The Buffalo Bills stayed relatively quiet during the 2016 NFL offseason after a wild free agent frenzy the year before, in which he team handed out roughly $184.9 million towards contracts for new players. When a team makes blockbuster acquisitions, expectations are going to be high. Those expectations are hard to temper when you make Charles Clay one of the three highest-paid tight ends in the league, give a new five-year, $40 million deal to 28-year old LeSean McCoy and make Jerome Felton the second-highest paid fullback in the NFL.
Those additions were supposed to be the final missing pieces to the puzzle that’s troubled this franchise for decades. They’d be the finishing touches to complete a roster that, on paper, seemed as talented as anyone’s in the league. However, things didn’t go according to plan. Injuries, communication issues and the constant reshuffling of lineups led the Bills to their 16th consecutive playoff-less season.
With Training Camp around the corner, let’s take a look at the Buffalo Bills Salary Cap Situation, both for this season and for the future in order to see how flexible they can be, considering the looming contract statuses of several crucial players that are nearing the end of their deals.
Before going any further, there’s a few simple things that I want to explain about the NFL’s salary cap that most casual fans aren’t aware of.
“Average per Year” means nothing, really.
When a player gets signed to a five-year. $50 million deal, many in the media will cite the player’s value as “$10 million per year!” This is false, as all contracts are structured differently, and the non-fully guaranteed nature of the contracts make the reported total value relatively meaningless. Pay attention to the guaranteed money, and you’ll see that most of these “blockbuster” deals are structured in a way that will typically allow a team to cut ties within roughly three years if need be.
The Salary Cap Can Almost Always Be Manipulated
In the NFL, the salary cap can and will be manipulated with ease. In moments, a team can take a roster bonus and convert that into a signing bonus, and viola, you’ve saved several million dollars against the salary cap. We saw this first-hand with Charles Clay during the offseason when he restructured the $38 million deal he signed just one year prior. Both parties knew the move was coming, as the roster bonus served almost as a “poison pill” intended to prevent the Miami Dolphins from matching the offer, as their salary cap situation put them in a position where they wouldn’t be able to pay a $10 million during the 2016 offseason. Like that, Clay was a Buffalo Bill. By converting that amount and dividing it over the entire agreement, the Bills acquired a talented player and weakened a division rival.
More Cap Room Isn’t Always a Good Thing
Every year, fans cite their favorite team’s salary cap space as a barometer for the potential improvements they’ll make with free agent signings. Now, in theory, teams that have a surplus of salary cap space are obviously in the best position to sign marquee free agents. However, this means nothing in relation to wins and losses. In fact, the Carolina Panthers are the only team from the 2015 NFL Playoffs that are among the top 10 in current salary cap space.
As long as money is being spent the right way—re-signing your own priority players without overspending in the madness of free agency—that salary cap room is put to good use. Of the five teams with the least salary cap space, only the New Orleans Saints didn’t make the 2015 playoffs.
Instead of looking at current salary cap space to determine a team’s cap health, look at the cap commitments—money that’s guaranteed over future years—to evaluate their flexibility.
Now that we’ve covered that, let’s get started!
2016 Buffalo Bills Salary Cap Outlook
The National Football League set the Salary Cap at $155,270,000 for the 2016 NFL Season. The Bills carried over $4,467,331 of unused salary cap space left over from their 2015 fund, bringing their “Team Adjusted Salary Cap” or the ceiling to where the Bills can spend their cap dollars in 2016 to $157,737,331.
The Bills currently have 92 rostered players (including Dri Archer (Reserve/Did Not Report) and Phillip Thomas (Injured Reserve)). However, during the offseason, only the Top 51 contracts will be counted towards a franchise’s Salary Cap. So, while the Bills have allocated $165,016,642 towards their 2016 roster ($151,460,661 in contracts, $13,555,981 in dead money charges), only $144,948,405 will count against their salary cap until the regular season begins. Then, the final two players that round out the 53-man roster will count for roughly $1 million.
The images below show the 90 current active contracts on the Buffalo Bills’ roster.
Here are the 39 contracts not counted against the Buffalo Bills salary cap. Players highlighted with yellow are ones that I can see pushing for a spot on the final roster.
When factoring in the Bills’ Top 51 contracts, accounting for the two veteran minimum salaries that will be the 52nd and 53rd contracts, the team will have roughly $12.5 million heading into the season.
Obviously there could be some surprise cuts or trades, but the primary concern facing the 2016 Bills will be retaining two extremely important players in quarterback Tyrod Taylor and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents following the season. Each player has proven valuable, they are important pieces to the team and they deserve to be retained.
Now, most fans have only looked at the Buffalo Bills’ available salary cap space in 2016, which is why the Taylor/Gilmore contract discussion has turned into a “Tyrod or Gilmore” debate.
Tyrod Taylor & Stephon Gilmore Projected Earnings & Possibility of Both Staying in Buffalo
Having just over $12 million in salary cap space, the Bills’ front office will need to get creative when putting contract proposals together. With Stephon Gilmore already on the books for $11.08 million for the 2016 season, the get a deal finished with him before Tyrod Taylor, in order to lower his salary cap hit for the year.
Gilmore has developed into one of the top young cornerbacks in the National Football League. It’s a premier position that gets paid as such. I took a look at the deals given to some of the league’s top cornerbacks in order to see what kind of contract Stephon Gilmore can expect.
As you can see, the going rate for a top cornerback will be around $13-16 million in Average Per Year with roughly 30-35% of the contract’s total value being fully guaranteed. Using this data, I put together a model of how the Buffalo Bills may look to structure a deal for Stephon Gilmore, given their current and future salary cap health.
