CAPACCIO: How the Bills should approach free agency with all that cap space

The team has about $80 million in salary cap space

Sal Capaccio
January 17, 2019 - 2:18 pm

Photo: Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills)


When I was a kid and had a few bucks in my pocket, my mom used to always tell me, “don't spend all your money all at once.” That wasn't easy, since I really wanted that new Easton baseball bat or brand-new Walkman (look it up, kids).

Brandon Beane is about to find himself with about $80 million to spend. That's how much the Buffalo Bills are under the 2019 salary cap and, basically, have available to spend this year in free agency, give or take a few pennies.

If you expect the Bills general manager to go out and spend every last dollar of it when the new league year begins on March 13, you're probably going to be highly disappointed. Here's the thing - he shouldn't do that. That's a Powerball jackpot’s worth of money, and with this year's free agent class looking the way it does, coupled with the needs the Bills have to fill, they don’t align together enough to justify what would wind up being overspending on multiple players.

Of course, almost no team can avoid paying a little more than what they want or expect on some players. That’s just the nature of the free agent beast for organizations. The Bills can go a little higher on a player or two that they really feel can help them, but if they try to overhaul the entire roster and Beane just starts spending all of that money to grab as many players as they can, it will only end badly.

Let's not forget how the team got in the situation they were in in the first place when Beane arrived. He said from the day he was hired that it would take two years to fix the cap mess. That resulted in having to eat close to $70 million of dead money this past season. Now, in his own words, “that’s fixed,” but that doesn’t mean Beane is, nor should, just start writing blank checks to average players just because they play wide receiver or offensive line.  

Both the Bills general manager and head coach Sean McDermott used the word “judicious” more than once at their end-of-season press conferences when talking about their upcoming free agent approach, knowing they’ll have all that dough available to them. Some fans immediately threw their hands in the air and said, “here we go again, they aren’t going to spend any money.” Let’s stop right there. “Judicious” doesn’t mean “be cheap.” It doesn’t mean “don’t sign anyone.” It means they want to make intelligent, sound decisions. Offering every offensive lineman available on the open market a big payday would not be intelligent nor sound.  

There are a few things to remember as we get closer to March 13.

First, there are three ways to acquire talent. It’s not just about free agency, as spicy as that $80 million to spend sounds. There’s also the draft and making trades. Aside from clearing the deck of all that dead money, Beane’s shown a willingness and ability to work both those areas as aggressively as he can in his limited time as general manager. He made seven deals involving 10 players in just his first three months on the job. He traded up twice in the first round alone in last year’s draft, the first he was in charge of as an NFL general manager. If his scouting and personnel staff doesn’t see the value in certain free agents’ asking prices, he should look to go the trade route instead. Call around and find a team that has a player they are willing to move on from, whether due to salary, change in scheme, or just wanting to go in a different direction. They're out there. We see it every year. 

Now that would, most likely, cost some of his draft capital, but that's something the Bills have once again this year. They currently sit with 10 picks over the seven rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft. It's a delicate balance, but one Beane and the Bills need to be willing use if the value of those free agents just doesn’t match up.  

Also important to remember here is that, according to the website Spotrac, the Bills not only have the third-most cap space available in the entire league this offseason (behind the Colts and Jets), but also the most space currently available next offseason. As of right now, with current contracts on the books, the Bills are scheduled to have roughly $125 million free in March of 2020. So, they should still be working from a very advantageous standpoint when it comes to free agency and spending once again next year.

Whatever players and contracts they add this year will eat into that number quickly, and Beane certainly doesn’t want to put himself right back in the situation the team was when he arrived, having so many big contracts that it hurts their ability to add other players unless they get rid of that contract and then have to eat a ton of cap space again.

So how do they find that right free agent? That’s where the pressure really focuses on the scouting and personnel staff. We all recognize some of the bigger names on the market. Jadeveon Clowney, Le’Veon Bell, Demarcus Lawrence, and Golden Tate, for example. Hey, maybe the Bills will go after one or two of those names. It will definitely cost them if they do, but whether they do or not, it’s still the ones who aren’t household names yet that they need to try and pinpoint and hit on. Often, but not always, players just exiting their rookie contracts who are right around 25-26-years-old and haven’t quite busted out yet for their old teams, looking for a good situation where they can shine. Those players won’t cost as much, but could ultimately be much more important to their next team’s success both short and long-term. Like tight end Eric Ebron was for the Indianapolis Colts (two years, average $6.5 million per-season). The Bills already did a great job of finding a couple players who fit this mold in both safeties Micah Hyde (five years, $6.1 million/year) and Jordan Poyer (four years, $3.25 million/year). Some fans even dismissed the signing of Poyer as “camp fodder” when he was brought in. Two years later, many believe he’s played at a Pro Bowl level. Both Hyde’s, and especially Poyer’s contracts are a far cry from what the well-known top free agents on the open market get every year, which is often in access of $15-16 million per-year for non-quarterbacks.

The Bills could go out and do that if they want. They have the money to grab two or even three of those players. Fans would get excited if they did. It would be like buying a couple of those expensive Walkmans. Just remember you still have to be able to afford some cassette tapes to listen to.  

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