Last year, NFL teams rolled more than $177 million of cap money to 2014 from their 2013 cap anticipating only a $3.3 million increase.
But with an increase of $10 million that pushed the cap to $133 million, teams face an interesting dilemma. They have to decide how much to save for future years with revenues getting a big spike because of increased television revenue. Don't be surprised if teams hold back some spending this year to save money for key re-signings for the future.
What general managers and capologists face is trying to retain the stars from loaded draft classes in 2010 and 2011.
The 2010 draft was the last one under the old collective bargaining agreement that helped top first-round choices receive big contracts. Sam Bradford signed a six-year, $78 million deal. Ndamukong Suh got $63.5 million over five years. Gerald McCoy signed for five years and $63 million. Trent Williams made $10 million a year.
This year, ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian served as our "general manager" for the tracker, assigning letter grades to each player available. The grading scale is tied to a salary value: Polian believes an 'A' player should receive a contract with an annual value of at least $6 million, while a player with a 'B' should receive between $2-6 million per season.
That's when Polian's 'B-minus' grade for Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd caught our eye.
By next week, Byrd could become the highest paid safety in the NFL, as he's expected to fetch a deal worth at least $9 million on the open market. That represents a wide gap between Polian's valuation and what Byrd could actually receive, so we asked the former Bills general manager about his take on Byrd.
Polian said the salary ranges assigned to the letter grades can eventually change based on market spending, but noted that his grade of Byrd wouldn't be affected.
"He's a speed-deficient safety," Polian said. "Safeties don't get faster as the years go on."
Byrd is the third-ranked safety on Polian's list, behind Antoine Bethea (who received an 'A') and Chris Clemons (who received a 'B').
The Bills have about $25 million in cap space and are expected to be "active" in free agency, according to CEO Russ Brandon. Still, signing free agents can often be a perilous endeavor, with many players' values inflated because of supply and demand factors. Just because the Bills have the money doesn't mean they will or should spend it.
Free agency is just one of three main ways the Bills can add talent this offseason, along with the draft and any potential trades. In his latest mock draft, ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay has the Bills selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews ninth overall. There are three offensive tackles that could be selected in the first 10 picks, which makes the draft an ideal way for the Bills to add talent along the offensive line.
Because of that, offensive line is not on our list of top positions the Bills could target in free agency. Teams can begin speaking to free agents Saturday at noon, while deals can be completed as soon as 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Here's where the Bills might look on the free-agent market:
1. Linebacker: The Bills have already started combing this position. They hosted Jameel McClain and Jasper Brinkley on free-agent visits this week and because both players were released by their former teams, either could sign with the Bills at any time. Both McClain and Brinkley have experience at inside linebacker and could compete for a starting role next to Kiko Alonso, which could push Nigel Bradham down the depth chart. The Bills have insisted that they'll try to keep their defense from last season intact under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, but it's unrealistic to think that nothing will change. Schwartz isn't going to shave his head and become Mike Pettine; he will bring his way of doing things to Buffalo and that could mean changes at linebacker.
2. Safety: This hinges on the status of Jairus Byrd. The door hasn't been shut on a new deal, so if Byrd somehow finds his way back to Buffalo, it will lessen this need to almost zero. If Byrd lands elsewhere, then the Bills have a need here. They just committed a chunk of money to Aaron Williams but they will need another starter at the position. Do they go with a one-year stop-gap measure, using Da'Norris Searcy or re-signing Jim Leonhard for that role? Possibly, but that wouldn't be ideal. Their best bet is to supplement the young talent that they have with a second-tier free agent -- Malcolm Jenkins is one possibility -- and target that position in the draft over the next two years. The Bills aren't doing themselves any favors if Duke Williams is atop their depth chart this summer.
3. Quarterback: Yes, quarterback. The Bills got themselves in a jam last season when Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel saw the field. The events that led to the Bills' quarterback situation last season can be debated for years, but the reality is that they need a better fallback option next season. If they want a quarterback with potential and room for growth, they can address the position in the draft. If they want a veteran who can provide stability if EJ Manuel is injured again, then free agency is the way to go. However they choose to do it, the Bills need to push Lewis and Tuel for the backup jobs.
