Are the Buffalo Bills on the cutting edge of NFL economics or are they just reckless spenders?
That's the question that comes to mind when considering the Bills' five-year, $38 million offer sheet extended to free-agent tight end Charles Clay, whom the Miami Dolphins assigned the transition tag.
Yes, the Bills can afford the deal under their 2015 salary cap and, yes, the Bills should benefit from the projected growth of the NFL's cap over the next several years, making the contract more palatable.
But Buffalo's approach in crafting this offer runs counter to how smart teams typically build their rosters. It harkens back to how the Bills made Mario Williams the NFL's highest-paid defender in 2012 and how they dealt two first-round picks to acquire Sammy Watkins this past May.
In both cases, the justification for the high price was that it was necessary to bring both players to Buffalo. And in both cases, the exorbitant cost created high expectations that haven't always been met.
The ideal in the NFL is to find the defensive end who is worth $5 million but costs only $3 million, or to draft the receiver in the second round who is worth a first-round pick. That doesn't mean bargain shopping is the only way to win, but general mangers who understand value are often successful.
It's hard to find the value in this deal. Clay is a good tight end whose 2013 season (69 receptions for 759 yards and six touchdowns) is the closest he has come to justifying being the NFL's fourth-highest paid player at the position, which he would be if the Dolphins decline to match the Bills' offer.
But it's difficult to say Clay is worth $7.6 million per season, or that it's economical to pay him $20 million guaranteed. Regardless of whether that sort of money is necessary to lure him away from the Dolphins, it's overpaying for a player who must now meet inflated expectations.
Whether it's Williams or Watkins or Clay, the Bills aren't ill-intentioned in making these moves. Their goal is to make the playoffs as soon as possible, as it should be.
Yet what's lost in the shuffle is the concept of opportunity cost. By trading away their 2015 first-round pick to move up five spots for Watkins, the Bills lost their flexibility to trade that pick or use it on a player. By signing Clay for a richer deal than he's worth, the Bills are forgoing the chance to sign two players to deals for less than they are worth.
In the end, it might all work out for the Bills. Clay could be the missing piece they need to get to the playoffs, and he could be worth the cash the Bills are throwing his way. In that case, the Bills will have proven to be ahead of the curve.
But make no mistake about it, whether it's with Williams or Watkins or Clay, this isn't how smart teams typically do business.