The one thing you can never question about Doug Whaley is his guts. Time and again, the Bills’ general manager has shown a willingness to roll the dice, to take a big risk and scoff in the face of criticism and conventional wisdom.
That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wise. Sometimes, a daring move is also a reckless one. On the night when Whaley dealt away a first-round pick to trade up for Sammy Watkins, he admitted he was putting his reputation on the line.
Whaley has stuck his neck out again with some of his recent roster moves, in particular his decisions to cut Fred Jackson and Matt Cassel, two veterans with diminished skills but vital leadership qualities on a young, fragile squad.
I’m no fan of Cassel, a proven mediocrity who would have been an uninspired choice as the No. 1 quarterback. But it’s risky for a team with lofty playoff aspirations to go into the season without an established guy as backup, or even a No. 3.
EJ Manuel, who was reduced to the scout team late in training camp, is now the No. 2 behind Tyrod Taylor. Cassel, who took first-team reps for much of camp and was given limited work in the preseason games, is sent on his merry way.
It makes a confounding QB competition seem even odder in retrospect. Taylor was a bold, worthy choice as the starter. But did Manuel really surpass Cassel in the coaches’ eyes because of two good preseason performances?
This seems like a typical case of a GM favoring his own guy. To a great degree, Whaley’s reputation is tied to Manuel’s, whether he likes it or not. This makes two years in a row where the QB situation was in flux a week before the opener. That reflects poorly on the GM.
Whaley was a major voice in the decision to reach for Manuel in the first round of the draft and doubled down on his faith in EJ with the trade for Watkins a year later. So it’s hardly a surprise that Whaley would see Manuel’s late surge as justification for making him the backup.
Cutting Jackson was another case of the GM going with his own guys (Karlos Williams, Bryce Brown). Brown cost Whaley a conditional fourth-round pick last year and did little to justify it. Granted, Jackson is 10 years older than Brown, but that was also the case when he soundly outplayed him a year ago.
But the Bills are a risk-taking operation, even more so with Rex Ryan as the coach. Ryan’s defensive philosophy is built on taking risks and exposing his unit to big plays. In that way, Whaley is the perfect GM, someone who isn’t afraid to gamble and expose his team to calamity.
Much of this, naturally, comes down to money. Cutting Jackson and Cassel saved the Bills about $7 million in cap space. That’s cash that Whaley can use to put together a long-term contract extension for Marcell “Dime A Dozen” Dareus, who was insulted by an offer reported to be in the $90 million range.
Ryan and the Bills are basing their playoff hopes on a dominant defense. Dareus, who made the Pro Bowl last season, is a big part of that. They can’t risk having Dareus hold back in games because he believes the organization hasn’t made a full financial commitment to him.
Four of the five biggest salary cap hits on this year’s Bills roster are defensive linemen (if you include LB/DE Jerry Hughes). They account for roughly $40 million of their salary cap: Dareus ($8.06M), Mario Williams ($19.4M), Kyle Williams ($6.95M) and Jerry Hughes ($6.175M).
They have about $10 million of cap space available; they have the resources to make Dareus one of the richest defenders in the sport. But the clock is ticking. There are murmurs that if the Dareus deal isn’t done by next weekend, it won’t happen until after the season.
It would have been smart, albeit risky, to extend Dareus when he had his off-field troubles last year. Management stood by Dareus when he was under fire. I said they should cut him. But they believed in him, and they might have saved a bundle if they had backed it up with a new contract.
The clock is also ticking on the Buffalo defense, as Tim Graham detailed in our NFL preview season. The Bills are trying to sustain a top defensive unit for three years or more, which is difficult to pull off in today’s NFL.
Ryan believes you can win with elite defense and average quarterback play. So the Bills are investing heavily on the defensive side and at the skill positions on offense, while saving money at quarterback.
There are 16 NFL teams (half the league) committing $15 million or more of salary cap space to quarterbacks this season. That’s roughly 10 percent of the cap. After cutting Cassel, the Bills are spending $3.3 million of cap space for their QB, about 2.2 percent of the $146 million cap limit.
Whaley wants his defense to be fully locked and loaded and financially content for the most anticipated Bills season in many years. That means opening the vault for Dareus, who will miss the opener while serving a one-game suspension for his indiscretions in 2014.
It’s a difficult balancing act, but that’s the plight for the modern GM. You make hard choices. That means giving the stars the big money – including outsized contracts for LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay – and keeping lower-priced players at the expense of middle-class cap veterans.
Whaley is gambling that the financial calculus will all work out, that a highly paid defense will be so dominant that Buffalo will be the rare team that makes the playoffs with average quarterback play.
But it’s a fragile construct. What if the running backs falter, or the locker room implodes? What if Taylor gets hurt and Manuel fails again as the starter? What if the Bills finish .500 or worse after all the hype and wind up in the same fix they were a year earlier?
The onus will fall on the general manager, the one who took all the risks. Whaley says the NFL is a “results-driven business,” and he’s right.
It’s great to gamble, but at some point, if it doesn’t pay off, it’s only fair when people ask, “Where are the results?”