An In-Depth Look At the Buffalo Bills Salary Cap Situation in 2015 & Beyond

Following an offseason of big spending by the Buffalo Bills—awarding roughly $184.935 million in contracts with $39.6 million of the salary cap hits counting for the 2015 season, there has been endless speculation surrounding the team’s future financial situation going forward. With big names like Marcell Dareus, Nigel Bradham and Cordy Glenn hitting free agency following this season, along with Stephon Gilmore after 2016, the Bills will need to be creative in order to keep their young dominant home-grown talent.

The NFL Salary Cap for the 2015 season is set at $143.28 million, but due to the team carrying over $2.66 million of unused 2014 cap space, Buffalo’s adjusted cap number is set at $146.07 million.

As of today, the Bills are spending $146.89 million on their 90 active contracts, but just $128.83 million committed to the Top 51 contracts on their roster. During the offseason, teams can have 90 players on their active roster, but only the Top 51 count against the salary cap.

Buffalo also has $8.8 million in dead money charged to their 2015 salary cap. When a team releases or trades a player, they are still on the hook for the remainder of any prorated bonuses or previously guaranteed money on their contract.

This brings the Bills to a total of $137.63 million in salary to be counted against the salary cap, leaving roughly $8.4 million in space.

Below is a table of the current active contracts for the Buffalo Bills.

BILLS O CAP

BILLS D CAP

Now, $8 million doesn’t seem like much, but when you consider the handful of players likely to make the final 53-man roster– such as Seantrel Henderson, Karlos Williams, Randell Johnson, etc.—that make less than several players above the Top 51 threshold, there’s some cap space to be saved. Below are the players whose contracts aren’t currently counting against the Bills’ salary cap, with the ones who have a legitimate shot at making the team highlighted in yellow.

BILLS UNDER 51

There could be some surprise cap casualties by the NFL’s cut-down date of September 5th, but it’s safe to assume that the Bills will head into the 2015 season with roughly $8-10 million in salary cap space. It’s known that franchises look to keep at least $5 million in their back pocket- in case of an injury or a waiver pickup, but if it’s not spent then it can be rolled over into 2016.

2016 Outlook

Due to the new TV deal the NFL signed, the league’s salary cap has risen at an 8.1-percent rate over the last three years, going from $122 million in 2012 to $143 this year. In 2016, the league’s cap is expected to be in the area of $154.7 million.

Buffalo’s front office will likely look to carry over as much of their 2015 remaining cap space as possible, as they have quite a few core players set to become free agents.

BILLS FA

Without accounting for contract extensions, player releases or rollover, the Bills have an estimated $144.2 million committed to the Top 51 contracts of 2016, in addition to $1.757 million in dead money from the release of Chris Williams, putting them at about $146 million in allocated cap.

Now here’s where things get interesting. This offseason, the Bills signed Percy Harvin to a three-year, $24 million contract. However, due to the structure of the contract—the final two years are voidable—it’s essentially a one-year, $6 million deal that will save the team $10 million in 2016 cap space when they void the contract following this season.

Let’s assume that the Bills carry over $5 million into the 2016 season, giving them an estimated adjusted salary cap of $160 million, which would leave them with about $23 million to play with in the offseason.

Freeing Up Additional Cap Space

Restructure Mario Williams

Mario Williams has a $19.4 million cap number in 2015 ($12.1 million base salary, $3.8 million prorated signing bonus, $3.5 million in misc. bonuses) and General Manager Doug Whaley mentioned that restructuring or extending his contract for cap purposes was definitely a legitimate option.

If that doesn’t happen this season, the Bills have the option of restructuring his current contract by converting a portion of his base salary into a prorated signing bonus, or adding on a year or two to the deal with an extension that would spread out the cap hit over the duration of the contract.

Restructure Charles Clay’s Contract

The Bills were able to snag tight end Charles Clay away from the Miami Dolphins, who placed the franchise tag on the 26-year old by signing him to an offer sheet that was structured in a way the Dolphins couldn’t match. He has a $13.5 million cap number in 2016 ($1.5 million base salary, $2 million prorated signing bonus, $10 million roster bonus) but cap hits of $6.5 million for each of the remaining three years on his deal. Converting his $10 million roster bonus into a signing bonus would lower Clay’s 2016 cap number to $6 million, while bringing his 2017-2019 cap numbers to $9 million.

Move on From Aging Vets

The sad reality of the National Football League is that it’s a sad and ruthless business. Aging veterans with sizeable cap numbers are released every day in favor of younger, cheaper options. The selection of Ronald Darby in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft put the writing on the wall for Leodis McKelvin, who becomes an unrestricted free agent following the 2016 season when he’ll be 31-years old. If Darby lives up to his draft status, the Bills may choose to move on from the veteran, which would save $3.9 million against the 2016 salary cap.

Manny Lawson is currently 31-years old will also hit free agency following the 2016 season. With youngsters Randell Johnson and Michael Buchanan being groomed behind him at the strong-side linebacker position, a 32-year old Lawson could find himself on the chopping block—saving the Bills $3.325 million against the 2016 cap.

Final Thoughts

The Bills certainly are close to the salary cap threshold, but when looking at contracts and the cap as a whole, it’s important to remember several things—

  1. Contracts aren’t guaranteed.
  2. Average Salary per Year means nothing.
  3. Contracts can be structured in various ways to protect the franchise.
  4. The salary cap is expected to continue rising for the next several years.

Keep in mind that that these are just a few various thoughts on how the Bills could maneuver the salary cap in order to retain their core players while staying competitive and not a prediction of what will actually happen. Releasing the two veterans along with a restructure of Clay’s contract frees up $14.75 million alone for 2016, which would allow the Bills a theoretical $37 million in salary cap space.

Every year, we see teams that are millions over the cap somehow manage to bring in marquee free agents due to contract structure (See: Byrd, Jairus- New Orleans) so while the NFL does enforce a “hard cap,” franchises employ very smart people to manipulate the system in order to get the most bang for their buck.