Brandon Beane took a roster devoid of talent and strapped for cash and turned it into a Super Bowl contender in two offseasons.
But the Buffalo Bills general manager is now facing the challenge of replenishing the roster with little funds and is doing so with a team that has plateaued with three consecutive losses in the second round of the playoffs. Some say it’s because quarterback Josh Allen’s extension is set to kick in with a $47 million cap hit next season, while others believe it’s through extensions to aging players.
The Bills have eight players whose salaries will each account for more than 5% of next year’s salary cap — including Allen’s 19.4% — but Beane has already said restructuring is coming for players during the offseason, even with Spotrac.com projecting the cap to rise roughly $18 million for 2024.
Beane feels the NFL was upended when the salary cap dropped $15.7 million in 2021 instead of growing 5-8% like it had since 2014. If even if the cap jumps to $242 million, the Bills are projected to be $56 million over that number before restructuring, making it not only difficult to sign new free agents, but keeping their 22 unrestricted free agents on the roster.
“I don’t know that that will ever be recovered,” Beane said. “… That started this whole trend around the league and especially with us, it jostled our planning. I don’t see us getting out of that anytime soon. When you’re paying a quarterback where you’re paying him and we’ve already had to do that just to be competitive these past few years. I don’t love it, but we want to be competitive and so we’ll do what we have to do.”
In three of the last four seasons, the Bills have only had three players account for at least 5% of the cap, accounting for fewer than 20% of the team’s salary cap, which would have ranked in the top-six among teams to reach the Super Bowl over the last 10 years. They have averaged 25.5 rostered draft picks since 2020 — with 23 left from Beane’s first draft in 2018 and three more from coach Sean McDermott’s first in 2017 — and only five Super Bowl teams have had fewer than 25.
The model is clear: better drafts create cheaper labor and a better shot to retain stars. Super Bowl teams with less than 30% of its cap space allocated to 5% players had an average of 27 ½ draft picks on the roster, compared to 25.6 draft picks for teams over 30%.
“Our job this offseason is to be truthful, be real,” Beane said. “Where are we good, but not great. And if we’re bad in some areas, that’s a no brainer. But don’t accept just being good, how do we make it great. … So if you lose someone, it doesn’t mean it’s always, the sky’s falling.”
What has hurt the Bills in comparison to those Super Bowl participants, however, is a failure to address a few key positions in the draft, which has led to massive spending in free agency at those spots.
In the four years prior to their Super Bowl berth — rookie contracts are four years, with option for a fifth for first-rounders — the last 10 years of participants have drafted 24 linebackers in the first three rounds of the draft, where immediate starters are typically discovered.
Linebackers are followed by cornerbacks and wide receivers (23), offensive and defensive tackles (16), defensive ends and safeties (15), running backs (14), interior offensive linemen (12), quarterbacks (10) and tight ends (4).
Under Beane, the Bills have taken three defensive ends, linebackers and running backs apiece, with just one interior offensive linemen and cornerback apiece, with no receivers or safeties.
The Bills have been fortunate to find third-day picks like Taron Johnson (fourth) and Christian Benford and Dane Jackson (sixth) to pair with or substitute for 2017 first-round pick Tre’Davious White, while Bean’s lone cornerback in the first three rounds, Kaiir Elam, is still trying to find a starting job. Receivers and interior offensive and defensive linemen are another story.
Gabe Davis was a solid find in the fourth round of the 2020 draft and the Bills acquired Stefon Diggs in return for a first-round pick the same year. But a receiver corps that was depleted when Beane and McDermott took over has been patched through trades or free agency.
Beane’s first crack was trading third and seventh-round picks in 2017 for Kelvin Benjamin, which lasted 18 games before he was released. Adding free agents like Cole Beasley and John Brown worked for a while, but the Bills couldn’t find adequate replacements when they began aging.
Since 2019, the Bills have allocated $58.822 million to receivers in free agency, including more than $4 million to Deonte Harty last season and he netted 15 catches for 150 yards.
The Bills hit on offensive tackles Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown, who have missed a combined eight games over the last three seasons. But they drafted Brown in the third round in 2021 after 2019 second-round pick Cody Ford flopped at guard and tackle.
The Bills gave Ryan Bates a four-year, $17 million extension after finishing strong in 2021, but his play wasn’t good enough to stop the Bills from taking O’Cyrus Torrence in the second round — Beane’s lone interior offensive lineman selected in the first three rounds — and signing Connor McGovern in free agency last year. Since 2019, the Bills have spent $88,947 million on interior offensive linemen in free agency, the most of any position group.
Beane was thrilled for Ed Oliver to fall to the ninth pick in the 2019 draft and he produced his best season, recording 9 ½ sacks after signing a $68 million extension. But Harrison Phillips — now with the Vikings — is the only other tackle taken in the first three rounds since 2018.
Buffalo has shelled out $74.369 million to defensive tackles since 2019, but now Oliver is the only interior defensive lineman on the books for 2024. Spending on interior offensive and defensive linemen and receivers has accounted for 22% of the salary cap over the last five seasons.
Perhaps the most egregious error has come with edge rushers. The Bills drafted three in the first two rounds, with Boogie Basham dealt to the Giants for a seventh-round pick before the season and A.J. Epenesa potentially leaving for free agency.
Yet the Bills have spent another $54.574 million on free agents and only one of them, free agent or not, has produced double-digit sacks, with Leonard Floyd registering 10 ½ this year. Another 5.4% of the cap spent on free-agent pass rusher has also failed to accomplish the intended goal of harassing the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow in the playoffs, posting four sacks total in the last four playoff losses.
“We definitely have some challenges,” Beane said. “And it’s important that every dollar we spend, that we spend it wisely. That it’s not on a guy that didn’t pan out. Like I said, I don’t know that we’re going to have some spare — let’s take two and half million and take a shot on this guy. And if we put $2.5 million, he better help us win.”
Salary cap misnomers
The idea that the Bills will be crippled by Allen’s contract is a fallacy if they can replenish the roster through the draft like the Chiefs and Patriots have done during their playoff runs. Of the last 20 Super Bowl participants, eight have had a salary that accounted for more than 10% of the cap.
Five of those teams were quarterbacked by Mahomes or Tom Brady, while a sixth was Peyton Manning when the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015. Five more teams had a quarterback account for more than 5% of the cap, while only two teams — Mahomes and the Chiefs in 2019 and Nick Foles and the Eagles in 2017 — won the Super Bowl with a quarterback making less than 5%.
Aside from quarterback, defensive end is the most common position among 5% players over the last 10 seasons, with 11 of them being on Super Bowl teams, followed by defensive tackle (10), offensive tackle (10) and receiver (8).
NOTES: The Bills announced Al Holcomb will replace new defensive coordinator Bobby Babich as linebackers coach. … The former Cardinals and Panthers defensive coordinator was a senior defensive assistant last year. … Assistant defensive line coach Marcus West is also the new defensive line coach, replacing Eric Washington, who left to become defensive coordinator for the Bears.