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It's reward time as Bills manage load of cap space in 2020

This is the first in a series of stories looking at the Buffalo Bills’ salary cap situation heading into free agency. Part 2 |  Part 3  | Part 4

The Bills have reached a new, positive stage in their roster development under Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott: Reward time.

McDermott has been preaching a team-first culture since he arrived in 2017. After three seasons, he now has a handful of players who have both embraced that message and produced in a big way on the field in helping the Bills earn two playoff berths in three years.

It’s time for the Bills to pay some good soldiers.

The good salary-cap news for the Bills: Beane has methodically set up the franchise to start paying those rewards without mortgaging the future.

The Bills currently are fourth in the NFL in cap space for the 2020 league year, according to the sports financial website Spotrac.com. The Bills have $82.8 million in space under the salary cap, which is projected to be about $200 million in 2020. The exact cap total is expected to be announced in early March. The new league year starts March 18.

The Bills also are in great salary cap shape in 2021, standing fifth in the NFL in most space available.

It’s a result of the fact most of the core of the Bills’ team is young, the drafts of the previous regime were not good enough, and Beane has resisted the urge to break open the ownership checkbook for uber-expensive, quick-fix, one-player-makes-a-difference signings in free agency.

“We don’t really get into contract negotiations,” Beane said at the Senior Bowl last month. “But it is nice that we’ve been saying all along, we want to draft, develop and sign. That clock has finally started.”

The Bills have four starters who are entering the last year of their contracts who are prime candidates for extensions sometime between now and the start of the season in September.

They are cornerback Tre’Davious White, safety Jordan Poyer, linebacker Matt Milano and tackle Dion Dawkins. They don’t have to extend all four. Dawkins arguably is most likely to wait a year, since left tackles are expensive and the Bills might want to see Dawkins stack a second good season onto his solid 2019 campaign.

White’s extension could wait, too, since the Bills have until May 30 to exercise a fifth-year option on his deal, which would keep him under contract through 2021. It’s a lock the Bills will exercise that option. They could work on negotiating with White through the summer or wait until next summer.

The Miami Dolphins have the most money available under the cap, at $93.7 million, followed by Indianapolis ($86.1 million) and Tampa Bay ($84.9 million).

Most cap space 2020
Rk Team Total
1 Miami $93.7M
2 Indianapolis $86.1M
3 Tampa Bay $84.9M
4 Buffalo $82.8M
5 Dallas $73.9M
Source: Spotrac.com

 

But the NFL is awash in cap space, due to steady increases in revenue the past decade. There are 15 teams currently with more than $50 million in cap space. The average cap-space total in the league is $43.1 million, according to Spotrac. The cap has grown by roughly 40% since 2015, when it was $143 million.

The Bills have money to extend some of their own players, pursue some of their own pending free agents (such as defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and guard Quinton Spain) and pursue a big-ticket free agent. However, many other teams have a big shopping budget, too.

Still, the rise in the cap gives the Bills the opportunity to keep themselves in good long-term cap shape and position themselves to keep more of their young players in the coming years. Beane must be cognizant of big-ticket extensions on the horizon. A Dawkins deal could come in 2021, and then Beane could work on giant extensions for Tremaine Edmunds and Josh Allen the next two years after that. Of course, that presumes that Allen, in particular, plays well enough to earn an extension.

“The name of the game has to be staggering the extensions,” said Michael Ginnitti, Spotrac managing editor. “You don’t want a Rams situation, where you’ve got six guys who you signed in an 18-month window, and if you’re not good enough, you’re in big trouble.”

“There’s not a rush or anything with those guys,” Beane said of the players under contract in 2020. “And we’re still going through our process of who our free agents are first that could potentially be walking out the door. We’ll see. We’d love to have those guys.”

Here’s a capsule look at the market values for the top Bills under contract who are in line for extensions:

White: The top of the NFL’s cornerback market is in the process of being re-established. The Rams’ Jalen Ramsey is entering the final year of his contract. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler. The Saints’ Marshon Lattimore and Ravens’ Marlon Humphrey, both 2017 first-round draftees and with Pro Bowls on their resumes, are in the same situation as White. They’re entering their final year but will have their options exercised for 2021. All will get big deals. Who wants to sign first?

The current top-paid corner in the NFL is Miami’s Xavien Howard, who got $15 million a year in May. Stephon Gilmore signed with New England three years ago for an average of $13 million a year, about 8% of the cap that year. He’s now ninth on the CB playlist. An 8% total of the 2021 cap would be about $16.8 million a year. So the top of the CB market could push $18 million to $20 million over the next year or two.

Poyer: Seven of the top eight highest paid safeties received their new contracts since March. The top four (Chicago’s Eddie Jackson, Tennessee’s Kevin Byard, Washington’s Landon Collins and the Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu) are at $14 million a year. Miami’s Reshad Jones is No. 6 on the safety pay list at $12 million a year. He has two Pro Bowls to his name but his star has fallen with the Dolphins. Poyer turns 29 in April. The Bills could give Poyer more than Jones on a shorter-term deal and load a lot of the money into the next two years, when they have a load of cap space.

Milano: The speedy linebacker turns just 26 in July and surely is a guy the Bills want to keep. Carolina just gave its speed linebacker, Shaq Thompson, a former first-round pick, a four-year deal worth $13.6 million a year. That might be a little high, but an $11 million or $12 million average is imaginable.

Least cap space 2020
Rk Team Total
32 Minnesota $12M Over
31 Pittsburgh $2M Over
30 Jacksonville $1.4M Over
29 Atlanta $5.6M
28 New Orleans $12.4M
Source: Spotrac.com

 

Dawkins: The Bills’ three-year veteran turns 26 in April. A young, quality left tackle will cost $14 million a year or more. The Giants signed Nate Solder to a $15.5 million average last year. Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson is No. 1 at $18 million, but Dawkins isn’t in his category. Houston’s Laremy Tunsil is entering the last year of his deal and is set to break the bank. If the Bills opt to wait another year on Dawkins, they could fall back on a franchise tag (about $16 million), if necessary.

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