ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- For years, the New England Patriots' savvy management of the NFL's salary cap has led to younger and cheaper players replacing big-ticket free agents who signed elsewhere after their cost had exceeded their value.
This season, the tables appear to have been turned against the Patriots by their long-suffering division rival, the Buffalo Bills.
The Bills made a series of Patriots-like decisions this offseason, particularly in their secondary, which have played a large role in Buffalo's defense allowing a league-low 13.5 points per game. The Bills also lead the AFC East with a 3-1 record through the first quarter of the season.
Meanwhile, the Patriots own a disappointing 2-2 record, one of the league's worst defenses and the five-year, $65 million contract of former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has under-performed after signing a lucrative free-agent deal in March.
Instead of assigning Gilmore the $14-million franchise tag or awarding him a long-term deal, Buffalo spread out its cash to find a new group of starters in its secondary. That process began in March, when the Bills signed free-agent safeties Micah Hyde (Green Bay) and Jordan Poyer (Cleveland), and continued in April when cornerback Tre'Davious White was selected in the first round. It was completed in August when cornerback E.J. Gaines was acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Rams.
In all, Buffalo has received 4-for-1 value in letting Gilmore walk. The Bills' four top defensive backs -- Hyde ($4 million), Poyer ($2.475 million), White ($1.834 million) and Gaines ($1.797 million) -- count about $10 million against the team's salary cap in 2017. That is only slightly more than the $8.568 million hit for New England from Gilmore's contract, which averages $13 million per season -- or more than the $11.872 million total that Hyde, Poyer and White will be paid on average through 2020.
Moreover, Buffalo added to its future draft assets this offseason while reassembling its secondary.
In April, the Bills traded down from No. 10 to No. 27 to select White, acquiring the Kansas City Chiefs' 2018 first-round pick in the process. In August, the Bills traded incumbent starting cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round selection. And if the Bills release three of their unrestricted free-agent signings from this offseason by Week 10, they will position themselves to receive another 2018 third-round pick for losing Gilmore under the NFL's compensatory draft selection system.
It has been textbook maneuvering by Buffalo, similar to what New England has done in planning for the future while saddling other teams with bloated contracts and diminished draft capital. Now the Patriots seem to be on the losing end of the equation, weighed down by Gilmore's deal and lacking extra early-round picks.
The results for Gilmore, an up-and-down player in five seasons with the Bills, through four games in New England have been subpar. Some of Gilmore's miscues in Sunday's loss to the Carolina Panthers helped drop the Patriots to 2-2 and out of first place in the division. With issues in their secondary, the Patriots' defense has allowed 32 points per game -- second-worst in the NFL -- and is on track to be the worst by one advanced statistical measure in the NFL since at least 2006.
Pro Football Focus' grading has also not been friendly to Gilmore this season. They rank him 71st among NFL cornerbacks. The Bills have two cornerbacks (White No. 5 and Gaines No. 18) in the top 20 of PFF's grading, while Poyer is No. 8 among safeties and Hyde is No. 34.
The Bills' secondary, which also includes nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson, has held opponents to only one passing touchdown this season. That is the fewest in the NFL and can be attributed to a bend-but-don't-break style implemented by first-year coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
Buffalo ranks in the middle of the pack in average opponent drive distance (27.5 yards, 10th-best in NFL), opponent three-and-out percentage (32.6 percent, 16th-best) and opponent third-down conversions (38.6 percent, 15th-worst in NFL). But the Bills have the third-best red zone defense (opponents convert touchdowns on 36.4 percent of trips) and allow the second-least points per drive (1.26).
The Bills have also allowed only four pass plays of 25 yards or more, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. The Patriots, with 15, are tied for the most.
"The coaches preach every day, no big plays," Hyde said Tuesday.
Although the Bills caught a break Sunday when Falcons receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu did not finish the game because of injuries, their secondary still helped hold Atlanta to its fewest points at home, 17, since 2015. Matt Ryan also posted his lowest Total QBR, 50.3, since Week 7 of last season.
Every member of the Bills' secondary has contributed to its success. Poyer is tied with Green Bay's Josh Jones as having the most sacks (2.0) among defensive backs through four weeks. Gaines is tied with two others for having the most forced fumbles (two). Hyde, with three interceptions, is tied for the league lead with Colts safety Malik Hooker.
White has also impressed. He ranks second among defensive rookies with 256 snaps, having started all four games and played in almost every snap. He leads the NFL in pass breakups, with six. He snagged his first career interception in Week 3 and made the alert play in Sunday's upset win over the Atlanta Falcons, returning a fumble from Matt Ryan 52 yards for a touchdown.
White, who was named the NFL's defensive rookie of the month for September, has made the Bills forget about Gilmore from virtually the day he stepped in the door as a first-round pick in the spring.
"Going back to OTAs and the offseason program, we were all very impressed at his maturity early on," McDermott said Monday of White. "The way he was able to gather information and then take it to the field once we got into OTAs when we could go onto the field, and then be able to execute his assignments as well as he did.
"It was evident to us early on that this guy could handle it, and we made a decision pretty early that he was going to be a starting corner for us and not have to wait until Week 2 or Week 3 or the preseason to make that move. We’ve been impressed all along with his maturity, his ability to be able to have a short memory, which you have to have at that position, and the mental toughness that’s necessary to succeed out there."