4. Tight end: Scott Chandler (and his team-leading 53 receptions) could be in another uniform next season. If so, the Bills will need help at tight end. Again, the draft is a possibility but the only realistic option at ninth overall is North Carolina's Eric Ebron. If the Bills don't go that direction this May, they will need some pass-catching ability at the position. Tony Moeaki could return to his pre-injury form, but the Bills should avoid a situation where, by mid-August, they're still waiting for Moeaki to emerge. There are some stronger names at the top of the free-agent class, including Jimmy Graham and Brandon Pettigrew. It would be surprising if the Bills chased either (Graham is franchised and would require the Bills giving up two first-round picks to sign him), but they could shoot for a second-tier free-agent like Garrett Graham to add another layer at tight end.
5. Defensive end: Similar to linebacker, this is a position that could be affected by the Schwartz hire. Pettine's scheme required a third "big body" along the defensive line, in a hybrid defensive end/tackle role. Alan Branch filled that role well and was rewarded with a three-year extension in December. His fit under Schwartz is less certain. In Detroit and Tennessee, Schwartz used two defensive ends with strong pass-rush ability. The Bills have that in Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes but lack depth beyond that. There's a deep free-agent crop this offseason headlined by Jared Allen, Robert Ayers, Anthony Spencer, Michael Johnson, and Justin Tuck. The Bills would make a splash if they dipped into that pool, but even adding a second-tier name would help.
Key free agents: S Jairus Byrd, TE Scott Chandler, K Dan Carpenter
Where they stand: With just six unrestricted free agents -- the fewest in the league -- the Bills are in good shape heading into free agency. However, they could lose one of their best players. The Bills decided not to franchise Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler; franchising him would have cost $8.4 million against the cap and risked another summer-long contract dispute. The Bills need offensive weapons and help along the offensive line. They could use the ninth overall pick in the draft to help improve their offense while supplementing other positions through free agency. Jim Schwartz's defensive scheme could require some help at linebacker, while they will need reinforcements at safety if Byrd signs elsewhere.
What to expect: The Bills have about $25 million in cap space and will be "active" in free agency, according to CEO Russ Brandon. One sleeper position to watch is quarterback, where the Bills have thrown their support behind EJ Manuel but still could look for a veteran as a backup plan. They've shown a preference for mobile quarterbacks, which could mean Michael Vick is on their radar.
The Bills recently worked out linebackers Jasper Brinkley and Jameel McClain, who were released by their former teams (Arizona and Baltimore, respectively), which could signal an interest at that position. They just gave Aaron Williams, their young safety, a contract extension, but they could be in the market for a second-tier free agent there.
Here's some additional context to the deal and where Williams ranks among other NFL safeties:
Average Per Year
1. Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs) -- $8,333,333
2. Dashon Goldson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) -- $8,250,000
3. Eric Weddle (San Diego Chargers) -- $8,000,000
4. Reshad Jones (Miami Dolphins) -- $7,003,000
5. Kam Chancellor (Seattle Seahawks) -- $7,000,502
6. Michael Griffin (Tennessee Titans) -- $7,000,000
7. Tyvon Branch (Oakland Raiders) -- $6,650,000
8. Aaron Williams (Buffalo Bills) -- $6,501,961
9. Morgan Burnett (Green Bay Packers) -- $6,187,500
10. LaRon Landry (Indianapolis Colts) -- $6,000,000
1. Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs) -- $34,000,000
2. Eric Weddle (San Diego Chargers) -- $19,000,000
3. Tyvon Branch (Oakland Raiders) -- $17,600,000
4. Dashon Goldson (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) -- $17,500,000
5. Kam Chancellor (Seattle Seahawks) -- $17,000,000
Tied-6. Reshad Jones (Miami Dolphins) -- $15,000,000
Tied-6. Michael Griffin (Tennessee Titans) -- $15,000,000
8. Aaron Williams (Buffalo Bills) -- $14,625,000
9. Mark Barron (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) -- $14,466,500
10. William Moore (Atlanta Falcons) -- $14,000,000
Here are the details of the deal, broken down year-by-year:
Signing bonus: $6,500,000
Base salary: $2,250,000 (fully guaranteed)
Workout bonus: $100,000
Cap number: $4,231,209
Base salary: $1,375,000
Option bonus: $4,500,000 (adds 2018 year to contract)
Workout bonus: $100,000
Cap number: $3,900,000
Note: If option is not executed, base salary becomes $5,875,000 and becomes fully guaranteed.
