With Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus kick-starting talk of a new contract by declaring to reporters Wednesday, "Just turn on the tape," speculation has ramped up about what deal Dareus can receive from the team that drafted him four years ago.
The expectation is that the Bills are aiming for a deal somewhere between Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy ($14 million per season) and Miami's Ndamukong Suh ($19 million per season), which would lock up one of the NFL's best young defensive linemen but also place a heavy burden on the team's salary cap at a position where spending is already high.
The biggest issue will be with fitting Dareus' cap number under the Bills' 2016 salary cap. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bills already have about $143 million in 2016 spending, which would leave them with about $6.5 million in cap space next spring, a critically low number. Only the New York Jets ($5.4 million) and the Dolphins ($5.6 million overage) have less 2016 cap space at the moment.
The simplest way to create 2016 cap space would be to carry over unused space from 2015, but the Bills are tight this year, too. NFLPA records list the Bills with $6.2 million in cap space, with roughly $2-3 million of that budgeted for practice-squad and in-season signings.
The Bills can structure Dareus' deal to lighten the cap load over the next few seasons. For example, a $75 million deal over five years can be structured in a way that counts $10 million, $10 million, $15 million, $20 million and $20 million against each season's cap. But unless the Bills bloat Dareus' later cap numbers to extreme levels, it will be hard to avoid a double-digit cap hit in 2016.
Given the Bills' desire to extend other players, including tackle Cordy Glenn and linebacker Nigel Bradham, before they hit the open market next spring, the team will need a lot more than $6 million in cap space next season to accomplish their goals.
There's also the issue of a quarterback. If Matt Cassel succeeds as the Bills' starter this season, he'll be a free agent in the spring, meaning the Bills will either have to re-sign him to a potentially larger deal or find another quarterback, which is a potentially expensive proposition.
Here's how they can clear that space:
Void WR Percy Harvin's deal after this season: For cap purposes, the Bills included two extra seasons in Harvin's deal (2016 and 2017) that are both voidable by the team. Voiding Harvin's deal would save the Bills $8 million in cap space, although if he is successful this season, the Bills might be right back at the table, trying to re-sign him. Potential savings: $8 million
Extend CB Stephon Gilmore: It's not exactly logical to extend a player to create space, but the Bills can do that by negotiating with Gilmore before getting Dareus' deal done. The Bills executed Gilmore's $11 million option for 2016 but they can lower that number by approaching Gilmore with a multiyear deal that reduces his 2016 cap number (hypothetically to the $7-8 million range) but provides him long-term security. Potential savings: $3-4 million
Release Chris Williams before this season: The Bills' decision to sign Williams to a four-year, $13.5 million deal last offseason was an odd decision from the start, but they can get out from the deal this summer with only a few financial scratches and bruises. Releasing Williams before this season would save $2 million in cap space in 2015 and roughly another $2 million in 2016 cap space. If that $2 million savings in 2015 is carried over to 2016, the Bills could save $4 million total. Potential savings: $4 million
Release CB Leodis McKelvin after this season: The Bills could save about $7 million off their 2016 cap if they released McKelvin before this season, but that scenario seems less likely if veteran cornerback Corey Graham remains at safety. Still, the Bills could save considerable money by releasing McKelvin prior to next season, the final year of his deal. Potential savings: $3.9 million
Restructure DE Mario Williams: Williams ($19.9 million) has the highest 2016 salary-cap number for the Bills. The team's recourse with Williams would be to convert either part of his $11.5 million base salary or his $2.5 million roster bonus in 2016 into a signing bonus. That would spread either of those allocations between 2016 and 2017, lessening his cap hit in 2016 but increasing it in 2017. Extending Williams' deal past 2017 would mean paying him market rate for 2018 and adding back any 2016 savings, which is an expensive long-term commitment. Potential savings: $3-6 million
Restructure TE Charles Clay: Clay ($13.5 million) has the second-highest 2016 cap number for the Bills, which includes a $10 million roster bonus due on the first day of the 2016 league year. That makes his situation tricky, but from speaking to some agents about it, the Bills could still manage to shift around Clay's deal to reduce his 2016 cap number. Splitting his $10 million roster bonus into four signing bonus allocations of $2.5 million, from 2016-2019, would give him a $9 million cap hit over the final three years of his deal. Potential savings: $7.5 million