Why the 2016 Offseason is so Pivotal for the Buffalo Bills

“Your most important offseason is your next offseason.” This is a saying I’ve heard thrown around by the talking heads on ESPN, and current front office members in professional sports. This statement is entirely false. Every few years a franchise, regardless of the sport, is faced with a decision, or a series of decisions within a short time frame, that defines its trajectory for the better part of a decade. The Buffalo Bills are currently in this position, and I don’t think the folks at One Bills Drive are aware. I’m going to explain why this offseason is going to define the Buffalo Bills for years to come.

The 2015 season was a failure for the Bills. After a series of splashy moves, and big name hires the Bills extended their playoff drought to 16 seasons (I know, I know, insert lame joke about the drought being able to get a driver’s permit here). The defense failed to live up to the pre-season expectations of Rex and the fans; the team couldn’t stay healthy at key positions; and the offense was inconsistent due to its predictability and limitations.  So far, the 2016 offseason hasn’t been much better either. Due to cap constraints and poor financial foresight the Bills were forced to either release players outright, or let them walk in free agency. DE Mario Williams and CB Leodis McKelvin were released, LB Nigel Bradham left for the Philadelphia Eagles, and a few other quality depth players (WR Chris Hogan, RB/ST Anthony Dixon, and G Kraig Urbik) are no longer with the team. Now, I am not saying that losing all of these players will be catastrophic, or even a detrimental to the team’s record in 2016. However, these losses create a few problems that the front office is poorly prepared for. First, a few of the departures, specifically Williams and Bradham, occurred at positions already lacking depth. Second, the departures create added pressure to find better replacements at a time when the franchise’s resources (cap space and draft picks) are very limited.

Now, the offseason hasn’t been all bad. The Bills were able to resign LG Richie Incognito and franchise tag LT Cordy Glenn to provide some continuity along the offensive line. However, the Bills were unable to get a long term contract done with Glenn prior to the franchise tag designation deadline, and the Bills are now forced to pay Glenn 13 million guaranteed for one year. This presents two more problems. First, if Glenn, at a minimum, replicates his performance from last season the negotiation price for his next contract with the Bills will undoubtedly start at 13 million per year. If Glenn improves upon his 2015 campaign his baseline salary request will be even higher. Second, the team’s inability to get a contract extension done with a slightly above average left tackle doesn’t inspire confidence that the front office will be able to negotiate a long term contract extension with CB Stephon Gilmore, QB Tyrod Taylor, and LT Cordy Glenn next offseason. Historically, the Bills like to slow play negotiations, and drag them out for reasons that are beyond me. Athletes want be made a priority and feel wanted by their team during contract negotiations, and the Bills don’t always send that message. This strategy is often interpreted as either the team is being cheap, or undervaluing their star players. And while I don’t completely agree with either of those interpretations there is generally some truth in each one depending on the situation.

 

 

    Regarding QB Tyrod Taylor, the Bills have screwed themselves from the day they brought him into Buffalo. The Bills have ignored the importance and value of the QB position for the majority of my 24 years on this earth. Since the 1995 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills have drafted 5 quarterbacks. FIVE (’95- Todd Collins, ’04- JP Losman, ’07 Trent Edwards, ’10- Levi Brown, ’13- EJ Manuel). The franchise that has been searching for its successor to HOF QB Jim Kelly has only tried to draft its successor 5 times in 21 years. In that same 21-year span the Bills have drafted 16 running backs.

    The Bills brought Taylor into the fold last offseason out of a mix of curiosity and desperation. Taylor spent he entirety of his NFL career in Baltimore backing up QB Joe Flacco, and he was hungry for the opportunity to prove he was capable of being a quality NFL QB. His options were limited that offseason, as he only drew interest from Buffalo and Denver. Taylor was not going to get an opportunity to play in Denver as QBs Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler were firmly entrenched ahead of him on the depth chart. However, in Buffalo Taylor only needed to beat out EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel, both of whom were far from a sure thing to win the starting job.

