As the Buffalo Bills begin their offseason after having participated in their first playoff game since 2000, optimism is high for the franchise.
The Bills own the No. 21 and No. 22 picks in the first round of the NFL draft in April, as well as their own and the Rams' second-round picks. The Bills also own an extra fifth-round pick from the Jaguars as part of the Marcell Dareus trade.
In terms of 2018 salary-cap space, the Bills are expected to have about $36 million in space under a projected $176 million league-wide cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That includes about $12 million carried over from 2017.
The Bills have 18 players set to become unrestricted free agents March 14: quarterback Joe Webb; running backs Mike Tolbert, Travaris Cadet and Taiwan Jones; wide receivers Deonte Thompson, Jordan Matthews, Brandon Tate and Jeremy Butler; offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson; defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Cedric Thornton; linebackers Preston Brown and Ramon Humber; cornerbacks E.J. Gaines, Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright; and safeties Colt Anderson and Shamarko Thomas.
Buffalo has no restricted free agents but has four exclusive-rights free agents: tight ends Nick O'Leary and Logan Thomas, defensive end Eddie Yarbrough and cornerback Lafayette Pitts. If the Bills tender those players, who all have fewer than three seasons of NFL experience, to minimum-salary contracts, those players have no choice but to re-sign with Buffalo.
Otherwise, here is a look at the 49 players under contract for 2018:
Analysis: The Bills cannot officially release Taylor until Feb. 5, the day after Super Bowl LII. The more likely scenario, assuming the Bills do not deem Taylor their quarterback of the future, is to explore a trade with other teams. Any deal cannot be completed until March 14, when the new league year and free agency begins. Taylor has a $6 million roster bonus due on the third day of the league year that effectively becomes the deadline for the Bills to make a decision on him. Cutting Taylor would result in a $3 million cap hit; trading him would cost about $2 million. Either way, the Bills would save most of Taylor's $18 million cap number.
Analysis: There is an obvious lack of a proven No. 2 (or No. 3) option here behind McCoy, who has a $9 million cap hit next season and is signed through 2019. Re-signing Mike Tolbert and/or Travaris Cadet would be a start, but the Bills need to look for youth at this position in the draft.
Fullbacks (1): Patrick DiMarco
Analysis: DiMarco played 25 percent of offensive snaps this season. He has a $1.5 million base salary that becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year.
Analysis: Benjamin's $8.5 million fifth-year option for 2018, exercised by the Panthers last year, becomes fully guaranteed on the first day of the league year. It would be a major surprise if the Bills pulled the option before it becomes guaranteed to make Benjamin a free agent. Beyond Benjamin, the Bills need a step forward from Jones and more help from the draft or free agency.
Analysis: Clay's unspectacular production and lingering knee injury probably do not make him worth his $9 million cap number, but the Bills are still strapped by their decision to restructure Clay's contract in the 2016 offseason. Cutting Clay before June 1 this offseason would not save the Bills any cap space. If the Bills extend or tender O'Leary, an exclusive-rights free agent, this will not be a position of immediate need.
Analysis: There were reports of trade talks involving Glenn this season, and it would not be shocking if the Bills move him this offseason after foot, ankle and back injuries have limited the left tackle to a total of 17 games the past two seasons. Glenn has $6.5 million of his 2018 base salary become fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year, and has a $2 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the league year. That effectively puts a deadline on when the Bills could release or trade Glenn without incurring unnecessary cost. The Bills would save only $4.85 million of Glenn's $14.45 million cap hit in 2018 if they traded him, and only $3.4 million if they released him before June 1, but the marginal savings could be worth it to get Glenn off the Bills' books in 2019 and 2020.
Analysis: Unless the Bills decide to cut ties with Incognito, who turns 35 this year and has a $7.6 million cap number, this position is generally set in the short term. There is a glaring need in the long term because of the age of the starters.
Analysis: Hughes' four sacks this season were his fewest since 2012, but even though he has the team's second-highest cap hit ($10.5 million), it would be surprising if the Bills moved him this offseason because of the lack of other proven pass rushers on the roster. Lawson has generally been a disappointment since being taken No. 19 overall in 2016. Logically, Lawson could be a candidate to be traded this offseason.
Analysis: The Bills had Washington on the trade market last summer. He could be moved this offseason, but he is the only established player at the Bills' thinnest position. They need major help here in 2018, especially if Kyle Williams decides not to return.
Analysis: Expect a revamp here, with Milano the only player who appears to have a long-term future as a starter. The most immediate need is at middle linebacker as Preston Brown is set to become a free agent. Alexander turns 35 this year and enters the final season of his contract.
Cornerbacks (2): Tre'Davious White, Breon Borders
Analysis: The Bills got a bargain in paying Gaines less than $2 million in 2017, but his average salary could more than triple with a new deal this offseason. Gaines was a solid contributor to the Bills' excellent secondary when he was healthy, and he will draw interest on the free-agent market. Johnson, the Bills' slot cornerback, is also a free agent.
Analysis: Hyde and Poyer both played at or near a Pro Bowl level this season and are signed to long-term deals. This is a bright spot; the Bills just need to find some developmental depth behind the starters.