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Doug Whaley: Bills' middle class could get 'squeezed out'

4/23/2015

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley was honest when opening his pre-draft news conference Monday, admitting to reporters that there would be a dose of deliberate misdirection included with most of his answers.

But amid the intentionally ambiguous analysis of the upcoming draft was a nugget from Whaley that is both believable and relevant to how the team will conduct business in the upcoming seasons.

"With what we did in free agency, we felt very comfortable with the pieces of the puzzle we have in place, and we’re at that point now where we maybe start getting top heavy," he said. "So we’re going to need the draft picks to start replenishing our roster."

Later in the discussion, Whaley caught my attention when he again referred to the Bills as being "top heavy" and expounded on what he meant by it.

"All options are open and, again, that’s why I’m saying at [50th overall], if some team really wants somebody, moving back getting picks for this year or picks for next year again because we are getting a little top heavy," he explained. "We’re going to start needing those young guys to come in and fill the bottom half of that roster because you’re going to have the haves and the have-nots and the middle class is going to start getting squeezed out, but that’s what happens when you have a lot of good players and that’s what we’re trying to do."

My interpretation is that Whaley was speaking both about the construction of the roster (there are talented players filling most starting positions, limiting the potential contributions of "middle-class" role players) and the team's salary-cap structure.

In the case of the latter, it's a hint that the Bills might need to trim some veterans from their roster either this season or next season, when they already have the NFL's second-highest 2016 salary-cap number ($130 million).

By replacing part of the "middle class" of their roster with cheaper draft selections, the Bills could knock down their cap number and maintain their financial health over the coming seasons.

Who is part of the Bills' middle class? I would point to three players in particular: running back Fred Jackson, linebacker Manny Lawson and cornerback Leodis McKelvin.

Jackson will count $2.7 million against the Bills' salary cap this season, or about four times as much as a rookie running back would cost the Bills. In order to support LeSean McCoy's contract, which is one of the NFL's most lucrative running back deals, the Bills could opt to not keep Jackson past this season and fill the gap on their roster with a cheaper draft pick at the position.

Meanwhile, the Bills can save $2.65 million by releasing Lawson before the 2016 season, and they can shave another $3.9 million by cutting McKelvin before the 2016 season. Replacing both of those players with 2015 or 2016 draft selections would cut the Bills' overall spending.

Whaley told me in March he wants to extend four players: defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and linebacker Nigel Bradham. In particular, Dareus and Gilmore would become part of the upper class of the Bills' roster once extended. To finance those deals, the Bills might have to push out their middle class (e.g., Jackson, Lawson and McKelvin) in favor of lower-class players (cheap draft picks).

At the moment, the Bills' salary-cap structure isn't glaringly top-heavy. Their top-10 cap numbers this season total $71 million, or 53 percent of the Bills' overall cap number. That's about 3 percent less than the NFL average.

However, the Bills' top-10 salaries next season already total $89 million, or 68 percent of Buffalo's cap number. Picking up Gilmore's option and extending Dareus will likely push that figure over $100 million and above the NFL's average.

That's when the Bills will have to make a decision between buoying their upper class or maintaining a broad middle class. Several successful teams in the salary-cap era have opted for the latter approach, often passing on paying players big-money deals, but the Bills' philosophy seems to be different.

Given Whaley's comments Monday, Buffalo's goal appears to be to keep their upper-class players (and pay them well), to cut down on their middle-class spending and to develop their lower-class players to fill the gaps.

Like anything else the team has done in recent seasons, we'll have to wait and see if the approach works.