Taylor chose to sign in Buffalo by agreeing to a 3 year, 3.35 million-dollar contract. However, what many people didn’t know when Taylor signed was that the third year of the contract (2017) would be voided if Taylor managed to play 50% of the in-game snaps in either 2015 or 2016, or if he was still on the active roster 5 days after the 2016 Super Bowl.

    This clause is the focal point of my issues with the Buffalo Bills front office. It literally keeps me up at night. The Bills track record for drafting and evaluating QBs has been utterly abysmal. In fact it has been so bad that the franchise is paralyzed by the fear that they might continue to get it wrong so they chose to ignore it and try to build around the QB despite the fact that the NFL is a passing league, and the in-game rules favor teams with good QBs. So, to compensate for this fear the Bills have tried to find Jim Kelly’s heir by signing aging veterans, projects, or diamonds in the rough. This isn’t a great strategy but it’s a strategy nonetheless. In 2015 the Bills tried to find a diamond in the rough by signing Taylor, but bet against themselves and their own interests by allowing this clause to be included in the contract.

    The Bills had all the leverage in the world during these negotiations, and they caved to the demands of an unproven backup QB by including this clause. The logical thing for the Bills to do would be to make the contract incentive laden so if Taylor plays well, exceeds expectations and starts more than 50% of the snaps in a season he gets financially rewarded and the Bills retain another year of control over their QB. The Bills were the only team that could offer Taylor the opportunity to do what he desperately wanted to do … be a starting QB week one. Regarding Tyrod’s contract situation, Bills GM Doug Whaley recently said, “Tyrod bet on himself and he won.” This is an incredibly frustrating statement for your general manager to make. The Bills and Taylor should both be rewarded for his rise to becoming an NFL starting QB. The Bills took a chance on Taylor and gave him an opportunity to compete when there was virtually no game tape on him in the NFL level, and they should have structured his contract to reward themselves for taking this chance as well. Instead, Taylor is in an excellent position to fleece the Bills, and make them look like amateurs to the rest of the NFL once again.

As we all know, Taylor won the starting job and put together a very respectable season. He played well over the 50% snap benchmark set forth in the contract so the third and final year of his deal was voided. Taylor threw for 20 TDs, 3,000 yds, and posted a 99.4 QB rating in 14 games. He ran for over 500 yds, and 4 TDs as well, further demonstrating his value and versatility. His on field play, while not spectacular, has been better than almost every Bills QB during the playoff drought and the front office has painted itself into a corner going forward.

The Bills have four options for how to address Taylor’s contract. First, the Bills sign Taylor to a long-term extension after the 2016 season. This is the most difficult scenario in my mind mostly because it is contingent upon his play and success of the team in 2016. The Bills will have 53.6 million dollars in cap space when the 2017 league year starts. Unfortunately, the Bills need to extend LT Cordy Glenn because they failed to do it this offseason, and lockdown CB Stephon Gilmore. Both figure to command large annual salaries combining to be somewhere between 20 to 25 million per year at this point. Additionally, the annual salaries for starting NFL QBs are continuing to rise. QB Brock Osweiler just received a 4-year, 72 million-dollar contract from the Houston Texans after making just 7 starts in his NFL career. Taylor is a sure bet to top that amount, and earn 20 million per year if he improves upon last season’s performance. I’m not a mathematician but those three conservative contract estimates total 40-45 million dollars. When you factor in the amount required to sign the 2017 rookie class the Bills will be getting close to the cap yet again.

Taylor might be the Bills franchise QB but at this point the available evidence is inconclusive at best. Taylor is proficient with deep sideline throws, but his ability to throw between the hashes is suspect to say the least. Either Taylor is physically incapable of making these throws at the NFL level due to his small stature and inability to see over the offensive line, or he simply wasn’t trusted to make those throws based on what the coaching staff saw everyday in practice. Additionally, Taylor struggled to stay healthy last season. It’s unfair to question Tyrod’s toughness because he took an absolute beating at times last year, and played on a sprained MCL in Tennessee just to get the Bills a much needed road win in early October. However, his durability is a concern because of his physical stature and style of play. Investing 20 million dollars in a QB that has a high potential for injury every season is risky (just ask the Eagles after they signed Vick to a big extension).

