bonuses are:
- Rob Gronkowski: $500,000 for 2016-17; $750,000 for 2018-19
- Vince Wilfork: $1.4 million for 2014; $500,000 for 2015
- Darrelle Revis: $500,000 for 2014
- Danny Amendola: $500,000 per year
- Julian Edelman: $500,000 for 2014; $750,000 for 2015-17.
Oft-injured linebacker Jerod Mayo has a per-game roster bonus of $500,000 in his contract that is paid out on a per-game basis for each game that Mayo is a member of the active roster. In 2014, like 2013, Mayo was only able to play in six games. Thus, Mayo was only paid $187,500 (or $31,250, per game) of the $500,000 bonus in 2014. In 2015, if Mayo is able to play in all 16 games, he will earn $500,000. But if he is once again placed on the Injured Reserve, his pay will be reduced.
Returning to the Bills, if oft-injured cornerback McKelvin’s $1 million 2014 roster bonus had been structured as being paid per-game, when McKelvin missed the last six games with an ankle injury, the Bills would have saved $375,000. I would guess the Bills would have gladly paid $375,000 in return for an additional six games of service from McKelvin - but, as injuries are inevitable in football, doing what is structurally available to mitigate a team’s contractual risk should also be obvious.
Hopefully under new owners Kim and Terry Pegula, the Bills will move closer toward the front of the pack in contract - and specifically, roster bonus - structure. The willingness to be creative and possibly pay a bit more for the insurance and flexibility that comes from per-game roster bonuses is a must. As the Bills continue to clearly trail the Patriots on the field, any steps that can be made to close the gap behind the scenes should be deemed absolutely necessary.