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Bills near bottom in payroll Figures reflect few marquee stars

The Buffalo Bills have the eighth least expensive team in the NFL this season.

The total value of all of the contracts of all 80 players the Bills took to training camp this summer was $487.88 million. That ranked 25th out of 32 in the NFL this year, based on league documents obtained by The Buffalo News.

The top spending team -- again based on the total value of the contracts of all the players at training camp -- was Minnesota, at $736.87 million. Among the other teams near the top were some of the biggest-spending big market teams, such as No. 2 Philadelphia ($721.22 million), No. 3 Dallas ($715.40 million) and No. 4 Washington ($676.88 million).

At the bottom were four teams in total rebuilding mode: No. 32 Kansas City ($392.13 million), No. 31 Tampa Bay ($404.39 million), No. 30 Detroit ($426.35 million) and No. 29 Denver ($428.99 million).

It should be noted that teams will not end up giving all this money to the players on their roster. The figures include some exorbitant salaries at the end of some giant contracts that those players won't see. Some of those players either will get cut or renegotiate their contracts before those payments get made.

Still, the figures reflect the number of marquee players on each team's roster and each organization's willingness to hand out big contracts.

The Bills do not have many marquee players. Their biggest -- receiver Terrell Owens -- is on a one-year deal worth $6.5 million. The Bills also are saving money over many teams at quarterback. Trent Edwards still has two years left on his first contract, and it's scheduled to pay him only $1.2 million over the next two years.
An analysis of NFL salary data also shows that Buffalo is one of the more cost-conscious organizations in the way it adheres to a cash-to-cap policy of budgeting.

Even though Buffalo is 25th in overall contracts, the Bills rank 11th in the NFL in roster bonuses, with $73.9 million going to players via that method.

A roster bonus gets paid in full to a player on a specific date -- often in March -- and all of it counts toward the team's salary cap in the season it is given.

It's different from a signing bonus. That is given when a player signs the contract, and it is amortized over the length of the deal. For example, in 2008 Pittsburgh signed quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to an eight-year contract with a $25 million signing bonus. That bonus counts $3.12 million against the Steelers' cap for each of the eight years Big Ben is under contract.

By using the signing bonus extensively, big-spending teams are able to spend more in real dollars than the actual salary cap for a given year (which for 2009 is $127.9 million).

The Bills employed signing bonuses too much in the late 1990s, which caused them to run into cap problems in 2001 and '02. Still, big-spending teams can use signing bonuses fairly liberally without getting into "cap jail."

The benefit of using the roster bonus over the signing bonus is it allows teams to adhere to the cash-to-cap policy -- which means not spending more in real dollars than the cap limit.

The Bills by no means are alone in spending cash to cap. Only about nine of 32 teams in 2008 spent cash over the cap, according to ESPN's John Clayton.

The downside of the cash-to-cap plan is a team "fills up" its salary cap quicker. Roster bonuses given out this year included: $3 million to Aaron Schobel, and $1.5 million each to Langston Walker, Kyle Williams, Spencer Johnson and Roscoe Parrish. All that money counted toward this year's cap.

The Bills have about $11 million in space under the cap after their recent roster cutdown, according to News figures.

That may sound like a lot, but it isn't. The Bills probably will wind up spending close to the cap limit, as they usually do. That $11 million gives the Bills enough room to sign a player or maybe two to a contract extension, if they choose to do so.

They also need a fair amount of space to account for season-ending injuries. A player who goes on injured reserve generally still counts his full salary toward the cap. If the Bills had a year like 2007, in which they put 19 players on IR, they would be in a cap crunch the second half of the season.

The fact the Bills are not swimming in cap dollars also shows that given the way they handed out roster bonuses, they did not have a lot of room to do more free agent shopping this winter than they did.

Big defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth? Signing him wasn't even a dream for the Bills given their use of roster bonuses.

The Bills, in fact, were so overloaded toward roster bonuses before the 2009 fiscal year started (in March) that they restructured the contracts of Lee Evans, Kawika Mitchell and Johnson, to put a bit more money under the pro-rated category (signing bonus money).

It didn't make any difference to the players. They still got the same amount of money. But it created a bit more cap space for the Bills.

In terms of the Bills' self-imposed cash-to-cap philosophy, they have about $20 million in room, according to News figures.

The reason there is more room, cash to cap, is because the cash-to-cap accounting does not include amortized bonus payments from previous years.

Had they wanted to do it, the Bills had the cash space to re-sign tackle Jason Peters. They may have had to restructure more contracts to create the actual cap space to do it, depending on how they structured the deal.

Handing out big contracts -- and lots of them -- doesn't necessarily equal big success on the field in the NFL.

Washington perennially ranks near the top in overall contracts but has just one playoff win this decade.

New England gets great value for its dollar. The Patriots rank 22nd in 2009 spending. Champion Pittsburgh is 19th. NFC champ Arizona is 28th.

New England, however, is a big-market team that gives itself a lot of cap flexibility. The Patriots rank third in amount of money that is pro-rated (via signing bonuses). They have $190.8 million pro-rated versus $114.7 million for Buffalo.

The cash-to-cap plan puts an even higher importance on making the right choices in free agency. The Bills and the other two-thirds of the league don't have the luxury of "spending their way out of mistakes," like the Cowboys or the Redskins could do.

The total salary figures for each team count base salaries, pro-rated totals, roster bonuses, reporting bonuses, workout bonuses and likely-to-be-earned bonuses (which typically are tied to playing time).

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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