The March 4 deadline for NFL teams to extend the franchise tag came and went yesterday with a few surprises. A number of quality unrestricted free agents, that were thought to potentially be decent options for the franchise tag, were passed over and can now test the free-agent market.
What kind of a player will the Bills be in free agency this year based on their salary cap space and remaining free agents left to sign?
In an episode of Pro Football Talk last week, the show listed Buffalo's current salary cap number at $100.6 million, which is roughly $22.4 million below the 2013 revised salary cap figure of $123 million.
With that $22.4 million, the Bills need to come up with enough money to sign all their key draft picks in addition to signing some of their remaining free agents prior to the start of free agency. The reps for free agents can start fielding calls from different teams this Saturday, March 9. That leaves the Bills just four days this week to work out contracts for Andy Levitre and the remaining free agents.
If no deal is reached as of Saturday morning, the rest of the league will be able to start laying the groundwork for the size and scope of offers they want to run by the player agents. Bills fans will recall that scenario was how the team lost Paul Posluszny to Jacksonville.
Regarding the other free agents, there is no way Buffalo has enough money left to bring all of these players back, nor would they want to. Doug Marrone's staff has been relatively quiet about which free agents they want to retain and which free agents they are prepared to let walk away.
Here is a list of the remaining free agents Buffalo can consider bringing back.
Offense Free Agents: TE Mike Caussin, RB Tashard Choice, TE Dorin Dickerson, G Andy Levitre, WR Ruvell Martin, FB Corey McIntyre and G Chad Rinehart.
Defense Free Agents: DL Spencer Johnson, CB Leodis McKelvin, DL Shawne Merriman, DE Kyle Moore, LB Kirk Morrison and LB/S Bryan Scott.
From these options, the Bills will no doubt bring back a handful of these veterans and will let the rest leave. Many of these decisions boil down to who will be a good fit for the schemes that Mike Pettine and Nate Hackett want to run in 2013.
Once you subtract the compensation required to sign the free agents listed above, that remaining sum of $22.4 million will quickly dwindle down. The Bills don't look like they will be a factor in free agency this year because they simply won't have enough salary cap space left to work with.
Prior to the start of free agency, which officially begins on March 12, the Bills can free up some additional salary cap space by asking some veterans to restructure their contracts. That practice can get a team into trouble however.
Eventually, shoving salary cap monies into future years catches up with you. Ultimately teams have to release a number of players to get under the cap. We have seen examples of that recently with the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders. It can get rather ugly when you have to say goodbye to your best players due to poor financial management.
One good example of a contract that is screaming to be re-worked is that of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. We all saw the team-friendly deal that Tom Brady recently signed with the New England Patriots that reduced his 2013 salary cap hit. That might free up enough money that allows the Patriots to sign Wes Welker to a long-term contract.
What prevents the Bills from asking Fitzpatrick to do the same thing so that the team can try to retain Levitre?
As things stand now, Fitzpatrick represents a $10 million salary cap hit for the Bills in 2013. That much will count against the Bills cap if he remains with the team or if he is released. The team right now is scheduled to pay Fitzpatrick a $3 million bonus, which is due on March 13, a week from tomorrow. That gives the team eight days to re-work the old contract, but we don't know if that is something Fitzpatrick is willing to do.
In case you have forgotten what exactly the Bills agreed to pay Fitzpatrick, here is a brief review. He will receive a base salary of $4.25 million along with the $3 million roster bonus this year. In 2014, the number goes up to $4.35 million base along with another $3 million roster bonus. In 2015, it is just a base salary only ($7.2 million). In 2016, the base salary jumps up to $8.75 million. 2017 represents the final year of his contract, when he is scheduled to earn $9.45 million.
So that means that Fitzpatrick can still collect $40 million over the remaining years of his contract, as he has collected $22 million so far out of the original $62.195 deal he signed back in 2011.
Looking over the numbers, and reflecting on the performance of Fitzpatrick since the deal was struck, you would hope something can be done to give the Bills some relief. That $10 million salary cap hit for this year is tying the Bills' hands on what they can do with Levitre. The Bills may wind up starting Chad Rinehart or drafting a rookie to replace Levitre.
But the quality of the offensive line would suffer as a result.
It will be difficult to see Levitre leave in free agency if the Bills can't find a way to sign him to a new deal. According to Pro Football Focus, Levitre was ranked as the No. 9 guard in 2012 and was No. 6 overall in 2011. To see a consistent top-10 player leave in the prime of his career is hard to accept when so many other players on the roster are not even close to being a top-10 performer.
Levitre has been reliable, and his ability to play multiple positions is something that is invaluable. At least the Bills took care of Jairus Byrd for 2013, but they still have to find a way to come up with the money to keep him here longer than just one more year.
What would it take to sign Levitre to a new deal?
Over the last two years there have been a number of new contracts signed by players that can be considered to be top-10 guards in the league.
New Orleans signed Ben Grubbs (five years for $36 Million) and Jahri Evans (seven years for $56.7 million). Tampa Bay signed Davin Joseph (seven years for $52 million) and Carl Nicks (five years for $47.5 million). New England signed Logan Mankins (six years for $51 million). Finally, we have Baltimore signing Marshall Yanda (five years for $32.5 million).
Although Levitre has never been named to an All-Pro team, his play has proved to be worthy of the honor. His compensation should wind up being in the range of the contracts we listed above. Whatever the specific 2013 salary cap hit winds up becoming, it would likely wipe out at least half of the $22.4 million figure that the Bills have left to operate with.
The 2013 offseason is the beginning of the Russ Brandon era in running the organization. How Brandon and his staff navigate over the next two weeks will be a preview of what Bills fans can expect in the years that follow. Some difficult decisions lay ahead for the Bills.
Note: This article was re-edited on 3/5/2013 to reflect correct changes in Bills salary cap number.
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