Second, the Bills can opt to let Tyrod walk next year in free agency. This would not be the most popular option with fans, but I believe this is the most likely option for the Bills at this point. Taylor’s best asset his is speed and agility in the running game. Going into the 2017 season Taylor will be 28, and approaching an age (30) where speed and agility are prone to diminish in many athletes. Losing the threat of mobility would be catastrophic for Taylor, and it would render him a completely one-dimensional unless he demonstrates he can throw over the middle of the field. Additionally, maintaining cap flexibility is one of the most underrated assets an NFL franchise can have, and if the Bills allow Taylor to walk they would save roughly 20 million dollars in cap space and maintain financial flexibility while still fielding a talented roster at many important positions and retain the option to draft their franchise QB in the 2017 draft.

Third, the Bills place the franchise tag on Taylor after this season. This would be the best of both worlds for the Bills and the fans, but an absolute nightmare for Taylor and his agent. The franchise tag price is based on the average salary of the top five highest paid players at the applicable position. In 2016, the franchise tag price for QBs was 19.6 million. Placing the franchise tag on Taylor buys the Bills more time to negotiate a long-term extension or figure out their next plan of attack while still being a competitive NFL team. However, this would require Taylor to double down and bet on himself yet again, but this time he would have the added pressure of staying healthy. I have a hard time envisioning Taylor would sign the franchise tender despite the fact that he would have millions of reasons to do so because the risk is greater than the one-year reward. I believe he would holdout, and attempt to force his way out of Buffalo in this scenario. A holdout here would destroy any leverage the Bills would have in trading Tyrod.

Lastly, the Bills can decide to trade Taylor now to avoid this headache altogether. Unfortunately, it takes two to tango and there aren’t too many dance partners available. The Denver Broncos make the most sense, and are probably the only realistic option for this to materialize. The defending super bowl champs are in a major cap crunch, and currently have QBs Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian as the only quarterbacks on their roster going into the draft. It would be tough to envision the Broncos starting their title defense with Sanchez under center, which is why I believe a trade is possible. Elway wanted Taylor before he signed in Buffalo, and according to reports, he has contacted the Bills about his availability. The Broncos have roughly 7.5 million in cap space this season, and would be able to absorb Taylor’s cap hit of 3.3 million if, and only if, they traded away at least two of their top three draft picks. Due to the rookie wage scale the salary cap hits for the rookies at each pick are set before the pick is even made. The Broncos have 10 picks in the 2016 draft and they are scheduled to need 6.3 million of their cap space for the rookie class cap hits. The Broncos top three selections, 31st, 63rd, and 94th carry cap hits of 1.45 million, 700K, and 606K respectively.

If the Broncos trade away their 1st and 2nd round picks they would save 2.15 million dollars from their rookie pool salaries. Therefore their rookie class cap hits would be lowered to 4.15 million. This would leave the Broncos with 3.4 million in cap space, which would be just enough to absorb Taylor’s cap hit of 3.3 million for the 2016 season. Now I’m sure you’re wondering why the Broncos would give up their top two selections in the draft for a QB that only has 14 NFL starts under his belt, and will be a free agent after the 2016 season. The answer is relatively simple, the Broncos have very few holes on their roster and John Elway isn’t afraid to push his chips into the center of the table if it means the payout could be another Lombardi Trophy on his mantle. The Broncos with Taylor would be a favorite to repeat as NFL champions in my mind because of their defense, running game, and the fact that Taylor takes care of the football (just 6 INTs in 2015). Denver’s Super Bowl caliber defense would give Taylor short fields and extra possessions to score points. Furthermore, Taylor is a perfect fit for HC Gary Kubiak’s offense, and the Broncos will have 69 million in 2017 cap space so they will be better equipped to resign/extend Taylor.