Base salary: $2,575,000
Roster bonus: $1,000,000
Workout bonus: $100,000
Cap number: $6,100,000
Base salary: $3,600,000
Roster bonus: $500,000
Workout bonus: $100,000
Cap number: $6,625,000
Base salary: $3,800,000
Roster bonus: $500,000
Workout bonus: $100,000
Cap number: $6,825,000
Note: Only applies if option is executed in 2015.
In a statement, the team called the price increases "modest" and noted that season-ticket holders already receive a discount from individual game ticket prices.
In addition, the Bills introduced variable ticket pricing for the 2014 season. This is the first season that NFL teams have used that model, with the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots among the other early adopters.
Variable ticket pricing allows teams to assign higher prices to more attractive games and lower prices for less attractive games. The Bills have yet to release their "tier" structure for their home games.
"The goal of variable pricing is to create a pricing structure that best reflects the market demand for all games," CEO Russ Brandon said in a statement.
The NFL will release its full 2014 schedule this spring. However, the Bills' 2014 home opponents have already been determined. The Bills will host the Patriots, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns this season at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Brinkley, 28, was released by the Arizona Cardinals last month. In 15 games last season, he made three starts, tallying 27 tackles. He spent the first four seasons of his career with the Minnesota Vikings after being drafted in the fifth round out of South Carolina.
At 6-foot-1, 252 pounds, Brinkley is similar in size to Jameel McClain, whom the Bills hosted on a free-agent visit Wednesday. Both players project to middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme but also have experience as inside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme.
Both visits suggest that the Bills are taking a hard look at the free-agent market at linebacker, where their depth was thin last season. Arthur Moats is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, leaving Kiko Alonso and Nigel Bradham as the top options on the roster for middle and weakside linebacker.
Other news: The Bills took care of some free-agent housekeeping Thursday, re-signing cornerback Brandon Smith to an undisclosed deal. Smith was scheduled to become an exclusive-rights free agent. Meanwhile, the Bills tendered contracts to their other three exclusive-rights free agents: fullback Frank Summers, wide receiver Chris Hogan, and guard Antoine McClain. All three are expected to sign their tenders and join the Bills' offseason roster.
Buffalo would surely love to land local product in Khalil Mack or could go in several directions to add to the back half of their defense. Trading down a few slots and just taking what is remaining might make the most sense for the Bills.
Whom does McShay have the Bills drafting at No. 9? Let's take a look:
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In an interview Tuesday with the Toronto Sun's John Kryk, general manager Doug Whaley explained his thinking in the decision.
The Bills have exclusive negotiating rights with Byrd until Saturday, when other NFL teams can officially start talks with Byrd. Tuesday is the first day other teams can complete a contract with Byrd, who is the top safety on the free-agent market.
If the Bills had tagged Byrd, it would have cost them $8.4 million against their salary cap. Once Byrd signed the tender (and once the 2014 league year began on March 13) the Bills could have traded Byrd. Still, Whaley didn't think the chances of a trade were strong enough to warrant tagging Byrd.
"There are a lot of moving parts to doing that. If you try to franchise him and trade him, then you've got to find somebody that's going to give you the proper compensation, and then you have to have them feeling confident enough to then sign him," Whaley said. "The best path for the Buffalo Bills was not to take that chance."
Byrd told ESPN this week that he remains open to a deal with the Bills but is "excited" to hit the open market for the first time in his career.
"He has a value (to us), and they have a value of what his camp thinks he's worth, and we're trying to meet in the middle and make it comfortable for both sides," Whaley said. "Do you hate to lose him for nothing? Yes."
There's been some subtle finger-pointing taking place in Buffalo over recent years.
