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If the Bills aren't tanking, what exactly are they doing?

Brandon Beane has done plenty of reshuffling in his first season as the Bills' general manager. AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes

Something interesting happened last week when I tweeted my season prediction of a 5-11 record for the Buffalo Bills.

Some fans were upset with the prognostication. But others said not only would the Bills do worse than 5-11 this season, but that the team should do worse in order to improve its 2018 draft position.

Yes, tanking has become a topic of discussion around Buffalo.

The approach taken by first-year coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane does not cleanly fit the definition of a team that is sacrificing short-term success in order to build for the future. But, the Bills aren't considered a contender this season either.

“[We have] enough here in Buffalo, talent-wise, that a tank really isn’t in our vocabulary,” center Eric Wood told NFL Network on Tuesday. “No one’s thinking that.”

So what exactly are the Bills doing? Those calling the shots view their strategy as trying to win now while building for the future.

At best, the philosophy will appease the playoff-hungry veterans in McDermott’s locker room, as well as antsy Bills fans who have been starved of the postseason for the past 17 seasons, while building the groundwork for success in the long term.

At worst, the Bills’ mishmash of personnel decisions -- some for now, some for later -- since January will result in more of the same for Buffalo, a middling franchise that is never good enough to contend for a championship but never bad enough to have the inside track to a top draft choice and potential franchise quarterback.

The latter possibility could stare the Bills in the face this Sunday when they host the lowly New York Jets. If the Bills lose, they will also concede the inside track (at least initially) to the No. 1 draft pick. And if there is a worthy quarterback on the board, there is not a chance the Jets deal that pick to their division rival in Buffalo.

Having a shot at the No. 1 pick is not out of the question for the Bills, who are projected by ESPN’s Football Power Index to win only 6.6 games this season. But despite their grim outlook, the Bills exhibit some of the hallmarks of a contending team, namely an experienced and expensive roster.

Using starting lineups projected by NFL Nation reporters as part of ESPN’s season preview, the Bills have the NFL’s 10th-oldest starting group on offense, with an average age of 27.45. Defensively, the Bills have the sixth-oldest starting lineup, with an average age of 27.33.

Buffalo's 22 starters boast an average age of 27.59, fourth in the league. Only the Cardinals (28.23), Ravens (28.00) and Patriots (27.82) have older starting lineups than Buffalo.

It is a peculiar spot for the Bills. The six other teams projected by FPI to win fewer than seven games -- the Jaguars, Rams, Bears, Browns, 49ers and Jets -- all fall within the 12 youngest starting lineups in the NFL.

In addition to being considerably older than the NFL’s rebuilding (and likely bottom-feeding) teams, Buffalo is also in a tighter salary-cap situation, which is partly the residue of former general manager Doug Whaley's tenure.

Using a projected leaguewide salary cap of $170 million in 2018 and carrying over Buffalo's $9.5 million in remaining 2017 space, the Bills have a total of $37 million in estimated cap space next year, according to ESPN Stats & Information. By the same calculation, the Jaguars have $46 million, Bears $51 million, Jets $77 million, 49ers $106 million and Browns $111 million.

Between the short-lived marriage of McDermott and Whaley earlier this year and the current pairing of McDermott and Beane, the Bills have made several personnel decisions that fit the model of a team attempting to win in the short term.

Some of their notable moves:

  • Bringing back seventh-year quarterback Tyrod Taylor on a restructured contract in March.

  • Retaining veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams (34 years old, $8.3 million cap number) and guard Richie Incognito (34 years old, $4.9 million cap number) while re-signing 34-year-old outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander in March to a two-year deal with $4.1 million guaranteed.

  • Signing seven unrestricted free agents to multiyear contracts that included a total of $31 million in guaranteed money. Because the Bills signed more unrestricted free agents than they lost, they are not currently eligible to receive what was expected to be a third-round compensatory draft selection in 2018 after cornerback Stephon Gilmore signed with the New England Patriots this offseason.

  • Informing LeSean McCoy, their best player, that they would not trade him.

  • Signing 36-year-old receiver Anquan Boldin in August, only to have him retire 13 days later.

  • Signing 31-year-old center Eric Wood in August to a two-year extension, including $14.2 million in guaranteed money.

By contrast, the Bills have made other decisions which fall more in line with the strategy of a rebuilding club:

  • Trading top receiver Sammy Watkins, the former No. 4 overall pick and one of the NFL's best talents at his position, to the Los Angeles Rams for a 2018 second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines, who is on an expiring contract.

  • Trading cornerback Ronald Darby, a promising former second-round pick who started 29 games over two seasons, to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 2018 third-round pick and wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who enters the final season of his contract.

  • Trading down from No. 10 to No. 27 in the 2017 draft in order to acquire the Kansas City Chiefs' first-round pick in 2018.

  • Not assigning Gilmore the franchise tag and allowing him to sign with the Patriots, as well as allowing wide receiver Robert Woods to sign with the Rams.

  • Not matching the Patriots' restricted free-agent offer sheet to former No. 2 running back Mike Gillislee.

Since the offseason began, the Bills have parted ways with nine draft picks chosen by Whaley from 2014 through 2016. Some of those decisions had more to do with scheme fit, which was the case with 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland; he was shipped to the Chiefs for a 2019 fourth-round selection late last month.

After the latest round of departures -- Buffalo traded 2016 sixth-round pick Kevon Seymour on Saturday and released 2016 fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams on Sunday -- McDermott gave his closest acknowledgement to date that the Bills might not necessarily be putting their best foot forward in 2017 in hopes of improving their chances in 2018 and beyond.

"I believe in the first year, when you look at it, you’re always going in and looking to make sure that you get the right people on board, on the bus, and get the people that are already on board in the right seats," he said. "That’s a natural occurrence ... [in] the first year at times. Some of those are tough, difficult decisions and unpopular in some ways. I recognize that. Brandon and I both recognize that. But it takes some of those decisions for us to get to where we’re trying to go.

"It’s very easy, [and] I think it happens a lot quite a bit out there, when you come in and you say, ‘Let’s err on the side of not rocking the boat.’ Well, short-term gain sometimes doesn’t equal long-term success. We want to make sure we’re doing both. We always do that with the team-first mentality. That comes with the territory."

The Bills' balance of short- and long-term roster building does not come without the risk of middling in the intermediate term, but McDermott prefers steps forward over steps backward.

"Everything we do has both short- and long-term goals in mind," he said in June. "When I say win for the future, it’s building a culture around us and a foundation that we win long-term, but that doesn’t mean we’re sacrificing short-term wins. Hard to do right, that balance -- but, it’s not, ‘Hey, we’re going to go young and bring all these young guys and try and win in a certain window of time, just not right now.’ No, it’s, 'We are winning now.' Our goals are to win now because winning now helps you sustain success down the road."