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Posted: Monday, 06 January 2014 11:43AM

Five Bills under contract to keep an eye on

(WGR 550) -- The level of optimism for fans of an NFL team usually reaches its peak right before the regular season is set to get underway. A close second for many are the unknowns and overall mystique of the off-season following an undesirable finish to a campaign.

For the 14th year in a row, that's where fans of the Buffalo Bills find themselves. The hope is that the front office will make the necessary moves to finally get the team over the hump in 2014, and that process starts even before any player reaches free agency or the draft comes around.

When a team goes into a complete roster overhaul in the first year of the regime with a new general manager and a coaching staff, usually there will be a little carry over from the previous regime. Once they get to their second full off-season, that's where the roster takes it's unique shape with however that duo wants to mold it.

The 2014 Buffalo Bills find themselves in that unique spot and there could be some interesting decisions heading their way. Sometimes, some major additions are by subtractions off the current roster.

In an NFL world where contracts aren't guaranteed, it makes parting ways with certain players under contract that much easier, with only slight monetary ramifications for most. When you see long-term deals signed, usually two or three years into the contract you'll see large roster bonuses that spur action for the teams. It's usually a case of either cutting your losses right then and there if a team didn't get the desired production, or they move on with that player on the roster.

The new league year starts in March, and the decisions on some players will need to be made beforehand. Which members of the Bills roster may be in jeopardy? Here are five to keep an eye on:

**Projected cap savings are without post-June 1st exemption, or if the team elects to prorate the dead money

1) WR Stevie Johnson
2014 Cap Hit: $8.5 million
2014 Roster Bonus: $1.75 million
If cut, cap hit would be: $8.475 million
Savings in 2014: $25,000
Savings in 2015: $8.85 million
Savings in 2016: $8.95 million

Wide receiver Stevie Johnson tops the list not only because his contract takes a giant leap in how much he's owed on the cap (almost a $3 million jump), but because perhaps the Bills have a player that has a similar skill-set to him starting on their roster (Robert Woods).  There is no doubting his talent, and there is definitely something to be said for how much he cares for the organization and the city of Buffalo. However, is his production and talent worth the contract and any potential headaches he may bring about to a no-nonsense type of head coach like Doug Marrone? That's a very large question that the Bills have to answer, and it's likely that the decision will come ahead of the start of the new league year with his $1.75 million roster bonus on the way.

2) RT Erik Pears
2014 Cap Hit: $3.45 million
2014 Roster Bonus: $100,000
If cut, cap hit would be: $550,000
Savings in 2014: $2.9 million

It's likely that the Bills move on from Erik Pears ahead of the 2014 season because of all the savings they can have from his contract. They'll need either Chris Hairston to get healthy once again or they'll need to draft a player at some point. If the Bills were to go with the more likely latter option, the drop-off in production at right tackle from Pears to say a mid-round rookie wouldn't be particularly noteworthy. At that point in the draft, they can find a player with tools to become a potential long-term answer that costs significantly less than the aging and declining player. Expect a new starting right tackle in 2014.

3) QB Kevin Kolb
2014 Cap Hit: $3.6 million
2014 Roster Bonus: $1 million
If cut, cap hit would be: $500,000
Savings in 2014: $3.1million

There's no arguing this point: the Bills must make a medical decision on Kevin Kolb before the start of the new league year in March. If they believe there is a great chance he can come back, play and be the veteran backup that they may be looking for then they should by all means keep him. That is a big if, however. Kolb's concussion issues are quite worrisome not even from an on-field perspective, but from a life perspective as well. With a $1 million roster bonus looming, the Bills will most definitely decide if he's got any chance of playing again on their roster before mid-March.

4) RG Kraig Urbik
2014 Cap Hit: $3.375 million
2014 Roster Bonus: $300,000
If cut, cap hit would be: $2.1 million
Savings in 2014: $1.275 million
Savings in 2015: $3.675 million
Savings in 2016: $4 million

Only one year into his brand new four-year extension signed during the 2012 season, Kraig Urbik did not have quite the same impact in 2013 as he did the season of his extension. It's telling that the Bills were trying to work in J.J. 'Unga to playing time just weeks after signing him to the active roster. The Bills are looking to upgrade at guard quite possibly on both the left and right side. It's likely that Legursky sticks around for the final year of his contract as a backup just because of his versatility to play both guard and center. With Urbik's salary, that kind of flexibility may not exist. With a $300,000 roster bonus, there may not be as big of an importance to make a decision on his future right away, and the Bills could even choose to bring him to training camp just as an insurance policy. But make no mistake, they are looking to upgrade both guard spots along the offensive line. It's no coincidence that Doug Marrone brought up the names of 'Unga, Mark Asper and Antoine McClain in the season-ending press conference as players that have "starting potential."

5) WR T.J. Graham
2014 Cap Hit: $777,813
If cut, cap hit would be: $335,626
Savings in 2014: $442,187
Savings in 2015: $887,813

This isn't an open-and-shut case by any means. With no roster bonus due in March, the Bills can take their time to see if T.J. Graham is progressing at all in his third training camp. The emergence of both Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, coupled with a likely addition to the wide receiver group through the draft might not bode well for Graham's future with the Buffalo Bills. He's got a lot of raw talent, but he just hasn't gotten significantly better. He can certainly play his way on to the roster with a strong training camp. If he fails to impress, however, he may not be one that makes it to the 53-man roster in September of 2014.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP
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