ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) – The Buffalo Bills watched on TV once again as the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals played in the AFC Championship Game for the second season in a row. The Bills still need to improve to have a chance at winning their first Super Bowl.
But for the Bills to add the necessary pieces, they’ll need to create salary cap space. The NFL informed teams this week that the cap will be $224.8 million next season. This means the Bills need to reduce their cap hit by at least $20 million by the start of the league year at 4 p.m. on March 15, per projections from salary cap websites Spotrac and OverTheCap.
How can the Bills get it done and open enough space to load up for another run? Here are 10 ideas, ranging from fairly obvious to outside the box.
1. Make tough decisions on cut candidates
The first, most obvious place to look for cap savings is cutting players with bloated contracts.
Every team has to determine whether players’ contracts match their performance. If the balance is skewed, teams often cut bait or ask the player to take a pay cut. The Bills have made several money-saving moves like this in recent years, cutting expensive players such as Daryl Williams, John Brown, Quinton Jefferson, Cole Beasley and A.J. Klein.
This year, the savings available on cut candidates aren’t as large as the past few offseasons. After examining the Bills’ contract situation, two names that stick out are Nyheim Hines and Tim Settle.
Hines, a running back who is on the final year of a contract signed with the Colts, has a $4.77 million cap hit next year while carrying no dead cap space if the Bills cut him. They could get out of his contract with no penalty. Knowing this, it seems likely the Bills could get Hines to agree to come back at a lower number.
Settle, a defensive tackle, carries a $4.93 million cap hit next season after playing about 35% of defensive snaps. The Bills could save $2.23 million in cap space by releasing him, or $3.58 million if they designate him as a post-June 1 cut and spread the penalty over two seasons.
WR Isaiah McKenzie ($2.225 million cap savings) and DE A.J. Epenesa ($1.411) could also be cut candidates, but the Bills might be able to get something for them in the trade market. More on this to come.
2. Something’s got to give with Ed Oliver
Having defensive tackle Ed Oliver on a cap hit over $10.7 million doesn’t work for me. His fifth-year option is fully guaranteed, so cutting him isn’t an option — not that the Bills would want to.
If the Bills believe in Oliver for the long term, signing him to an extension that lowers next season’s cap hit is a strong option. If they reduce his base salary for next season and supplement it with a signing bonus, the cap charge for the bonus spreads out over the life of the deal instead of all being charged to next season.
If the Bills don’t believe Oliver to be the difference-maker they hoped for and don’t want to extend him, he could become a trade candidate. Teams with more cap space may not be as concerned with his eight-figure charge.
3. Extend DaQuan Jones
DaQuan Jones started 16 games at defensive tackle last season and played the most snaps of any defensive lineman. He has been a regular NFL starter since 2015. The Bills missed his presence in their playoff loss to Cincinnati while he was out with an injury. He’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
Jones has earned a short extension. The Bills could add a year to his deal and lower his $8.583 million cap hit.
4. Lock up Matt Milano for as many years as he’ll sign for
You could make a case that linebacker Matt Milano is the most valuable player on the Bills defense, even when Von Miller is healthy.
Milano is halfway through a four-year extension he signed in 2021. He’s clearly a centerpiece of the Bills defense and was just recognized with his first All-Pro selection. He’s even shedding the injury-prone label some attached to him earlier in his career, appearing in 16 and 15 games over the past two seasons.
Milano turns 29 in July, so perhaps creeping up on the wrong side of 30 gives the Bills pause at extending him further. But with no guaranteed money in the final year of his deal, he’d likely have interest in signing another extension with a Super Bowl contender and getting more money up front while lowering his 2023 number. His $13.339 million cap hit isn’t outrageous for a top off-ball linebacker, but the Bills could save space and keep him under contract longer through an extension.
5. Consider the options at center
Mitch Morse wasn’t on the list of cut candidates because his performance is still good. In fact, he just made his first Pro Bowl. But from a purely financial perspective, his contract presents an opportunity for savings.
If the Bills deem Morse too expensive, he would present a major savings opportunity — especially if he was designated as a post-June 1 cut. Contract websites differ on Morse’s dead cap hit, but the savings could be at least $5 million this year, or $8 million if they make him a post-June 1 cut. The Bills could then look for a replacement in the draft or free agency, or even stay in-house by sliding Ryan Bates over from right guard as they did in wins against the Lions and Bears while Morse was injured.
However, Morse has a good rapport with quarterback Josh Allen and seems to be the resident adult in the room for the Bills offense. The bet here is that he sticks around, although the Bills asking him to take another pay cut isn’t out of the question.
6. Explore the trade market and get creative
Defensive end A.J. Epenesa isn’t that expensive to keep around, carrying a cap hit of only $1.87 million next season. However, he hasn’t quite lived up to the billing of a second-round pick and is set to hit free agency after next season. If the Bills don’t see him as a candidate for another contract, they could try to move on from him now and get something in return before he walks for nothing. Epenesa recorded 6.5 sacks last season — that sounds like something GM Brandon Beane could convince another team to dream on for a draft-day trade.
