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Bills can't afford to be big spenders in 2016

3/30/2015

The Buffalo Bills were the NFL's biggest spenders this offseason, leading the NFL with $91.5 million in guaranteed money promised to players in free-agent signings and restructures.

Of that $91.5 million, over $61 million was included in contracts with players new to the team, an approach that general manager Doug Whaley said won't continue next offseason.

"Next year we’ll be the Green Bay Packers of free agency," Whaley said at the NFL owners meetings last week. "We’ll be signing our own guys because we have Nigel [Bradham] coming up, you got [Marcell] Dareus coming up, you got Cordy Glenn coming up and you got [Stephon] Gilmore. So that will be our free agency next year."

The Packers are well known for not dipping into the free-agent market. With the exception of signing Julius Peppers, the vast majority of their free-agent activity over the past several years has been re-signing their own players.

The Bills have good reason not to spend on outside free agents next spring: they can't afford it.

Here is a look at the teams with the highest 2016 cap commitments, per ESPN Stats & Information:

  1. New Orleans Saints: $131.975 million

  2. Buffalo Bills: $130.223 million

  3. New York Jets: $128.169 million

  4. Green Bay Packers: $122.616 million

  5. Pittsburgh Steelers: $119.110 million

The Bills' 2016 cap number will jump to $141.305 million in May, when they pick up the $11.082 million fifth-year option on Gilmore.

The NFL's salary cap is expected to be in the $150 million range next season. The Bills can carry over their remaining 2015 cap space into 2016, but they won't have much to roll over -- likely $3 million or less once they sign rookies and make in-season roster adjustments this fall.

Here are the team's top cap hits in the 2016 season:

  1. Mario Williams: $19.9 million

  2. Charles Clay: $13.5 million

  3. Stephon Gilmore: $11.082 million

  4. Percy Harvin: $10 million

  5. Kyle Williams: $8 million

There are several ways for the Bills to knock down these numbers and clear up 2016 cap space. The most obvious would be to void Harvin's deal, which would save $8 million against the cap. They could also negotiate an extension with Gilmore that would reduce his cap hit, and they could restructure Mario Williams' deal to lower his number.

The trickier contract to re-work would be Clay's. In an effort to make it hard for the Miami Dolphins to get around his bloated 2016 cap hit, the Bills worked a fully-guaranteed $10 million roster bonus into Clay's deal that is due on the first day of the 2016 league year. The Bills could try to negotiate with Clay and convert that roster bonus into a signing bonus that is spread over the life of the deal, but they'd have to negotiate that during the 2015 league year, meaning part of the signing bonus would impact their 2015 cap number, which is already close to the limit.

The elephant in the room with the Bills' 2016 cap number is Marcell Dareus' deal. An extension with Dareus will likely cost the Bills $15 million per season or more, adding some financial stress to the team over the coming seasons.

Add extensions for Bradham and Glenn to the mix and the Bills have one of the NFL's trickiest salary-cap situations to navigate over the coming year or longer.

Win this season, and few will care about the Bills' cap conundrum. Fall short this season, and the Bills' financial approach will be magnified.