I projected Gilmore to earn $68.375 million over five years, including a $16 million signing bonus and $25.25 million in fully guaranteed money. The Bills only have about $12.5 million in 2016 salary cap space, so giving a signing bonus of $16 million helps both parties. Gilmore gets paid $16 million in a lump sum, which should make him happy. The Bills get to spread that out over the course of the contract against the salary cap, which allows for more wiggle room and a diminished cap hit this year. So, while Stephon Gilmore will only count $7.65 million against the 2016 salary cap (saving the Bills over $3 million) in this scenario, he’ll actually see $18.15 million in cash.
There’s $7 million in roster bonuses, which allows for a bit of flexibility on the team’s side, but the yearly $3.2 million cap charge from the signing bonus will provide some security for the player. The worst case scenario for the Bills is Gilmore not living up to the deal after three seasons. If released after the third season, the Bills would save $8.025 million against the 2019 salary cap, while only being on the hook for $6.4 million in dead money charges. In that worst case scenario, Stephon Gilmore will earn $43.625 million for those three seasons. Not bad for either side.
Tyrod Taylor’s contract will be a bit trickier, as the quarterback position is arguably the most scrutinized position in all of pro sports. Combine that with the ever-increasing salary cap number, and even quarterbacks that are slightly above average are getting massive contracts. Here’s a look at some of the contracts signed in recent years that established the market for Tyrod Taylor’s deal.
Andrew Luck’s $122 million contract is the ceiling for quarterbacks at the moment, but as you can see, the going rate for a quality passer is about $17-20 million in Average Per Year. The total value of these contracts are enormous, but for the most part, only about 35-45% of that is fully guaranteed. If a GM gives too much money to the wrong quarterback, it can cripple a franchise for years. That’s why team’s have begun structuring these deals to be as incentivized as possible, with some even being guaranteed on a year-to-year basis.
For Tyrod Taylor, I determined that a five-year deal with a total value of $88.5 million was fair, considering what he’s shown thus far, his age, and how the quarterback market has set itself. This deal includes a $20 million signing bonus and $33.36 million in fully guaranteed money.
Like Gilmore’s deal, a relatively large portion of this deal comes from the signing bonus. The base salaries from each of the first two seasons are guaranteed, and there are roster and workout bonuses each season. This is a pretty player-friendly contract with large guarantees up front, but the Bills can get out of the deal after three years without absorbing a huge dead money charge.
The combined 2016 salary cap hit when using these structures comes out to $17.075 million and would leave the Bills with $7.505 million in remaining cap space. That space can be used to rollover into the future, which they’ll likely do in order to retain some of their 30+ upcoming free agents next year.
Buffalo Bills Future Salary Cap Health
After reading an ESPN column that had Buffalo ranked No. 28 in “Power Ranking the Future” along with all of the money flying around ever since the Pegula’s took control of the franchise, I decided to take a look at how the Bills stand from a long-term salary cap point of view.
In the first section of this piece, I explained that not having an exorbitant amount of cap room isn’t a bad thing at all, as long as that money is being spent wisely. The Bills have done a good job locking up their star players to long-term deals in recent years.
Marcell Dareus has the longest current contract of any Bills player, as he’ll be with the team through the 2022 season. Cordy Glenn is next up at 2021. Charles Clay, LeSean McCoy, Jerry Hughes and the rookies are locked in through 2020. Aaron Williams, Richie Incognito and Ronald Darby will play through 2019, while Eric Wood and Sammy Watkins are on the team’s books through the 2018 season. These are the “core” players of the Bills and are quality cornerstones to build a roster around.
Let’s take a look ahead at how the Bills have set themselves up against the salary cap.
Buffalo Bills 2017 Salary Cap Outlook
Projected NFL Salary Cap- $166,000,000
Buffalo Bills Cap Commitments- 54 contracts (includes 11 2016 UDFA’s), $133,503,381 committed
Projected Cap Room- $32,486,952 (not including projected deals)
After the upcoming season, the Bills will be heading into the 2017 offseason in relatively good shape. They have $133 million committed to 54 players, although 11 of those are undrafted free agents from this year’s draft and several more may not even make the 2016 53-man roster, so these numbers are likely to be a bit off. Their core group of players are all under contract, and the only notable players hitting free agency are Robert Woods, EJ Manuel and Manny Lawson.
2017 is the final year of Eric Wood’s contract and he’s set to count $6.325 million against the cap, so if they choose to, they can extend his contract to create some additional salary cap space. Corey Graham is a candidate to be released, as he’ll be 32 years old with a $5.375 million cap charge.
The Bills will likely pick up the fifth-year option on Sammy Watkins’ contract during the upcoming year as he’ll be a free agent after the 2017 season.
Buffalo Bills 2018 Salary Cap Outlook
Projected NFL Salary Cap: $178,000,000
Bills Cap Commitments- 30 contracts (includes 18 rookies), $96,382,291 committed
Projected Cap Room- $81,617,709
Excluding the 2016 rookie class, the Buffalo Bills currently have just 12 players under contract for the 2018 season. They’re projected to have over $81 million in cap space to bolster the team.
There was a lot of concern about the Buffalo Bills Salary Cap management this offseason. They weren’t able to make any notable signings due to a large dead money charge and the need to re-sign left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito. Next year the Bills have no dead money charges and they’re projected to have roughly $32 million in cap room. As I explained earlier, having a surplus of cap room isn’t always a good thing, but the team has their core locked in for the next several seasons so they’ll be able to use that to add key role players to the team.
There’s always room to improve and there will always be a deal a team wishes they could take back, but all in all, the Buffalo Bills have done a good job setting themselves up for the future by retaining their own talent while leaving enough flexibility to be active on the open market as well.