Despite riding 14.5 sacks to an All-Pro season, Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams can still be considered overpaid. His 2015 salary cap hit of $19.4 million more than doubles the next-highest player currently on the roster (Marcell Dareus, at $8.06 million). Therefore, in anticipation of what could be an active offseason for the Bills, it is necessary to analyze the final three years of Williams’ contract.
If the Bills can't reach a long-term contract agreement with free agent pass rusher Jerry Hughes, they'll need to decide whether or not they want to use the franchise tag on him. The 2014 franchise tag for a defensive end was $13.116 million, a number which should rise for 2015. Although justifiable, paying Hughes about half of the Bills’ reported $30 million in 2015 cap space could still severely hamper the Bills' flexibility this offseason.
One way that the Bills could expand their 2015 cap space would be to convert some or all of Williams’ 2015 salary to a signing bonus, which could then be prorated over the remaining two years of the contract. If the Bills converted $12 million of Williams’ $14 million salary in 2015 to a signing bonus, this move would create $8 million in additional 2015 cap space to spend on Hughes, current Bills free agents, or new additions.
This freedom would not be without a cost. If restructured, Williams’ already high 2016 and 2017 cap figures would only grow - from $19.9 million to $23.9 million in 2016, and from $16.5 million to $20.5 million in 2017. The all-important dead money that would result from terminating Williams’ contract would also grow - from $7 million to $15 million in 2016, and from $1.6 million to $5.6 million in 2017.
The growth in these numbers is frightening, but as the salary cap continues to rise, the overall effect may not necessarily be as harsh as it seems. Williams remains a massive piece of the Bills' defense for 2015. If he were to be cut in 2016, the Bills would still eat a relatively large $7 million in dead money, making that move unlikely. As the contract is currently structured, 2017 is really the earliest opportunity for the Bills to get out from under the contract, as Williams' 2017 cap hit will be $16.5 million, with $14.9 in possible savings if he is cut. If converted, that dead money figure would increase to $5.6 million for 2017, which would be Williams’ age-32 season.
Williams just turned 30 years old. Committing that kind of money to a player over the age of 30 is a scary proposition. Interestingly, pass rushers have fared surprisingly well from the ages of 30-32. Considering how stout Williams is against the run, I think Bills fans would consider Williams’ Bills career a success if he produced like players such as Cameron Wake (15, 8.5, and 11.5 sacks), Julius Peppers (8, 11, and 11.5 sacks), Jared Allen (12, 11.5, 5.5 sacks), or John Abraham (16.5, 5.5, 13 sacks) did between 30-32. Even younger players such as Terrell Suggs (10 and 12 sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks) have shown to continue to be productive after the age of 30.
Williams is a different (and career-wise, possibly less productive) player than some of those just mentioned, but the numbers show that pass rushers can, and often are, very productive well after turning 30 years old. A player like Williams that relies more on strength than necessarily a quick first step around the edge could very well remain a productive and reliable player throughout the life of his Bills contract.
Although beneficial for 2015, there are real concerns that accompany converting Williams’ salary to a signing bonus. The Bills currently have numerous players on the roster who will be in need of long-term contract extensions in the coming year. Dareus, Stephon Gilmore, Cordy Glenn, and Nigel Bradham (and possibly Hughes, if tagged for 2015) will all be finishing their rookie contracts, and the Bills should be hoping to extend each of them. Increasing Williams’ cap hit going forward into years when that money may be needed to pay younger players is concerning, but looking forward, this concern can be alleviated to a certain extent, as the next five largest cap hits for 2016 are replaceable pieces:
- Leodis McKelvin: $4.9M cap hit ($3.9M saved if cut)
- Corey Graham: $4.675M cap hit ($2.675M saved if cut)
- Kraig Urbik: $4.075M cap hit ($3.375M saved if cut)
- Chris Williams: $3.675M cap hit ($1.925M saved if cut)
- Manny Lawson: $3.4M cap hit ($1.5M saved if cut)
If the Bills are able to negotiate a long-term extension with Hughes, or decide that the franchise tag is not worth it, another possible restructure would be to move $10 million of Williams’ 2016 $11.5 million salary into a 2015 roster bonus. This move would increase Williams’ 2015 cap number to $29.4 million, while dropping his 2016 number a corresponding $10 million to $9.9 million.
Let’s face it, Bills fans: the Bills are not going to have the luxury of paying for a $20 million quarterback in 2015. The 2015 Bills will be quarterbacked by either a veteran, replacement-level type player (á la Kyle Orton) or a player on a rookie contract. This reality means the Bills should have plenty of cap flexibility in 2015 if Hughes is not tagged.
While hampering the Bills’ ability to spend in 2015, this step would free up considerable money for the aforementioned core players who have contracts set to expire after the 2015 season. A move like this also would not affect Williams’ 2017 cap and dead money, maintaining the Bills’ ability to cut Williams and his $16.5 million cap hit in 2017 for the small cost of $1.6 mil in dead money.
While it remains to be seen whether converting or restructuring Williams’ salary will even be a necessary step, there are convincing arguments to be made for each option.