Is there such a thing as a fiscally responsible spending spree?
If there is, the best example might be Brandon Beane’s approach to free agency this offseason.
Yes, the Buffalo Bills’ general manager handed out contracts to 18 unrestricted free agents that could be worth a staggering $180 million, but that’s if every player makes it through the life of their deal – a virtual uncertainty. Focus instead on the amount of money committed to this year’s salary cap – a total just shy of $63 million – and it’s clear that Beane was planning for both the present and future when he signed those contracts.
“I want to try and be fiscally responsible,” Beane said. Team owners Terry and Kim Pegula “let us use what we need to use, but we just got out of cap jail, or whatever you want to call it. You don't want to turn around and start heading there. Because you can get there fast trying to chase things.”
Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the Bills missed out on some of their intended targets in free agency. Some wanted to play for a particular coach or in a particular city, but with others, their price tag rose to an uncomfortable point for Beane.
“The goal was, 'Let's try and fill as many of these positions as we can with guys that we think fit what we do,’ ” Beane said.
That meant staying within a budget and having a walk-away point.
“For the most part, I think we stayed true to that,” Beane said.
That wasn't always true before Beane arrived. When he took over, he told the Pegulas that it would likely take two or three years to clean up the Bills’ cap situation. Contracts like the ones signed by Charles Clay, Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams, among plenty of others, put the Bills in salary-cap jail – being unable to sign or re-sign free agents because of a lack of available space – while not paying an exorbitant price at the game’s most expensive position, quarterback.
The result was the Bills eating a ridiculous amount of “dead money,” which has been paid out to players no longer on the team, but still required to be counted on the salary cap in 2018. Buffalo’s total dead money last year sailed past $50 million, easily the most in the NFL. It accounted for more than 30 percent of the team’s cap charges, the second most in the NFL since the current collective bargaining agreement went into place in 2011, trailing only the 2013 Oakland Raiders.
A part of that staggering amount of dead money can be attributed to bad luck. Beane extended center Eric Wood’s contract before the start of the 2017 season, but a career-ending neck injury meant he couldn’t play out the deal. Mostly, though, the Bills last year dealt with the sins of the past.
That’s behind them now, which allowed for the offseason shopping spree, conservative as it may have been.
“We knew the areas (we had to address) when we left this (past) season,” Beane said. “We had some very frank, honest discussions internally here of where we're at. We have to be honest with ourselves in what we have to get fixed if we’re going to put a winning product out there, and we had the cap space to do it. We tried to be smart and responsible with the contracts, the best you can in free agency. It's not easy, but that was the goal.”
The Bills still aren’t paying much at quarterback with starter Josh Allen on his rookie deal. That opens a spending window, because the team has money to dedicate to other positions.
“Once you make that investment, some of these guys are making $30-35 million a year, you’re going to have to sacrifice some other positions,” Beane said. “So it's a sensible way to do it. You can't force it. You know, we still have to build it the right way and that's what we're trying to do through the draft, so we're not one player away or anything like that. I don't know that you ever are one player away.”
Beane’s goal in the future will be to avoid having so many holes that it requires the addition of 18 unrestricted free agents. Hitting on draft picks is the best remedy.
“I do prefer the draft part of it,” he said. “Due to our cap situation and all the other parts of this rebuild, whatever you want to call it, I don’t think in the future you’ll see us sign as many free agents as we can continue to draft and develop the guys we have drafted the last three years.”
Beane didn’t expect the Bills’ to have a GM vacancy after the conclusion of the 2017 draft, so he hadn’t extensively studied the team’s cap situation. Once he got up to speed, he knew there was no quick fix.
“Part of it is you have to get to know the players, those guys that have higher cap numbers, which ones you want to keep and renegotiate, and I think it took two years to get that, it didn’t go into a third,” he said.
That meant guys like Dareus and Clay were sent away, while players like LeSean McCoy and Jerry Hughes have stuck around. Hughes even earned a contract extension this offseason, signing on through 2021.
Of the 18 unrestricted free agents signed by the Bills this offseason, just center Mitch Morse got a deal of at least four years. Part of the reason is agents pushing for shorter deals. The salary cap goes up every year, and with a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon, sometimes players are eager to get back on the open market.
The other part, though, is Beane being careful not to repeat free-agent mistakes of the past. When salaries reach eight figures, like with Morse, teams have to be convinced the player has their DNA and is part of the long-term plan.
Focusing instead on shorter-term deals will inevitably lead to a greater amount of roster turnover, but it also means the Bills won’t be held hostage if players prove they’re not a great fit. With the exception of Morse, the Bills can get out of any deal after a year or two with minimal dead money.
Keeping a healthy amount of cap space in future seasons will go a long way toward Beane’s stated goal of drafting, developing and then re-signing his own.
“You have to look at who’s coming up, whether it’s guys that are unrestricted or the rookies that are finishing, going into their third year, that you could negotiate with in their fourth year, based on where we see them after 2019,” Beane said. “That part of the fiscal responsibility is knowing what we have down the horizon. That’s what we want to do. You go to Jerry Hughes. We want to reward the guys that we think do it the right way, our way, and can show others.”
The Bills have four members of their 2017 draft class who could be in line for contract extensions – cornerback Tre’Davious White, wide receiver Zay Jones, left tackle Dion Dawkins and linebacker Matt Milano.
“We want to continue to do that, not chase from the outside but reward the guys here that earned the right or earned that pay day,” Beane said. “Those guys will be conversations next year. Maybe we’ll be able to extend two, three, four. I don’t know. But then the same thing, we got the following year. Who’s going to come up after that who we can extend.
“That’s the goal, to pay our own players and fill a few holes here and there from the outside, but the core of our team coming from the guys that we draft, grow and develop.”
Story topics: Brandon Beane/ Charles Clay/ Dion Dawkins/ Eric Wood/ Josh Allen/ Kim Pegula/ LeSean McCoy/ Marcell Dareus/ Mario Williams/ Matt Milano/ Mitch Morse/ Terry Pegula/ Tre'davious White/ Zay Jones