What’s the market like for slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie? Like Epenesa, McKenzie is set to hit free agency after next season. He just set career highs with 42 receptions for 423 yards, but seemed to lose ground to Khalil Shakir and even Cole Beasley toward the end of the season before posting just 29 yards across two playoff games. In the Bills’ playoff loss to Cincinnati, Beasley (30) and Shakir (18) both received more snaps on offense than McKenzie (17). McKenzie isn’t that expensive to keep, but trading or cutting him would open up $2.225 million in cap space.
Receiver Gabe Davis could be an interesting trade target, and packaging him to move up in the draft is an interesting idea, but it wouldn’t be a money-saving move: Davis’ cap hit is only $1.185 million next season. Even if the Bills bring in an established outside receiver to line up opposite Stefon Diggs, they could certainly afford to keep Davis around. What else could Beane have up his sleeve? Might a team with lots of cap space like the Bears be a suitor for Ed Oliver? Is there a market for Tim Settle?
7. Extend or restructure Taron Johnson
Weber State product Taron Johnson has done very well at slot corner, a position of increasing importance in the modern NFL. His game-sealing interception in Buffalo’s Week 6 win over the Chiefs stands out as one of the premier defensive plays of the Bills’ 2022 season. He has two seasons left on his contract and doesn’t turn 27 until July. All indications are the Bills like having him around, so why not add more years and knock down his $9.215 million cap hit?
8. Reconsider whether a fullback is necessary
The Bills have had a fullback on the roster in each of Sean McDermott’s six seasons in Buffalo. Other teams are eschewing the position altogether. If the Bills do make a change at offensive coordinator, perhaps the new OC would reconsider whether the position is necessary.
It seems unlikely the Bills move on from Reggie Gilliam with two seasons left on his contract — especially since he can moonlight at tight end — but with little dead money on the deal, the Bills could open $1.362 million by parting ways.
9. Restructure Josh Allen’s contract
OK … we can’t push this one off any longer. The Bills’ front office might not be able to, either.
The biggest reason the Bills are so tight in salary cap space is because Josh Allen‘s extension kicks in for real next season and his cap hit balloons to almost $40 million. He takes up more than 17% of the Bills’ entire cap. All of the other moves discussed in this piece offer a fraction of the savings the Bills could realize by reworking Allen’s contract — it’s just the hardest move to swallow, which is why it’s put off toward the end.
Let’s pick a round number and say the Bills convert $25 million of Allen’s $27.5 million base salary next season into a bonus that spreads out over the next five seasons. Only $5 million of that bonus would be charged to 2023 for cap purposes, opening $20 million in cap space, but 2024, 2025, 2026 and 2027 would all pick up that additional $5 million charge, too. Allen’s cap hit is already scheduled to rise to $41.772 million in 2024 and $51.272 million in 2025. Do the Bills want to keep adding dead money to future years to help themselves in the present? They might not have a choice. This is the way things go in the NFL.
Brandon Beane made headlines for saying in his season-ending news conference that he never wants to “suck bad enough” to get a player like Ja’Marr Chase at the top of the draft. It’s hard not to think of that comment when considering pushing major cap hits into the future. Beane doesn’t want to put himself in a position where the team can’t be competitive because of bloated contracts and dead money, dealing with situations like the Falcons, Bears or Saints have seen recently.
One final consideration is that while Allen’s pay is high, he is compensated at the going rate for top veteran quarterbacks — and you could even argue he’s already a bargain. Allen’s 2023 cap hit currently ranks fourth among quarterbacks, trailing Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes. Joe Burrow’s extension will almost certainly surpass Allen’s deal, and Jalen Hurts could be in a similar range. Allen is under contract through 2028, but there’s a good chance he (or his agent) will want a raise before that time comes. You can bet his next deal is already in the back of Beane’s mind. The only saving grace is the salary cap should continue to rise each consecutive year. Maybe the Bills will perpetually restructure Allen’s deal every year until he retires and then have to endure some lean years after that. For many GMs, it seems better to go for broke now and let someone else deal with the mess.
10. Take a look at restructuring other top contracts: Stefon Diggs, Tre’Davious White, Dion Dawkins
Most of the concerns in the Allen segment also apply to these contracts, just at lower numbers. The Bills’ cap is very top-heavy, with the five largest hits (Allen, Diggs, White, Dawkins and Miller) scheduled to account for over half of their cap space. While Beane did acknowledge that there will likely not be a Miller-like signing this offseason, if the Bills need space for a serious addition, they’re probably going to have to take it from one or more of their biggest deals.
The Bills can’t really restructure Miller’s contract this year, so Diggs, White and Dawkins are the likely candidates (as well as Milano and Morse, who were mentioned earlier). Diggs remains an elite talent — no issues putting dead money into the future, unless his emotional on-field displays are way worse than we know and the Bills think they might someday end up trading him.
White is another player the Bills probably want around in the future, so no issues extending his dead money unless they have lingering concerns about him returning from his ACL injury. If he were to retire at any point, the cap charge would be the same as if the Bills released him.
Restructuring Dawkins gets a bigger question mark than Diggs and White given that his ceiling isn’t quite as high. White and Diggs have played at elite levels in the past, while Dawkins has been good. If the Bills ever think they might be able to get similar performance for cheaper, they’ll want as little dead money on this deal as possible.
The bottom line
The Bills will be Super Bowl contenders for as long as Josh Allen gives them elite performance. They know they’re in their window, and they proved it when they signed Von Miller last offseason. It’s time to strike, and it’s clear the Bills need more pieces to win it all.