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Inside the Bills: How GM Brandon Beane views the changing nature of free agency

The Buffalo Bills will have more spending power in 2018.

Since taking over in May, General Manager Brandon Beane has gone to work on cleaning up the mess that was the Bills’ salary cap.

“We made some headway this year with the cap to be able to roll over a decent amount of money, which will help,” Beane told reporters last month at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. “We'll find out closer to” the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis “what the new cap is. That will tell us. We have an idea, but you never know until then. If we need more cap room, we’re not just going to kick the can down the road but if we need to do something now to help us get better and compete in 2018 we'll make that move.”

While Beane and coach Sean McDermott scouted some of the top college prospects last week, the team’s pro scouting staff was back in Orchard Park, preparing for the start of free agency. With the Senior Bowl in the books, Beane joined in on those meetings.

It’s impossible to put an exact figure on how much cap space the Bills will have because the NFL has not released what the 2018 salary cap will be, but it has risen at least $10 million a year over the past four seasons, and was at $167 million in 2017. Using a projected cap of $176 million, ESPN’s Stats and Information projects the Bills to have about $36 million in space. Contract website has the Bills at just over $31 million in space, which ranks 16th in the NFL.

“It’s kind of a moving puzzle because what happens is, you have your UFAs right now, but those change,” Beane said at the Bills’ season-ending press conference. “Teams re-sign guys. Then you add in teams make cap moves, the cap casualties — ‘OK, I didn’t realize this guy.’ We have some guys flagged that could be potential cap casualties, but until those moves happen, you don’t know.

“Until you get to free agency, sometimes you really don’t know the dollars. You price where you think these guys are going to be. Sometimes they price themselves out. Sometimes you go, ‘wow, this guy’s a little cheaper than we thought, let’s try and hone in on him.’ We’ll have targets when the time is right. We’ve already started that process and we’ll try and fill as many holes as we can, which helps us in the draft.”

Free agency used to be thought of as fool’s gold. The Washington Redskins, for example, were laughing stocks for how often owner Dan Snyder spent big, only to see the moves continually blow up on him.

In an illuminating look at what he thinks could become the next trend in the league, Kevin Clark of recently published an in-depth look at how don’t – or shouldn’t – continue to look at free agency the same way.

“All the room to spend has changed the way teams think about money,” Clark wrote. “Multiple league executives, coaches, and experts told me that it is changing the way teams are built at an unprecedented pace and turned free agency from a last resort into a legitimate team-building strategy, like it has in other sports.

“The draft still matters, but for the first time, nailing free agency might be as important as acing your first-round pick.”

As evidence, Clark points out that the six of the top 10 spenders in 2017 free agency – the Patriots, Titans, Rams, Vikings, Panthers and Jaguars – all made the postseason.

With their run defense needing to be addressed during the regular season, the Jaguars had plenty of space under the salary cap to make a trade for Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus before the deadline.

“Teams in general have done a better job of staying ahead of the curve and less teams have kicked the can down the road, as far as the credit card formula,” Beane said, referring to the buy-it-now, pay-for-it-later approach to backloading contracts. “So I think teams have done that, plus the league revenue has grown exponentially the last four or five years to give these big cap increases, plus when you don't spend it, now you're rolling it over. Now you've got some good money to work with.”

Even without a ton of spending power last year, the Bills upgraded their roster through free agency. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer became one of the best safety duos in the NFL and should be cornerstones of the secondary for years to come. Kicker Stephen Hauschka was a big upgrade over Dan Carpenter. Even low-priced additions like Leonard Johnson, Ryan Davis, Andre Holmes and Vlad Ducasse were contributors to varying degrees.

The Bills could open up more cap space by cutting or trading their two highest-paid players in quarterback Tyrod Taylor and left tackle Cordy Glenn, both of whom are expendable.

That would push their available cap space to more than $40 million. While that’s not close to the league leaders, it would put them near the top 10 in the league. San Francisco ($119 million), Cleveland ($112 million), Indianapolis ($84 million) and the New York Jets ($80 million) have the most projected cap space, according to Spotrac.

“For most teams, you can spend at the deep end and buy one or two players, or do you want to divide it up and buy five,” Beane said. “I think it depends on where you're at in your roster. Are we two to three really good players from being really good, or do we have a lot of holes to fill? I think that has to go into your thinking, of how you spend your free agency money.”

Even with free agency taking on added importance in roster building, Beane said it’s not without risks.

“You get back into culture, though. When you draft and develop, you know what you're getting,” he said. “You know what you drafted. A lot of times these guys, you're able to shape them when you draft them, versus a guy that's been somewhere, he's got his mind made up how he wants to do things. There still are fits, but I think it's a little easier to fit a guy in that you draft and mold versus a guy that's been somewhere else with his own ideals. So that comes into play, too.

“You have to be careful with the free agents that you bring in, that they do fit your culture, no matter where they are on the price range, $3 million a year or $15 million a year.”

One other consideration when it comes to free agency is the impact it has on the formula for compensatory draft picks. Last year, because of how many additions the Bills made, they are not expected to land any compensatory picks this year.

"I will be very cognizant of the comp formula," Beane said at the end of the season. "When I walked in, it was too far to really do much with it. But I do believe in it and we'll definitely pay attention to it when it makes sense."

The Bills still have a massive amount of "dead money," which is the amount of cap space taken up by players no longer on the roster, whether they were cut, got traded or retired. The Bills' total is more than $18 million, according to Spotrac, $14 million of which comes from the trade of Dareus. The dead money will go up once center Eric Wood officially retires.

The good news, though, is that the Bills' cap situation looks rosy moving forward. Spotrac estimates the Bills to have more than $85 million in projected cap space for 2019, which is fifth in the NFL.

A Sammy reunion?

It doesn’t take much on social media to get Bills fans excited.

So when former wide receiver Sammy Watkins seemed to suggest that he might be open to a reunion with his former team, it raised a few eyebrows.

In an interaction with a fellow Twitter user who pointed out that his profile picture still showed him in a Bills uniform, Watkins said, “you never know, this business is pure insanity,” when the fan told him to come back and help Buffalo win the AFC East.

Watkins is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, although it has been speculated that the Rams will use the franchise tag on him.

Cousins talk

The trade of Alex Smith to Washington means that quarterback Kirk Cousins will likely test the open market. As such, there will be no shortage of speculation on where he might land. ESPN published an article Thursday in which anonymous NFL executives gave their predictions on Cousins' next home.

The Bills were listed by author Mike Sando as "one team execs were less sure about."

"Buffalo is an interesting one," Sando quotes an executive. "You have to consider that. They are on the upswing. There is positive there. Something worries me a little. They got rid of the other guy (Tyrod Taylor) so cold-heartedly when they benched him. That kind of worries me."

That's a bizarre thing to worry about. The Bills had Taylor take a $10 million pay cut before bringing him back, so it's not like they were convinced he was going to be their franchise quarterback. There was also nothing "cold hearted" about the move. The Bills thought Peterman would give them a better chance to win. He didn't, so the team went back to Taylor.

None of that would seem to have any impact on their possible interest in Cousins, nor should it impact his potential interest in the franchise.

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