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With stars nearing big paydays, Buffalo Bills need to nail 2021 NFL draft

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Every draft is important, but it is especially critical the Buffalo Bills do not miss on their picks when the 2021 NFL draft begins Thursday in Cleveland (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN app).

The Bills' goal since general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott arrived in 2017 has been to draft, develop and re-sign their own players. The third phase in that process began last season.

Buffalo extended the contracts of left tackle Dion Dawkins and cornerback Tre'Davious White in 2020, and re-signed the third member of that 2017 class -- linebacker Matt Milano -- to a four-year, $41 million deal in March. That is just the beginning.

The May 3 deadline to exercise the fifth-year extensions for quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is fast approaching, and neither will be inexpensive. The 2018 first-round picks have combined to make three Pro Bowls and thus carry fifth-year cap hits of $23.1 million for Allen and $14.7 million for Edmunds.

The key to remaining a contender while they prepare to pay their young core, is to get quality play from their draft picks during their rookie contracts.

Allen's contract is the most important for Buffalo, and he is likely to agree to an extension before he ever plays on his fifth-year option. However, with the future of the NFL's salary cap still in question after dropping to $182.5 million for the 2021 season, the Bills are moving forward cautiously.

"The hard part this year is going to be the cap has gone down. I don't know exactly where it's going to be next year, probably not a huge increase," Beane said regarding Allen and Edmunds. "You can't really be flexible with those cap numbers, so we've got to make sure if we pick them both up, that we're going to have close to $35 million space in next year's cap. It's not an ideal scenario for that to pick them both up and not extend them. So we just got to kind of figure out how we can make that work in our system."

The Bills will have a projected $38.4 million in cap space for the 2022 season, per OverTheCap. But they'll also have decisions to make on cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson, special-teamer Siran Neal, defensive end Jerry Hughes and defensive tackles Harrison Phillips and Vernon Butler -- not to mention their 2021 draft picks.

The uncertainty regarding next year's cap creates the possibility Buffalo will have to part ways with one or more veterans to clear room for its younger, foundational players.

"We do have to look at what's coming down the pipe as far as guys that are going to be free agents next year, or are there players that are going to have a high cap number that we may have to make a tough decision on depending on where the cap goes?" Beane said. "There's less uncertainty than there was a year ago, but there's still a lot of uncertainty. Are we definitely going to have full stadiums, which impacts the revenue, which impacts the cap? ... I think [the cap] will increase from this year, but I don't think there's going to be a giant increase. I think a lot of teams, including us, are still going to have some tough decisions going forward."

Beane said during his pre-draft news conference the Bills are thinking "long-term more than short-term" with their first pick at No. 30 overall, suggesting they're prepared to develop a player who might not be ready to contribute in 2021. He also stressed the importance of finding contributors late in the draft -- something he has a decent track record of doing, with players such as Taron Johnson, Neal, defensive end Darryl Johnson, safety Jaquan Johnson, cornerback Dane Jackson and kicker Tyler Bass all being drafted in the fourth round or later.

"We've got to be smart with these picks," Beane said. "Finding as many guys -- cheap labor, if you want to call it. I use that term loosely, because player salaries aren't cheap, but in comparison to what you would be paying a franchise quarterback or what we're paying Tre'Davious and Stef[on Diggs] and all those guys, we've got to find some guys on the lower end, because you've still got to fill the team and you've got to find enough guys to line up and start for you."