The Buffalo Bills have their work cut out for them this off season. Moves are already under way with the recent releases of Nick Barnett, George Wilson and Terrence McGee. The Bills cut ties with players who were not in their plans going forward but at the same time, the team opened up valuable salary cap space.
They'll need that space and perhaps even more to accomplish everything that needs to be done. That list could include re-signing their two most important free agents in safety Jairus Byrd and offensive lineman Andy Levitre. The team might also want to re-sign other free agents like Leodis McKelvin, Chad Rinehart(who could be the starting left guard if they are unable to reach a deal with Levitre) and Kyle Moore, although none of those three would cost anywhere near what it will take to keep Byrd and Levitre.
The Bills will also likely tender restricted free agent receiver David Nelson, which will cost $1.3 million and they'll need another $5.5 million to sign their 2013 draft class. All of this would be in addition to having cap space to sign outside free agents and bolster positions of need like linebacker, safety and cornerback.
The first move the Bills will likely make is to place the franchise tag on Byrd, which would take up $6.798 million in cap room. It’s much less expensive to tag Byrd than Levitre. The NFL doesn't have separate tag values for tackles, guards and centers so they group all of the offensive linemen together. If the Bills used the franchise tag on Levitre, it would cost $9.66 million. The franchise number for safeties is the third lowest by position. Only tight ends and kickers/punters have a lower franchise number.
The Bills can still negotiate with Byrd on a long term deal, if they so desire, but at least they know Byrd will almost certainly be here for the 2013 season. The window to use the franchise tag opened on Monday and will stay open for two weeks.
Byrd could still get an offer sheet when the free agency signing period begins on March 12th, assuming the Bills place the "non-exclusive" tag on him, but the team pursuing Byrd would have to put together a contract large enough to keep the Bills from matching it and then give up two first round draft picks as compensation. That probably won’t happen.
If the Bills try to reach a long term deal with Byrd, considered by many as the second best safety on the market this year behind Ed Reed, it could cost them quite a bit of Ralph Wilson's money.
In 2011, San Diego set the market for the top safeties in the league when they gave Eric Weddle a five year, $40 million contract which included $19 million in guaranteed money.
Last year, the Tennessee Titans initially tagged Michael Griffin, but eventually agreed to a five year, $35 million deal with $15 million guaranteed.
The Bills have a big decision to make with Levitre. I doubt there is much debate about his performance over the last four years. Levitre has started all 64 games since being drafted in 2009. He's one of only four picks from that entire draft to play in every game and while playing mostly left guard, Levitre has recorded starts at four of the five O-Line positions.
The question will be how much is he worth? It wasn't too long ago guards began receiving paychecks like they were tackles. The Bills got in on that action when they gave Derrick Dockery a seven year, $49 million deal with an $18 million signing bonus in 2007.
While Levitre probably won’t get that much total money, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see him receive anywhere from $6-8 million on the average, with a five year contract and a signing bonus in the range of $7-10 million.
Here's a rundown of the top 10 paid guards and the average salary of their contract, all of which were signed over the last two seasons:
Carl Nicks- Tampa Bay 9.5 million
Logan Mankins- New England 8.5
Jahri Evans- New Orleans 8.1
Davin Joseph- Tampa Bay 7.5
Ben Grubbs- New Orleans 7.2
Chris Snee- NY Giants 6.8
Josh Sitton- Green Bay 6.75
Justin Blalock- Atlanta 6.4
Marshall Yanda- Baltimore 6.4
Willie Colon- Pittsburgh 5.8
For what its worth, former Bills General Manager Bill Polian recently did an extensive breakdown on the 2013 class of free agents and he included Levitre in the first tier of players, which he reserved for those worth paying "big, starting caliber money."
The salary cap for 2013 is set at $121 million but the Bills rolled over $9.8 million in unused space from last year so they have a cap limit of $130.4 million. Keep in mind the Bills operate on a cash to the cap basis, so while signing bonuses are prorated over the life of a contract for league cap purposes, they could count 100% in the first year of a contract with the cash to the cap philosophy.
As of Monday, according to one league source, the Bills had just under $10 million in cap room but if you add in the rollover cap space, the number would be nearly $20 million. That figure did not include Tarvaris Jackson’s contract.
If you take out cap space for Byrd, Nelson and the draft picks ($13.6 million), that only leaves the Bills with about $6 million to play with.
They can always create additional space by releasing more players. Chris Kelsay is a prime candidate to be let go. Kelsay has two years left on his contract with a cap number of $4.975 million for the upcoming season and a base salary of $3.725 million. If the Bills release Kelsay, it would open up more than $4.1 million in cap space.
Another candidate for early dismissal is Brad Smith who has two years left on his four year, $14 million contract. Releasing Smith, whose cap number for 2013 is $3.8 million, would clear out about $2.8 million in cap room.
Smith has not been as productive with the Bills as he was with the Jets. In his two seasons in Buffalo, Smith has 34 carries for 203 yards and two touchdowns. He has 37 receptions for 392 yards and three touchdowns. Smith has returned 33 kicks for an average of 23.5 yards and one touchdown. He has thrown two passes (one in 2011 and the other last season) and both were intercepted.
Those two moves would give the Bills almost $7 million in space to work with and could then give them the ability to not only re-sign Levitre but pursue outside free agents.
The Bills can also create cap space without releasing players by restructuring some existing contracts with Ryan Fitzpatrick being at the top of the list. His cap number for 2013 is $10.45 million(second only to Mario Williams at 12.4). If you were wondering, cutting Fitzpatrick wouldn’t really make much difference. The Bills would only save $450,000.
Some teams will restructure contracts that have high base salaries but the Bills only have four players who have a base over three million dollars for the coming season. Mario Williams(6.5 million), Fitzpatrick(4.25), Kyle Williams(3.855) and Kelsay(3.725).
Without additional moves it appears the Bills would have to choose between keeping Levitre or going after other free agents.
With Mike Pettine joining the team as the Defensive Coordinator, there is speculation the Bills could go after some of the players who will probably be released by Pettine’s former team, the New York Jets. That group could include linebackers Bart Scott and Calvin Pace.
Safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell will be unrestricted free agents come March 12th and the Jets are currently more than $20 million over the cap.
The Bills might also pursue Jim Leonhard who will be unrestricted as well. Leonhard played for Pettine in New York and was in Baltimore in 2008 when Pettine worked under then Ravens Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan.