The Buffalo Bills have until March 11 to trade or release quarterback Tyrod Taylor if they want to avoid guaranteeing about $30 million of his contract, a decision that has been debated in Buffalo for weeks.
If general manager Doug Whaley and coach Sean McDermott have decided what to do with Taylor, they are keeping the choice under wraps. If they have yet to reach a conclusion, the clock is ticking.
Either way, what the Bills do with Taylor will have trickle-down effects on the team's salary-cap situation, its free agency approach, the draft and expectations for the upcoming season:
If the Bills keep Taylor:
This strategy maintains the status quo and plays into Whaley's comments immediately after this past season that he felt his team was "close" to competing for the playoffs. Unless Buffalo could somehow get Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in a Bills uniform, Taylor is the team's best option to start at quarterback in 2017. In keeping the offense's nucleus together, fans' expectations should remain high in 2017. Making the postseason would be the short-term goal, and results short of that should put pressure on both Whaley and McDermott.
If the Bills keep Taylor instead of releasing him before March 11, they will almost certainly exercise his contract option for the 2018-21 seasons. In doing so, Taylor's cap number will be $15.9 million in 2017 and the Bills will have about $21 million in salary-cap room, according to ESPN Stats & Information and assuming a $168 million league-wide cap. That is the sixth-lowest amount in the NFL, and given that the Bills would still need to retain a portion of their 26 unrestricted and restricted free agents, Buffalo would have little room to spend on outside free agents.
With about $21 million in salary-cap room, the Bills would be hard pressed to assign cornerback Stephon Gilmore the franchise tag by the March 1 deadline. The tag, which is expected to cost about $15 million for cornerbacks, would put the Bills in an extremely tight salary-cap situation unless they restructured several contracts. The Bills could push some salary-cap money into future years with left tackle Cordy Glenn, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, defensive end Jerry Hughes and others, but Buffalo's somewhat restrictive current salary-cap situation is partly the result of restructuring deals in past offseasons. At some point, it makes financial sense to curb the practice.
If the Bills keep Taylor, any speculation about trading or releasing running back LeSean McCoy should end. Exercising Taylor's option will financially tie him to the Bills likely through at least 2018, and there is no point in jettisoning McCoy when you want your quarterback to succeed.
The Bills will become significantly less likely to draft a quarterback with the No. 10 overall pick in April's draft. Selecting a quarterback that high often results in him becoming the starter within his first season or two. That would not make sense after $30 million is committed to Taylor.
If the Bills release Taylor:
Unless the Bills trade for Romo or can get him to sign with Buffalo -- in which case the Bills would make a push for the playoffs -- getting rid of Taylor would equate to pressing the reset button for the franchise. Whether its starting quarterback in 2017 is a journeyman veteran, the No. 10 overall selection or 2016 fourth-round pick Cardale Jones, the Bills' offense is destined to take a step backward in the short term in hopes of improving over the long term. Fans' expectations for immediate success would vanish, and both Whaley and McDermott would gain some job security as they attempt to build a winner over the course of several seasons.
If the Bills release Taylor, they will take about a $2.7 million dead-money hit and thus will save about $13.2 million of his $15.9 million salary-cap number against their 2017 cap. That will increase their salary-cap space from about $21 million to about $34 million. While that is still less than 17 NFL teams (at the moment), it should give the Bills more flexibility if they want to sign outside free agents (potentially a replacement starting quarterback at a cheaper cost than Taylor) or avoid restructuring existing deals.
The jump in salary-cap space that would result from releasing Taylor would give the Bills more breathing room to assign Gilmore the franchise tag. It is still debatable whether that move would make sense for a team that isn't likely to compete for the playoffs in 2017 without Taylor. Nonetheless, it would allow the Bills more time to reach a multiyear deal with Gilmore.
Any talk of trading or releasing McCoy is purely speculation at this point, but if Taylor is gone, the Bills should consider whether McCoy is more valuable playing for them or in acquiring draft assets. McCoy will turn 29 this July and should have at least a few more productive seasons in him. If the Bills are developing a young quarterback and do not expect to be legitimate contenders over the next two seasons, they should be able to fetch a high draft pick, or multiple picks, for McCoy. Any team acquiring McCoy will owe him non-guaranteed base salaries of about $6 million over the next three seasons. Because the salary-cap impact of releasing McCoy would be the same as trading him, simply letting him go for nothing would be illogical.
Terminating Taylor's deal would increase talk Buffalo could select a quarterback at No. 10. Who? That is difficult to say at this point, given the Bills are still in the process of evaluating prospects and are unlikely to offer an honest assessment of any player. Their selection would also depend on what happens over the first nine picks of the first round. Ultimately, the Bills could decide that no quarterback is worth their No. 10 pick and they will instead start either a journeyman veteran or Jones in 2017 and hope they have access to a top quarterback in the 2018 draft.