The Buffalo Bills have put themselves in a no-win situation with running back Mike Gillislee.
Matching the two-year, $6.4-million contract offer made to him by the New England Patriots as a restricted free agent means the Bills will be paying $4 million in 2017 to a backup.
Declining to do so would bring the Bills a fifth-round draft pick, but also result in losing a player who led the NFL in yards per carry (5.7) and scored nine rushing touchdowns on just 101 carries in 2016. Additionally, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Gillislee produced first downs on 38.6 percent of his carries and converted third-down carries 75 percent of the time, both of which led the NFL.
So, neither of those are ideal scenarios.
Who should take the blame for that? General Manager Doug Whaley is undoubtedly getting his share, but it should be split with Jim Overdorf, the team’s senior vice president of football operations. His continued mismanagement of the salary cap has left the Bills vulnerable to having an offensive contributor poached from their roster for the second straight offseason by the Patriots, of all teams. As colleague Vic Carucci pointed out earlier Wednesday, that's an embarrassing scenario for the Bills.
Last year, because they were tight against the cap, the Bills couldn’t match a contract offer from the Pats to restricted free agent wide receiver Chris Hogan. With virtually no space under the salary cap heading into the 2016 offseason, the Bills put the lowest tender on Hogan, for one year and $1.65 million. Because he was undrafted, that meant the Bills wouldn’t receive any compensation if he signed elsewhere and they elected not to match.
Had the Bills used the second-round tender on Hogan, it would have cost about $850,000 more, but basically guaranteed he would return in 2016, since no team would give up a second-round pick as compensation for signing Hogan.
The Patriots pounced with a $12 million offer that had a cap hit of $5.5 million in 2016, which the Bills couldn’t match.
Fast forward to this year, and the situation is similar. Had the Bills put a second-round tender on Gillislee, it would have cost $2.746 million, which is exactly $949,000 more than the original-round tender of $1.797 million the team gave him. Like with Hogan, the second-round tender would have guaranteed Gillislee would be back in 2017.
The Bills, who have until Monday to make their decision on whether to match New England’s offer, have $10.8 million in space under the salary cap. That includes Gillislee’s current tender. If they match, the team will add about $2.2 million to their cap, leaving them with $8.6 million with which to get their draft picks signed and have enough for roster moves that arise during the season. Last year, the six players drafted in the slots the Bills currently hold for the 2017 draft counted about $5.84 million against the salary cap. With inflation, the Bills should need about $6 million this season for their drafted rookies, although only about $2.5 million of that would count against the cap in the offseason, when only a team’s top 51 contracts count against the cap.
The bottom line is, the Bills have the cap space if they want to match Gillislee’s offer, particularly with more breathing room opening up after June 1 following the release of Aaron Williams.
Should they match? That’s where it gets interesting.
If they did, Gillislee would immediately become one of the highest-paid backup running backs in the NFL. But is that such a bad thing for a team that has been so run heavy? LeSean McCoy will be 29 at the start of next season and has missed time in each of the last two years because of injury. While those haven’t been major, if he were to miss an extended amount of time, the Bills don’t have anyone they could plug into the starting lineup with the confidence Gillislee has inspired.
Although he’ll be 27 next season, Gillislee has just 154 career carries. That’s hardly any mileage. McCoy, for comparison, will go over 2,000 career carries next season.
Fred Jackson immediately comes to mind as a running back who established himself in the NFL at an advanced age.
If the Bills let Gillislee go, the backup running back job will be left to 2016 fifth-round draft pick Jonathan Williams, at least for now. He proved very little in his rookie year. The Bills also will take Joe Banyard and Cedric O’Neal to training camp, while veteran Mike Tolbert has experience at both running back and fullback.
The draft could also provide Gillislee’s replacement, maybe even with the pick they would get from New England. Running back, the thinking goes, are a dime a dozen.
It’s not quite as simple as that, though. Since entering the NFL in 2013, Gillislee ranks 75th in rushing yardage. Just eight players ahead of him were drafted in the fifth round or later – or went undrafted – in the years that followed and have more career yardage.
While Whaley has done a decent job at plucking players off the scrap heap, as he did with Gillislee, depending on players found on the waiver wire to build a winner is not something any team wants to make habit. Gillislee’s contributions, after all, came on a 7-9 team a year ago.
There is also a school of thought being floated that the Bills tendered Gillislee the way they did because they hoped another team would match and give them a draft pick. Does anyone see this front office being so shrewd?
Ultimately, the decision on what to do with Gillislee likely won’t have a drastic impact on the Bills’ 2017 season. If I were making the decision, I’d bring him back, if only because it’s one less roster decision I’d have to make. Cap space at this point in the offseason isn’t that big of a concern, and the team could always restructure contracts to free some more up.
What is a concern, however, is how the team put itself in the exact same situation from a year ago. It’s not a good look for Whaley and Overdorf, which is said far too often.