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When it comes to salary cap, rebuilding Bills are in an enviable position

This is the first of a three-part series analyzing the Bills' salary-cap situation entering the free-agency signing period in March. Read the second and third parts here and here.

The Buffalo Bills have at least a two- to three-year window of opportunity to flex their spending muscle against the rest of the NFL.

The Bills are in great salary cap shape not just this year, but in 2020. Buffalo has about $79.4 million in cap space for the upcoming season, which ranks third most in the NFL, behind only Indianapolis ($107 million) and the New York Jets ($95 million), according to the sports salary website Spotrac.com.

The Bills are No. 1 in cap space for 2020 at $123 million. The cap-space numbers for 2020 obviously are going to change a lot depending on spending this year. But the Bills are sure to be among the cap-space leaders, because they have so few huge contracts locked in on the current roster.

What’s more, the Bills have another big cap-space advantage for the short term: Josh Allen’s cost-controlled rookie contract.

The Bills’ quarterback has a cap hit of just $4.8 million this year and $5.7 million in 2020. The 22 highest-paid QBs in the NFL all have cap hits of $19.6 million or more for 2019, and the nine highest-paid QBs all are at $25 million or more.

The two biggest factors that will determine the Bills’ fortunes for the next five to seven years are:

1. The development of Allen.

2. How well Bills General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott utilize this spending advantage. Even if Allen and the McBeane duo fail, the upcoming spending decisions the next couple of years will greatly impact the next regime.

Does this mean the Bills should spend wildly the next two years? Not necessarily. As the Bills have seen in the past, big deals only are as good as player production. Think Marcell Dareus. Or Charles Clay. Or Derrick Dockery.

“I think you have to look at where you are as a football team,” said Charley Casserly, the former NFL general manager and current NFL Network analyst. “The Bills are in a rebuilding situation. You have to be smart with your money, meaning players you want to sign are guys going into their second contract if you’re going to do big deals. Not third contract. And you take the best player available because they have multiple needs.”

“If you can pick up three, you’ve hit a grand slam,” Casserly said, referring to big-ticket free-agent signings. “If you pick up one or two who really help you, that’s good. Then obviously you’re going to have to take advantage of the draft and it’s going to be a multi-year process.”

The last two NFC Super Bowl qualifiers, the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams, are examples of teams that capitalized on cheap rookie QB contracts in building the roster.

The Eagles in 2018 had five players on contracts that average $10 million or more and 15 players averaging $6 million or more. Philadelphia drafted QB Carson Wentz in 2016.

The Rams had seven players averaging $10-plus million and 13 averaging $6-plus million. Los Angeles drafted QB Jared Goff in 2016. But Wentz and Goff stepped into good talent pools. The Eagles, for instance, already had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

The Bills are staring at a virtual blank financial slate.

They have just one $10 million-per-year player – defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who is one year into a five-year deal worth $50 million.

The Bills have just four other players making an average of $6 million a year – LeSean McCoy, Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy and Micah Hyde. McCoy and Hughes are entering the final year of their contracts.

Only one other team (San Francisco) has just one $10 million player. The NFL average is four $10 million players per team and 10 players at $6 million or more.

The Bills aren’t the only ones in this bull-market situation with a young QB.

Cleveland and the Jets, who like the Bills drafted their franchise QB in 2018, have loads of cap space. The Browns have been living in a “cap bubble” for three years now, largely due to the fact they “tanked” in 2016 and 2017, shedding high-priced players. The Browns started spending last offseason under new General Manager John Dorsey.

Kansas City will benefit from the cheap contract of star QB Patrick Mahomes the next couple of years. But the Chiefs already have assembled a strong cast and aren’t in the top half of the league in cap space this year or next.

The Eagles handed out a bunch of big contracts in 2016 and 2017 to players such as Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Brandon Graham and Alshon Jeffrey, all of which were aided by the fact Wentz’s contract was taking up such little space.

"Understand that there's no way to do everything in one offseason,” Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman told reporters before last year’s Super Bowl.

Casserly agrees.

“Bills fans should not get their hopes up of an immediate turnaround,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a process."

The Rams, aided by Goff’s deal, handed out big contracts to Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Brandin Cooks and Andrew Whitworth, among others.

But not every successful team spends big as soon as a lot of cap space opens.

Given Beane’s repeated comments about spending wisely – "We intend to be active in the free agent market, but we will be calculated with those decisions," he wrote in a letter to fans last week – there’s a fair chance the Indianapolis Colts are more a model for his outlook than the Eagles and Rams.

Indianapolis entered each of the last two shopping seasons in the top 10 in cap space. Yet General Manager Chris Ballard stuck mostly to mid-tier signings.

The Colts have a lot of money invested in veteran QB Andrew Luck; his cap hit for 2019 is $27.525 million. But they have only three $10-million-a-year players and only three others at more than $6 million a year. That’s why the Colts enter this offseason at No. 1 in cap space.

Ballard’s approach has been aided by the fact he drafted well the past two years. He won the NFL Executive of the Year award for 2018 from the Pro Football Writers of America.

“They’ve done an excellent job in the draft, and he rebuilt the offensive line in a smart way,” Casserly said. “And, of course, Luck came back and was one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.”

Then there is New England. The Patriots had just two $10 million-plus players in 2018 (Tom Brady and Stephon Gilmore) and only six others making $6 million a year or more. New England has a lot of money invested in middle-class players, making between $2 million and $5 million a year. Coach Bill Belichick has a knack for getting the most value out of those players.

Rookie contracts are locked in for the first three years. After that they can be renegotiated, which is what Seattle did with Russell Wilson and Oakland did with Derek Carr. Indianapolis and Carolina waited until after the fourth year to extend the deals of Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, respectively. Or a team could use the franchise tag as leverage and wait until after the fifth year to try to extend a first-round QB’s contract.

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