Bills, in contrast to rival Jets, spent safely in free agency

GM Brandon Beane and the Bills completed the first wave of free agency having spent $77.25 million in guaranteed money on 11 signings. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

The success of the New England Patriots, winners of the past 10 AFC East titles, has largely rendered the rest of the division a wasteland.

Only two other teams -- the Miami Dolphins in 2016 and Buffalo Bills in 2017 -- have qualified for the playoffs in the past eight seasons.

While the Dolphins clung to quarterback Ryan Tannehill before plunging into a rebuild this offseason, the Bills and New York Jets have been traveling along similar paths for the past year in an attempt to construct a more solid foundation. New York boxed out Buffalo by trading up to No. 3 in the 2018 draft, infuriating the Bills before they could make a similar move up the board.

Ultimately, both teams got their young cornerstone quarterback -- Sam Darnold for the Jets and Josh Allen for the Bills, who dealt up to No. 7 -- and the clubs began the process of reassembling their rosters while lurking behind New England and 41-year-old Tom Brady.

The two AFC East rivals entered March and free agency with the same idea in mind: Use their advantage in salary-cap space -- about $76 million for Buffalo and $101 million for New York -- to build around their second-year quarterbacks.

The comparisons stop when examining the financial approaches to free agency used by Bills general manager Brandon Beane and Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan.

The Bills completed the first week of the free-agent signing period having spent $77.25 million in guaranteed money on 11 signings, including the February addition of Spencer Long after the veteran offensive lineman was released by the Jets.

The Jets' strategy was more targeted toward top-of-the-market names. They doled out $103 million in guarantees to three players alone -- running back Le'Veon Bell ($35 million), linebacker C.J. Mosley ($51 million) and wide receiver Jamison Crowder ($17 million). They also traded for Raiders guard Kelechi Osemele, who is all but certain to earn his $10.2 million salary this season.

Maccagnan, who has a background scouting in multiple professional football leagues, could argue he prioritized quality of talent over quantity of players. The Jets added a combined nine Pro Bowl appearances among Bell, Mosley and Osemele.

Of the Bills' 11 signings, only two have made a Pro Bowl -- running back Frank Gore, who last made the trip in 2013, and wide receiver Andre Roberts, who upon signing with Buffalo questioned the Jets' decision not to re-sign him after making his first Pro Bowl as a returner last season.

Beane can argue he exercised financial prudence. The son of an accountant mother, Beane rose in the Carolina Panthers' front office while working in football operations and administration before later becoming immersed in scouting.

After being hired by the Bills following the 2017 draft, Beane began a series of roster moves in order to shed salary and acquire the draft picks that were later used to select Allen. That eventually left Buffalo with a mass of salary-cap space as the team entered the 2019 offseason, but in a February letter to season-ticket holders, Beane wrote he would be "active" but "calculated" in spending the money.

The result was Buffalo rolling the dice on several free agents at three key areas of need -- wide receiver, tight end and offensive line -- and projecting them to play bigger roles or perform better than they did for their previous teams.

Ty Nsekhe, who played no more than 39 percent of offensive snaps the past four seasons for the Washington Redskins, signed a deal with Buffalo that will guarantee him $7.7 million and puts him in line to start at offensive tackle. Former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Kroft, who averaged 17 catches for 165 yards in four seasons while backing up Tyler Eifert, will be guaranteed $8.3 million from Buffalo and likely start at tight end. For $9 million per season and $11.6 million guaranteed, the Bills are expecting John Brown to post numbers closer to his 2015 season for the Arizona Cardinals -- 65 catches for 1,003 yards and 7 touchdowns -- than his ensuing three, less productive seasons.

The exception for Buffalo is center Mitch Morse, who will lead the NFL at his position in earning $11.125 million per season. Morse's $27.5 million guaranteed is almost double that of any other Bills signee but significantly less than what the Jets devoted to Mosley and Bell.

Outside of Morse's contract, which would trigger $10.25 million in dead money if the Bills cut ties before 2021, all of the deals Beane and his staff constructed allow Buffalo a financially viable way out after one season.

In general, the Bills' free-agent deals include larger roster bonuses and guaranteed base salaries in the first season and lower signing bonuses, which get applied to the salary cap over the life of the contract and are the main source of "dead money" when players are released. Buffalo's philosophy took advantage of the team's 2019 cap space to satisfy players with up-front cash while still affording roster and salary-cap flexibility in 2020 and beyond.

If needed, the Bills could reshuffle their deck next offseason and make a new wave of investments in free agents.

"We definitely are trying to structure it so we're not having to do crazy cap moves and things like that," Beane said last week. "Not to say you never get there, but you try and stay as flexible as you can because it gives you more power and more leverage.

"I'll give you an example: If we're up against a team who is close to the cap, they got to make moves. They have to do things that are not easy. We don't have to do that. If there's a chance to trade for a player with a high [cap] number, we can still be aggressive."

The Jets made a longer-term commitment to their top free agents. Releasing or trading Bell before 2021 would result in $19 million of dead money. Cutting Mosley before 2021 would cause $30 million in dead money, and dropping him before 2022 would still leave the Jets on the hook for $12.5 million. Crowder's $8.5 million salary in 2020 is fully guaranteed, virtually ensuring he'll be with the Jets until 2021.