INDIANAPOLIS — The numbers are ugly. This is a Buffalo Bills team pinching pennies this offseason.
After last year’s spending spree, the Bills were currently over the NFL’s projected salary cap by more than $700,000 early on Thursday. Other teams have money to burn, but these 8-8 Bills? General Manager Doug Whaley is already restructuring contracts. First up was tight end Charles Clay, whose reworked deal now gives Buffalo some breathing room.
Bring up the team's salary-cap situation to agents, to other NFL GM’s and they roll their eyes. They're at a loss for words. They don't know what the team's master plan is or how they'll escape this jam.
Yet speaking in a hallway here at Lucas Oil Stadium, Whaley remains as cool, calm, confident as ever, sounding more like a general manager with $50 million of cap space overseeing a title contender.
“I think it’s a good issue to have — we have good players and we can’t keep them all," Whaley said. "Is that a bad thing? It’s bad because you can’t keep them all. But I have to give it to our scouting staff. We’ve made some very good choices in building this team.”
Reworking Clay's deal is a start. His $10 million roster bonus next month was likely converted to a signing bonus, cutting Clay's cap figure by more than 50 percent. That clears $7.5 million off the team's cap.
Now, it’s nearing decision time with the two players Whaley identified as top priorities: left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito.
The team could release end Mario Williams and use that $12.9 million toward the estimated $13.7 million it'd cost to place the franchise tag on Cordy Glenn. In a weak free agency class for tackles, Glenn is expected to be in high demand with a "floor" of $10 million per year on any long-term deal. Incognito won't be cheap, either. One source said several teams will be interested in the guard who turned his career around last season.
So, no, affording both will not be easy.
Whaley still believes the Bills and Senior VP of Football Administration Jim Overdorf can realistically find a way to make it happen.
“We’ve always been able to do what we needed to do to get where we want to go,” Whaley said. “We won’t be able to sign everybody but we have a wish list and I feel confident what we’ll be able to get done on the wish list. Giving you a guarantee? Until they sign on the dotted line, you never know. But I feel confident.
“Is it going to be a difficult situation and something where we’re going to have to maneuver some things? Absolutely. But that’s what makes it exciting.”
Exciting is one way to put it. Thirteen teams will have more than $30 million in cap space when free agency begins. The Bills? They’re turning down the thermostat.
In addition to Clay, the team itself notes defensive backs Leodis McKelvin ($4.9 million cap hit in 2016) and Corey Graham ($4.7 million) as two players also subject to restructured deals. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams ($8 million) could also be a possibility. On top of Glenn, Incognito and inside linebacker Nigel Bradham are a slew of restricted free agents to consider. Even low tenders to the likes of Corbin Bryant, Chris Hogan and Bacarri Rambo would add up.
There’s certainly no magic-wand solution but, piece by piece, Buffalo can gain more room.
And then, Whaley will also need to think long term with two other players: quarterback Tyrod Taylor and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Does Taylor warrant franchise quarterback money? Is Gilmore a lockdown corner worth up to $13M-$15M per year? Both enter contract seasons. Whaley did say the Bills reached out to Taylor’s agent, Adisa Bakari, and the two sides planned on meeting this week.
“This is a week where we’ll delve more into it," Whaley said. "We’ll see where it goes.”
However you slice it, the Bills will be counting on two, three, maybe even four rookies to play immediately. They'll need to hit the bull's eye in April.
Not that Whaley is worried at all. He doesn't drop a bead of sweat.
Multiple times, the GM said the Bills could find instant contributors as late as the third and fourth rounds. Considering Mario Williams (and possibly Kyle Williams) could be gone, the team needs a pass rusher opposite Jerry Hughes and Rex Ryan may hand the keys of his defense to a new inside linebacker, they better. Buffalo won't have the money to sign a wave of starters in free agency.
“The best thing about this is it’s deep this year in the front seven,” Whaley said. “So this is a great draft for areas of perceived needs for us, so we’re excited about it.”
Earlier during his session with reporters, Whaley said the Bills could realistically draft a player “at any and every position.” That’s not necessarily a good sign, but probably true.
The margin for error is thin in Buffalo, money is tight and, yes, the Bills will need to deliver on draft day to be a legitimate contender in 2016.