The Buffalo Bills will enter the new NFL fiscal year with enough salary cap space to make whatever improvements to the roster they deem necessary.
The Bills have about $25 million in cap space with a week to go before the March 11 opening of the unrestricted free-agent shopping season, according to Buffalo News figures.
The salary cap for 2014 will be $133 million – highest in NFL history.
The most pertinent ramifications for the Bills:
• The cap is up $10 million from last year and there will be plenty of competition to spend for free agents. The Bills currently rank about 13th or 14th among the teams with the most cap space.
• The Bills have plenty of room to sign safety Jairus Byrd or put the franchise tag on him, which would eat up $8.43 million in cap space. The question remains whether the Bills will – or should – meet Byrd’s asking price. The deadline to use the franchise tag is 4 p.m. Monday.
• The two Bills players who appear most in danger of being released to save money are backup quarterback Kevin Kolb and right tackle Erik Pears. The Bills would save $3.1 million in cash by cutting Kolb and $2.9 million by releasing Pears. Kolb is not expected back due to health concerns. A serious concussion wiped out his entire 2013 season, and the Bills have stated they’re happy with Thad Lewis as a No. 2 QB. Pears was capable in 2013. But is he worth the money? And do the Bills want to upgrade at right tackle? The suspicion is coach Doug Marrone is aiming to overhaul the offensive line, starting with Pears.
The teams with the most cap space include Oakland, Jacksonville and Cleveland, all with more than $50 million free. The teams with the least include Dallas and Pittsburgh, both of which enter this week over the cap and need to create space before March 11.
What are the Bills going to do with all that space?
The options are to re-sign some of their pending free agents, dive into free agency to bolster the roster and extend the contracts of players entering the final year of their deals.
Said Bills General Manager Doug Whaley:
“We’re going to try to go after all our free agents that we have out there. Again, that all depends on what they perceive their value is compared to us, and we have a priority list, and we’ll go down that priority list. Either check them off or scratch them off. And we’ll just keep going down until we used up all our cap space and fulfill the needs that we have and hopefully get better as a team.”
Beside Byrd, the team’s two significant unrestricted free agents are tight end Scott Chandler and kicker Dan Carpenter.
The top Bills whose contracts run out after 2014 are: edge rusher Jerry Hughes, running back C.J. Spiller, safety Aaron Williams and running back Fred Jackson. Hughes and Spiller would be the most expensive to extend.
The contract of Marcell Dareus also runs out after 2014, but since he was a first-round draft choice, the Bills have the option to keep him for a fifth year under the terms of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. That’s a no-brainer. The Bills have until late May to exercise Dareus’ option.
Here’s a more detailed review of the Bills’ cap situation:
While the league-wide, base-cap figure will be $133 million, the Bills’ “adjusted” cap is going to be about $150.8 million. That’s because the Bills had $17.8 million in unused space left over from last year’s cap that they were allowed to “roll over” into this year’s cap. Teams can roll over all or part of the left-over space. The Bills informed the league they were rolling over all of it, a league source confirmed.
Why did they have so much space left over? They had rolled over extra space from the previous year, too (about $10 million). Rolling over space is a convenient and beneficial way to manage the cap and give a team more spending flexibility. The league average that was rolled over for 2014 was just over $6 million per team, according to the players’ union.
Teams are required to spend a minimum amount against the cap, under the terms of the CBA. For a four-year period from 2013 to 2016, each team must use up at least 89 percent of the league-wide cap space (not the team’s adjusted cap space).
The Bills used up 94 percent of the base cap space in 2013 and already are at 94 percent this year.
Cap spending, it should be noted, is slightly different than actual cash being paid out. For cap purposes, signing bonus money is spread out over the life of a contract. A $3 million bonus on a three-year deal counts $1 million against the cap each year. Teams don’t like to spend over the cap in cash, either, although there’s no rule against it. It’s a self-imposed marker. If a team does it repeatedly it will run into cap trouble.
How do the Bills stand in real cash spending?
In 2013, it’s believed they were between 16th and 20th in the league. In 2012, they were third in the league, according to ESPN senior writer John Clayton. Buffalo spent about $18 million over the cap in real cash that season. In 2011, they were about 16th. The Bills are slightly over the cap in cash spending since 2009.
The Bills’ cap total for 2014 currently stands at $125 million, according to The News. That counts the top 51 players under contract, plus “dead” money from players who were released in the past year but who still are on the books.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, released a year ago, still counts $7 million against the Bills’ cap for 2014. The Bills spread out his cap hit over two years. The Bills’ dead money total is perhaps a tad on the high side but it’s not exorbitant. In 2012, the teams that made the playoffs averaged $11.1 million in dead cap money, about $3 million more on average than the non-playoff teams. (Published dead-money totals tend to vary depending on who’s doing the counting.)
If a team is cycling out older veterans on the “dead cap” list with quality young players, the dead cap total could be viewed as a good thing. If the talent level isn’t getting better, it’s a bad thing.
The top player on the Bills’ cap list is defensive end Mario Williams, who is the highest-paid defensive player in the league. Williams counts $18.8 million against the cap. He actually will get paid $13.4 million in 2014. The Bills crafted Williams’ contract in such a way that they could have relatively easily restructured it this year if they needed more cap space. Williams is due to get $1.9 million in base pay but $10.6 million in a roster bonus. The Bills could have tried to turn that bonus into an amortized bonus, but they didn’t need to do it because they have enough cap room as it is.