The Buffalo Bills have 23 players set to become unrestricted free agents March 9, as well as a looming decision on whether to release starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor. But one of their most important moves in the coming weeks will involve one of their four restricted free agents, running back Mike Gillislee.
While LeSean McCoy rightfully received much of the attention in the Bills' backfield last season, Gillislee's production was similarly impressive. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gillislee led qualifying NFL running backs with a 5.7 yards-per-carry average, topped the league with a 12.6 rush-to-touchdown ratio, and posted NFL-best marks in first-down percentage per rush (38.6) and third-down conversion percentage on rushes (75 percent). Overall, he ran 101 times for 577 yards and eight touchdowns -- and never lost a fumble.
The Bills have until the start of the free-agent signing period to assign Gillislee a restricted free-agent tender, and which level they choose could determine whether another team swipes Gillislee away like the New England Patriots did last offseason with wide receiver Chris Hogan.
Strapped for salary-cap space, the Bills assigned Hogan the cheapest restricted free-agent tender, worth $1.65 million last year. The tender required any other team signing Hogan to give the Bills a draft pick equal to the original round in which he was selected, but because Hogan was undrafted, the Patriots signed Hogan without having to give the Bills anything in return.
While Hogan was never a star in Buffalo and clearly benefited from playing with Tom Brady last season, he proved valuable for the Patriots when it counted the most. Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards in the AFC Championship Game and made several key plays during the Patriots' comeback in the Super Bowl, giving the Bills' division rival production they could have used when a rash of injuries hit their wide receivers last season.
The Bills have until March 9 to assign Gillislee an original-round tender, a second-round tender or a first-round tender. Last offseason, those were one-year deals at $1.5 million, $2.5 million and $3.6 million, respectively. Those amounts will increase this year proportionally to the NFL's salary-cap increase, which has yet to be finalized.
Gillislee was a fifth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in 2015, so if the Bills assign Gillislee the original-round tender, any team extending Gillislee an offer sheet must surrender a fifth-round pick to the Bills if Buffalo did not match the offer. Like the Patriots and Hogan's deal last season, another team could front-load the deal and put the squeeze on the Bills, who currently have the seventh-least cap space (a projected $21 million) for 2017.
Gillislee's production the past two seasons should draw plenty of attention from potential suitors as he eyes free agency next month, and giving up a fifth-round pick for Gillislee might not be unreasonable for some teams. If the Bills value Gillislee as much as their competition, they should assign him either the second-round tender or the first-round tender, ensuring prime draft-choice compensation if another team attempts to swipe Gillislee.
The salary-cap cost of either tender should be workable for Buffalo. But if the number proves too rich for their current cap situation, the Bills could attempt to negotiate a long-term deal that lowers Gillislee's cap hit in the first year while keeping him under the team's control for the next several seasons.