From the Bills perspective this trade makes even more sense. First, provides the Bills with two more picks in the top 80 selections of the 2016 NFL Draft. They would hold selections at 19, 31, 49, 63, and 80. This would be enormous for the Bills. The defense is in shambles. The linebacking core is incredibly thin, the defensive line lacks depth and lost a talented edge rusher in Mario Williams, and the secondary lacks stability due to the uncertainty of S Aaron Williams’ health. I’m already having nightmares about this defense playing the Patriots and trying to cover Gronk, Bennett, and Edelman. Luckily, the 2016 draft is absolutely loaded with defensive talent at every level of the defense.

The Bills would be able to draft their QB of the future, most likely Paxton Lynch from Memphis, with the 19th selection and still be able to draft at least two defensive starters with their next four picks. Lynch is an interesting prospect because he has the physical tools necessary to be a very good NFL QB but he wasn’t asked to make anticipation throws, read the whole field, or run a pro style offense in college. This doesn’t mean Lynch is incapable of doing these things, but it does mean that we don’t have definitive proof that he can do them. In Buffalo, Lynch would be asked to do the same things Taylor was. Take care of the football, make quick reads, rely on the running game, and throw the deep ball on occasion. Additionally, Lynch has a higher ceiling than Taylor so he might be able to grow with the offense over the course of the season.

In all honesty I don’t know what the best course of action is for handling the Tyrod Taylor situation. There are pros and cons to each option. However, I would like to remind everyone that the Bills were in a similar situation just five years ago with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Entering the 2011 season, Ryan Fitzpatrick had performed similarly to the season Tyrod Taylor just put together, and Fitz was about to be one of the lowest paid starting QBs in the NFL in 2011. Once again the Bills slow played negotiations, delayed signing him to a cheaper contract prior to the beginning of the season, and allowed Fitzpatrick to gain momentum and leverage by performing extremely well the first 5 weeks.

Shortly after Fitzpatrick led the Bills to a 5-2 start the team signed him to a large extension (6 yrs 59 million) because at this point Fitzpatrick had the Bills over a barrel. He had fan support and the attention of the league because he was winning games, and playing well. Shortly after the extension Fitzpatrick’s play regressed, and the Bills missed the playoffs yet again. The Bills finished 6-10 that season, and didn’t address the QB position until they opted to reach for EJ Manuel in 2013. Fans went from feeling good for the scrappy QB with a bushy beard and an economics degree from Harvard to wondering just how long the Bills were going to be stuck with him. And while the Bills weren’t stuck with him for much longer (he was cut prior to the 2013 season), it set a poor precedent in my mind.

The Buffalo Bills are a weak organization. They have difficulty identifying talent at the game’s most important position, so when the team experiences slightly above average QB play a feeling of panic almost sets in that paralyzes the franchise. Fans rush to judgment about whether we have found our franchise QB because Fitzpatrick and Taylor aren’t as bad as Kelly Holcomb, JP Losman, Trent Edwards, etc. The organization struggles to commit out of fear that the other shoe will fall and the rest of the league will laugh at them for failing once again. This cycle needs to end, and it needs to end quickly. I need the Buffalo Bills to act like a franchise again. Be confident, know what your next move is, and if you don’t know then fake it and act like you do. Stop being held captive to the demands of relatively unknown players like Fitzpatrick and Taylor in contract negotiations. I want a franchise that is proactive, decisive, and won’t get caught with it’s pants down at important moments like it has so many times in my life.

Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. The repetition is happening right in front of our faces and most of fans are too drunk to notice. I hope the Buffalo Bills prove me wrong this time, but their track record and philosophy lead me to believe nothing will change. Taylor will play well, not unbelievably well, but well nonetheless. The Bills will panic and sign Taylor to a long-term extension that will inevitably delay the team from finding their true franchise QB for a few more seasons.