The Buffalo Bills are going to have money to spend on free agents this offseason, but they're going to have to cut some salaries to get it.
The two most obvious casualties are their two most expensive players -- receiver Eric Moulds and tackle Mike Williams. Moulds has a cap figure of $10.85 million, and Williams' is $10.81 million.
For financial reasons alone, it's hard to envision either of those players being back with the Bills this season unless they agreed to big pay cuts.
The Bills' salary cap total stands at about $87.5 million for the 2006 season, according to News estimates. That's just an estimate, because the team does not release figures and there could be bonus money due to players this year based on performance in 2005 that affects the team's total.
In addition, the cap situation is even harder to gauge entering this offseason because of "transition rules" that are in place under the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners. The two sides are in negotiations on an extension.
If no deal is struck, this will be the last year of the salary cap, and 2007 will be an "uncapped" year. One of the ramifications is teams can only spread out money in any new contract signed this year over four years, as opposed to six and seven in past offseasons.
The Bills' total includes a $3 million bonus Williams is scheduled to get if he's still on the roster on July 1. So the Bills' cap total actually will be about $84.5 million if Williams still is on the roster when the NFL's new cap year begins on March 3.
The NFL salary cap is not yet set, but it's expected to be about $93 million. Some are projecting it could be as high as $95 million. The final figure is expected to be released within a week.
The Bills have some additional cap costs they must incur before March 3.
They put a franchise tag on Nate Clements today, in order to prevent him from being an unfettered free agent. That will cost $5.89 million.
They have some restricted and exclusive-rights free agents they will want to keep. They need to make minimum offers to those players by March 2 to keep them off the open market. The exclusive rights free agents, players with less than two full years experience, include tackle Jason Peters, receiver Jonathan Smith, cornerback Jabari Greer, running back Shaud Williams and guard Lawrence Smith. The restricted free agents are receiver Sam Aiken and linebackers Josh Stamer and Mario Haggan. Making offers to most of those players will add about $1.7 more to the Bills' current cap total.
The Bills will need about $1.5 million in extra space -- above what's already being counted for the top 51 players on the roster -- to sign all their draft choices. Those costs won't hit the Bills' cap until July or August when the rookies sign their deals.
The cost for Clements, the tender offers for young free agents and the rookies adds up to about $9 million.
That puts the Bills at $93.5 million, not counting Williams' big July bonus.
So it's easy to see why Williams must take a big cut, and some other restructuring must take place.
Williams is signed through 2007. Cutting him would save $4.9 million. He still would count $5.9 million against the cap, because past bonus money he already has received that is being credited to the Bills' books in 2006 and 2007 would "roll into" this year's cap.
The Bills decided Williams was better suited at guard last season. He's not eager to play guard. He sat out the last five games last year with a back injury, to the dismay of former coach Mike Mularkey, who insisted on calling it a chest injury. Williams is widely viewed as a bust within the locker room. He has not shown the temperament to be outstanding. It's likely he would rather have a change of scenery.
Moulds is signed through 2007 as well. Cutting him would save $5.5 million, and he still would count $5.3 million against the cap.
Cutting both Williams and Moulds would put the Bills at about $86 million, counting all the charges for Clements, the draft picks and the restricted players. That would be roughly $7 million under a cap of $93 million, plenty to do some serious free-agent shopping.
Moulds is scheduled to make a base salary of $6 million. It would be no surprise if the Bills asked him to reduce that to $2 or $3 million. That would give Moulds the chance to refuse a pay cut and leave for some other team that has more realistic playoff hopes in 2006.
Where else might the Bills save money? Defensive tackle Sam Adams ranks tied for sixth on the Bills' cap pay scale, with a cost of $3.87 million. He would be a certain cut if Mike Mularkey still were the coach, but Mularkey's departure changes the outlook. The Bills could use Adams. If they ask him to take a pay cut he could depart. Because Mularkey relegated Adams to a spot-duty reserve the second half of the season, Adams lost out on at least $500,000 in a playing-time bonus.
If the Bills released Williams, Moulds and Adams or significantly reduced their contracts, there probably would not be a great need to find more savings elsewhere on the roster. Safety Lawyer Milloy is eighth on the cap list at $3.75 million. He's due to receive $2.5 million this year. Strong-side linebacker Jeff Posey is in the last year of his contract with a cap figure of $2.18 million. His release would save $1.75 million, but the Bills don't have an obvious replacement for him.