The bottom line on the salary cap story for Buffalo Bills fans is this: The Bills have plenty of room to improve their team for the 2009 season.
The key questions two weeks before the free-agency season starts are: Will they make the right decisions? How much will they spend in free agency? And how much more space will they create by releasing high-priced veterans?
The Bills have about $24 million in cap space under the league-wide cap figure of $123 million, according to Buffalo News figures.
That should be plenty of room with which to enter the free-agency shopping market and fill a variety of holes, such as: center, tight end, outside linebacker, backup quarterback, pass rushing depth, safety and perhaps a wide receiver.
The team can fill a few needs via the draft in April. But it is going to need to get to work in free agency if it wants to climb out of the basement of the AFC East.
The highest priced player on Buffalo's salary cap list is receiver Lee Evans, who signed a four-year contract extension in October. Evans' cap figure is $9.87 million, and that includes a base salary of $9 million this year.
Each player's salary cap figure is made up of the actual salary and bonus money he will receive, plus any amortized bonus money paid out in previous years. (A $5 million signing bonus, for instance, counts $1 million a year over a five-year contract.)
Behind Evans are defensive end Aaron Schobel ($8.57 million), guard Derrick Dockery ($5.85 million), Chris Kelsay ($5.6 million), and tackle Langston Walker ($5.50 million).
The rest of the Bills' top 10 are: safety Donte Whitner ($4.92 million), cornerback Terrence McGee ($4.37 million), defensive tackle Marcus Stroud ($4.17 million), tackle Jason Peters ($4.05 million), and defensive tackle Spencer Johnson ($3.5 million).
The biggest question at the top of the Bills' salary structure is what they will do with Peters, who wants a new deal and who held out until the brink of the regular season last year to express his displeasure.
While Peters' play early in 2008 did not match his level of the previous season, he clearly is the Bills' best offensive lineman. He's arguably the most talented player on the Buffalo roster. He also has the respect of opposing players and coaches, as evidenced by a second straight Pro Bowl selection. If the Bills give Peters a new deal and sign a center, everyone would be playing under renegotiated deals; no one would be on an entry-level contract. The Bills could opt for a center in the draft.
Budgeting for a new Peters deal could prompt a cutback elsewhere on the line. The two highest-paid linemen are Dockery and Walker.
Other higher-priced players who could be victims of salary savings include defensive tackle John McCargo ($1.83 million), who the team tried to trade last season, and tight end Robert Royal ($2.23 million), who's in the last year of his contract.
Almost all teams in the NFL operate on a "cash-to-cap" basis, meaning they do not want to spend more in real cash outlays than the actual salary cap total of $123 million. (It's relatively easy for teams to spend more than the cap limit in a given year, because cap rules allow teams to amortize a signing bonus over the life of the contract for cap purposes.)
In 2007, the Bills spent about $3 million more than the league-wide cap of $109 million. Last year Buffalo was about $12 million under the $116 million cap in real cash spending, according to News figures. That was fairly common for the NFL. Only 10 of 32 teams spent more than $116 million in actual cash, according to ESPN's John Clayton.
This year the Bills entered the offseason roughly $38 million in cash under the cap to spend. That was before counting any increases for players who hit salary escalators in their contracts due to good performance in 2008.
Another salary cap quirk to note: The Bills' actual cap will be roughly $10 million higher than the league-wide norm of $123 million. Every team's cap is adjusted up or down slightly based on charges left over from the previous season. The change is mostly from incentives in contracts that either had been charged against the cap in 2008 but were not earned or had not been charged against the cap but were earned. Many teams build in these bonuses that they know players will not earn as a way to raise their cap "roof," so to speak.