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A look at veterans giving Bills best value for their salary-cap buck

Buffalo News - 2/20/2020

Feb. 20--This is the third in a series of stories looking at the Buffalo Bills' salary cap situation heading into free agency. Part 1 -- Part 2.

The financial challenge for Brandon Beane in 2020 will be to try to keep the Bills' salary cap "space advantage" going for as long as possible.

The Bills currently stand fourth in the NFL in cap space for 2020 at $82.8 million, and they're fifth in 2021, according to figures from Spotrac.com.

Expect Beane to structure contracts to fill up that space the next two years -- and thereby keep as much space as possible open down the road in 2022 and 2023.

Teams that get into "cap jail" tend to back-load contracts, putting a lot of money into future years in the quest to win immediately. The prudent approach is to put a lot of guaranteed money into the first two years of a big deal and put a lower percentage of the dollars into an initial signing bonus -- which gets spread out over the life of the contract.

The Bills did it last year in free agency. They had to win a bidding war for center Mitch Morse, giving him an $11 million-a-year deal. But the Bills put $28.37 million (64%) into the first two years.

Likewise, the Bills gave contracts to receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley that included attractive guarantees. But the Bills could escape from either of those deals after two years with minimal pain. That makes both the Brown and Beasley deals great value.

The best value deals on any team are held by young players on their first contracts. Any young player who's a decent starter is a bargain.

Tre'Davious White made the Pro Bowl in 2019, yet his average salary ($2.5 million) ranked 65th among NFL cornerbacks. Tremaine Edmunds ($2.87 million) makes just 17% of what the Jets pay veteran middle linebacker, C.J. Mosley ($17 million a year). Matt Milano, Dion Dawkins, Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson all are among the Bills' best value players.

The challenge for NFL general managers is getting value on veteran deals.

Here's a look at the veteran players who are past their first contract and are giving the Bills the best bang for their buck (with their 2020 cap hit in parentheses):

1. Micah Hyde, $6.7 million. Hyde was 20th among safeties in average salary in 2019, and he will be outside the top 20 this year. He's entering the fourth year of a five-year, $30 million contract. Credit coach Sean McDermott with an astute evaluation. He identified an underrated free agent, projected him into a big role in the Bills' defense, gave him a big pay raise and now has watched Hyde outperform a good contract over time. Hyde made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and played just as well the past two seasons, even though he didn't have the attention-grabbing interceptions he made his first Bills season.

Hyde is due to receive $5.1 million in cash both this year and next year. He just turned 29 in December. The Bills should be in good position to give him an extension of perhaps three years after this season (going into the final year of the deal).

2. John Brown, $9.7 million. Brown signed a three-year, $27 million contract, but the signing bonus was only $4.8 million, and it's spread over three years. If Brown had been a bust in 2019, the Bills could have parted ways with him and sustained a cap hit of only $3.2 million. Fortunately, Brown helped carry the pass offense. He ranked 19th among NFL wide receivers in yards with 1,060. He ranked tied for 28th in average salary among wideouts. In 2020, he will stand about 30th in average wideout salary after free-agency season.

3. Cole Beasley, $7.0 million. The Bills' 30-year-old slot receiver ranked 24th among NFL wideouts in catches with 67. He was 38th in average salary among WRs at $7.25 million. In 2020, he will be outside the top 40 in average salary for wideouts. Just as with Brown, the Bills weren't overcommitted to Beasley if he hadn't worked out. He would have cost $4.5 million this year if he had been a bust. Beasley has three years to go on his contract, and he has modest cap hits going forward ($7.4 million in 2021 and $7.6 million in 2022). His dead cap hits, if the Bills decide they have to part ways with him, are just $3 million in 2021 and $1.5 million in 2022.

4. Jon Feliciano, $4.4 million. The Bills bought in bulk last offseason on the offensive line, signing six unrestricted free agents, and only one with a premium price tag (Mitch Morse). Feliciano gave the Bills 16 starts and played 94% of the offensive snaps (not counting the regular-season finale). His two-year deal, which runs through 2020, averages just $3.62 million a year. It would not be a surprise to see the Bills try to extend Feliciano's deal over in the summer.

5. Jordan Poyer, $4.07 million. The safety had just the 13th highest cap hit on the team in 2019, and he's currently 14th on the Bills for 2020. He's still on the list of great values, but the expectation is he will get a new contract this spring or summer, before he enters the final year of his deal. If he doesn't strike a new deal, he will be a huge bargain. But the Bills will run the risk of losing him in free agency a year from now.

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