Bills among teams with shrinking middle class, but does it matter?

The Bills have 17 players counting between $1 million and $4.99 million against the cap in 2016. That marks a decrease from 21 in 2015 for GM Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan. AP Photo/Bill Wippert

In reading colleague Mike Reiss' always-informative NFL notes this past Sunday, the following nugget caught my eye: Did You Know, Part II: As noted by Miguel Benzan of Patscap.com, the Patriots have 38 players with a salary cap charge of $1 million of more, which reflects how [Bill] Belichick attempts to build depth.

It's often said that the NFL is a copycat league, and for good reason; you can bet that all teams, including the Bills, study the methods of the most successful clubs. Whether it's the Patriots' salary-cap management, the Packers' draft-centric approach or the Seahawks' taste for tall defensive backs, the strategies and philosophies of the best teams can often develop into league wide trends.

With that in mind, I was curious to find out how the Bills stacked up against the Patriots in building the "middle class" of their roster. If the Patriots were able to fit 38 players with cap numbers of $1 million or more under their salary cap, how many have the Bills squeezed in?

According to data gathered from ESPN Stats & Information, the answer is 27 players, which ranks 19th in the NFL and is below the league average of 28.1 players. The league high, not surprisingly, is the Patriots' 38 players. That difference would seem to reflect poorly on the Bills and jibe with coach Rex Ryan's comments earlier last month that the Bills lack depth.

But a closer look at the statistics reveals that while the Patriots have been highly successful in their approach of building depth, there is not a strong correlation between playoff teams and teams that stock their roster with players making $1 million or more per season.

Of the 12 playoff teams last season, five were below the league average of 26.4 players making $1 million or more: the Packers (26; 19th in NFL), the Chiefs (25; 21st in NFL), the Cardinals (24; 24th in NFL), the Texans (23; 26th in NFL) and the Seahawks (22; 27th in NFL). In 2014, seven playoff teams were below the league average of 25.1 players making $1 million or more, including the Seahawks.

Seattle hasn't been been able to afford as many players earning $1 million or more because they have been among the league leaders in players with cap charges of $5 million or more. They had 10 such "upper class" players last season, the most in the NFL, and their 11 such players this season is tied for second-most in the league. The more concentrated spending hasn't hurt the Seahawks on the field; they have the NFL's sixth-highest winning percentage since 2014.

As the NFL's salary cap has grown, from $133 million in 2014 to $155 million this season, the number of highly-paid players has also increased. In 2014, teams averaged 5.97 players with cap charges of $5 million or more. That grew to 6.84 players last season and sits at 8.63 so far this season. The Bills' growth in players counting $5 million or more against their cap has outpaced that average, doubling from five players in 2014 to 10 players this season.

While the size of the NFL's middle class has remained stagnant over that time -- the league average since 2014 has remained at about 19 players with cap charges of $1 million to $4.99 million -- the middle class of the Bills' roster has shrunk.

The Bills had 22 players counting between $1 million and $4.99 million against their cap in 2014; that number dropped to 21 players last season and it stands at 17 players so far this season. Buffalo isn't alone, either: 13 teams saw a decrease in the number of players earning between $1 million and $4.99 million between 2014 and 2015, and 14 teams have seen similar drops from 2015 to this season. The Bengals, Cardinals, Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers have joined the Bills in seeing decreases both years.

General manager Doug Whaley saw this coming. Last spring, the Bills already spent big on tight end Charles Clay, running back LeSean McCoy and defensive end Jerry Hughes, and Whaley knew the team would need to open their wallets again to re-sign defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, offensive tackle Cordy Glenn and others. Saying the Bills were getting "a little top heavy," Whaley added, "we’re going to start needing those young guys to come in and fill the bottom half of that roster because you’re going to have the haves and the have-nots and the middle class is going to start getting squeezed out, but that’s what happens when you have a lot of good players and that’s what we’re trying to do."

That's exactly what happened. Running back Fred Jackson ($2.6 million cap charge in 2015) was released before last season, and the Bills let go of guard Kraig Urbik ($2.65 million), cornerback Leodis McKelvin ($4.9 million) and running back Boobie Dixon ($1.31 million) this spring to help afford deals for Dareus, Glenn and others.

In their place, the Bills have turned to a combination of lower-paid recent draft picks and veterans earning minimum salaries. Since the end of last season, the Bills have signed eight veteran players who qualify for the NFL's veteran minimum benefit, which pays older players the league's mandated higher minimum salary but results in only a $600,000 cap charge (plus bonuses up to $80,000) for a one-year deal.

Between center Fernando Velasco, tight end Jim Dray, cornerbacks Corey White, Javier Arenas and Sterling Moore, safety Robert Blanton, and wide receivers Leonard Hankerson and Greg Little, the Bills have saved a total of $1.405 million in cap space by using the minimum-salary benefit. All of those players will count for either $600,000 (Little and Arenas) or $680,000 (the six others) against the Bills' cap, and will earn anywhere from $760,000 to $965,000 if they make the 53-man roster.

In signing those seven players, the Bills are getting good value against their cap and building depth, even if their strategy doesn't exactly mirror the Patriots' successful spread-the-wealth approach.