One of the key pieces of the Buffalo Bills' top-ranked rushing offense last season could be headed out the door, and if he does, it would be déjà vu for Buffalo.
The New England Patriots extended Bills running back Mike Gillislee a restricted free-agent offer sheet Tuesday worth $6.4 million over two years, according to an NFL Network report confirmed by ESPN. The Bills have five days to match the offer sheet; if they do not match it, the Patriots will send a fifth-round pick to Buffalo as compensation.
While the full details of the contract are not yet known, it includes $4 million in 2017. That would put some pressure on the Bills' salary cap if they decide to match the deal. According to NFLPA records, the Bills currently have $10.8 million in salary-cap space, a figure that includes Gillislee's existing $1.797 million restricted free-agent tender.
Matching Gillislee's deal would reduce the Bills' cap space by about $2.2 million, which would make their financial situation tighter but would hardly deal a crippling blow when the possibility of restructuring other contracts is considered. If the Bills do not want to lose one of their most productive younger players to their long-dominant AFC East foe, they would be wise to swallow Gillislee's deal and retain his talent.
If the Bills decide to match Gillislee's offer sheet, they would be keeping one of the NFL's best No. 2 running backs from last season and one of the league's most efficient rushers in 2016. On 101 carries, Gillislee led running backs with a qualifying amount of carries in yards per carry, first down rate per rush, touchdown rate per rush and third-down rushing conversion rate.
Gillislee will turn 27 in November but has only 154 career carries, which makes him a potential long-term replacement if LeSean McCoy -- who turns 29 this summer and has 1,898 career rushes -- shows signs of decline. Even if McCoy's Pro Bowl-level production continues, Gillislee offers insurance for the Bills in case of injury to McCoy. He also provides the secondary backfield option necessary in an offense that is again expected to slant heavily toward the running game this season.
If the Bills decide that New England's offer sheet is too rich to match, they will be left with 2016 fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams (27 carries, 94 yards, one touchdown last season) as their primary backup, along with Joe Banyard and Cedric O'Neal on their depth chart. Veteran fullback Mike Tolbert, signed this offseason, also could fill Gillislee's role in short-yardage situations.
Losing Gillislee to the Patriots would not only be the Bills' second significant free-agent loss to New England this offseason -- top cornerback Stephon Gilmore signed a lucrative deal in March -- but it also would repeat what happened last offseason, when the Patriots extended receiver Chris Hogan a restricted free-agent offer sheet that Buffalo deemed too rich to match.
Hogan made his mark for the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. His performance in the playoffs stung for the Bills, who received no compensation last spring for losing their former No. 3 receiver, because they assigned Hogan the original-round restricted free-agent tender, and he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
The Bills took some heat for not assigning Hogan a higher tender last offseason, and if Buffalo loses Gillislee to a division rival, it will be easy to question why it did not give Gillislee the second-round tender instead of the original-round tender. The higher tender would have cost the Bills about $2.7 million in cap space, just less than a $1 million increase over the $1.797 million tender the Bills decided to assign Gillislee.