The Buffalo Bills operate within one of the NFL's smallest markets. They have struggled to sell out their games at Ralph Wilson Stadium in recent years. Tasked with expanding and developing his team's business, CEO Russ Brandon looked to nearby Toronto -- one of the largest cities on the continent -- as a way to spur ticket sales.
Since 2008, that has meant playing one regular season game per year across the border. That experiment went on hiatus Wednesday when the Bills announced they will remain at Ralph Wilson Stadium for all of their 2014 home games.
It's a move that has drawn almost unanimous support from Bills fans, long since frustrated with the atmosphere of the Rogers Centre and the performance of their team in an essentially neutral venue. Attendance apparently dropped enough last season -- a crushing 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons -- for the Bills to put aside their business venture.
Fans want all eight home games in Orchard Park. Coaches want it. Players want it. Ultimately, it gives the Bills the best chance to win.
Those wishes have been granted. Now it's time for everyone involved to step up. Center Eric Wood, an outspoken team captain, made that clear Wednesday on Twitter:
We got our 8 home games back with no game in Toronto this year.. Now we have to make the most of it!— Eric Wood (@EWood70) March 5, 2014
When Bills season-ticket holders receive their invoices later this month, they will need to dig deeper into their wallets. Eight home games carry a larger price tag than seven home games, obviously. The Bills have made a commitment to fans -- at least for this season -- that they will stay out of Toronto. Season-ticket holders must now rise to the occasion.
It goes beyond that, though. The key for the Bills is to avoid blackouts. Last December, when he first questioned the future of the Toronto series, Brandon put some pressure on ordinary fans -- those who don't have season tickets -- to buy more tickets.
"We've taken a game out of the market that has essentially taken 70,000 seats out of our market, and we've truly only sold out two of our home games," Brandon told WGR 550. "We've manufactured sellouts in the other four or five."
Fans responded predictably: They're not going to pay to watch a losing team. The Bills have the NFL's longest playoff drought, having not appeared since 1999, while they haven't won a postseason game since 1995.
It's a chicken-or-the-egg argument that will lead the Bills and their fans nowhere. With each passing season the Bills inch closer to a change in ownership. It's possible that a group with local ties takes over the reins, but the likelihood is that an outside group will buy the team.
When that happens, all bets are off. The NFL is a rapidly growing business and owning one of its 32 franchise can be a wildly lucrative venture. But with the league's increased wealth comes a higher cost of stadiums, a problem that lurks around the corner for the Bills and Erie County.
If the Bills and their fans want to remain in Buffalo, the next ownership group will want to see hard numbers and concrete reason for optimism in the market. If the Bills shelving their Toronto game this season results in a revenue squeeze that the team can't overcome with increased ticket sales, it will be a black mark on the Bills' books.
Whether that's the fault of apathetic fans or another "freak" knee injury to EJ Manuel, it won't really matter.
It's time for everyone to step up.
After beginning last season on the physically unable to perform list, McClain started 10 games, recording 52 tackles and one forced fumble.
The Syracuse product has played his entire career for the Ravens after going undrafted in 2008. His best season came in 2011, when he started all 16 games, notching 84 tackles, one sack, one interception, and four passes defensed.
At 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, McClain played inside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme. His best fit with the Bills would likely be at middle linebacker in Jim Schwartz's system.
That could mean Kiko Alonso, who finished second in the Associated Press' defensive rookie of the year voting last season, could move to weak-side linebacker in the 4-3 alignment.
The deal will pay him $26 million, including $14.625 million guaranteed, according to multiple reports.
The Bills tweeted news of the contract Wednesday:
- Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) March 5, 2014
While the move comes two days after the Bills opted not to assign the franchise tag to fellow safety Jairus Byrd, CEO Russ Brandon said the two decisions are not related.
"This is completely independent from any other negotiations we have going on," Brandon told reporters Wednesday.
Williams, 23, was entering the final season of his rookie contract. The former second-round pick struggled in his first two seasons as a cornerback before converting to safety last season. In 14 games, he made 82 tackles and had four interceptions.
"Aaron Williams is a versatile player who has grown into a key playmaker for our defense in recent years," general manager Doug Whaley said in a statement. "Aaron is the type of young, core player we targeted early in the process to retain for years to come and this will be our philosophy moving forward."