As all NFL teams, coaches, general managers and players await the final days of negotiations and the subsequent voting on the final proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement, attention will then shift to the start of the league year and the beginning of free agency.
According to a story published yesterday by Mark Gaughan on BuffaloNews.com, if the projected salary cap for the 2011 NFL season turns out to be $120 MM, that would result in the Bills being roughly $38 MM under the salary cap coming in to the free agency period. That number was the result of adding up the compensation for the top 53 players on the Bills roster, according to the figures that the Buffalo News has on file.
So, if we can use the $38 MM as a focus point, what kind of a splash can the Bills make around the league in free agency, and what other things can Bills General Manager Buddy Nix do with that $38 MM to insure the Bills remain competitive for years to come?
Now, while the new CBA has not yet been officially approved, or received the necessary majority votes from the owners and the players, it appears that the current momentum in negotiations will be sufficient to gain approval from all interested parties.
Then we get into finding out all of the final details, such as what is the final salary cap number, and what percentage of the cap does every NFL team has to spend in cash this year, which we will refer to as the minimal salary floor. It is the new wrinkle in the CBA that forces every team to step up and spend more money to field a competitive team.
Consider it like this. This new wrinkle is like Bills owner Ralph Wilson walking over to General Manager Buddy Nix with a check in his hand for $38 MM and says: "I want you to spend all of this money and improve our team wherever you think it needs to get better."
With a check of $38 MM, Nix could either go after a few big-game prizes (like Nnamdi Asomugha) or spread the money out over a number of deals to improve the team. Nix could also take the cash and attempt to lock up some of the Bills who are about to be free agents in 2012. Let's take a look at what some of the options are for Nix to do with his bulging wallet.
When the terms of the new CBA is announced and the league year officially begins, it is expected that there will be a three-day window where the Bills can talk exclusively to their own free agents. The key free agents are linebacker Paul Posluszny, corner Drayton Florence and safety Donte Whitner. Out of the three, Buddy Nix has made it clear that the Bills are interested in bringing back both Posluszny and Florence.
Whitner is more of an unknown because we don't know what his current salary expectations are. At the end of the 2010 season, he was asking for a large raise, but the problem is that he doesn't play to the level of the money he is asking for. So, if his agent or advisers continue to be unreasonable, then he could likely walk away and the Bills turn the page on their former first-round pick.
The Bills will want to make sure that they lock up Posluszny. The New York Giants are currently searching for an inside linebacker, and their defensive coordinator is ex-Bills interim head coach Perry Fewell. Both Fewell and Posluszny wouldn't mind a reunion, so the Bills need to step up and make Posluszny happy so that he doesn't need to test the waters in free agency.
Regarding Florence, he is a productive player who still appears to have years left in the tank. He has been a consistent performer and has delivered better than his peers Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin, since he arrived in Buffalo. If Florence is amenable to staying in Buffalo, the Bills would be wise to lock him up for at least a couple more years.
Back on May 3, I wrote a story about the Top 10 Undrafted Rookie Free Agents to Consider. The players who were not selected in the draft have been patiently waiting for the lockout to be lifted so that they can sign a deal and hope to land on a NFL team, or at least on a practice squad.
Since the Bills will not know who they are going to land in free agency yet, they can bring in a player or two from this list to have some bodies in camp for competition, and then if one of them really turns heads and makes an impression, all the better. It is believed that the teams will be allowed to carry extra players at camp this year due to the crazy 2011 season and the way it is unfolding.
Of the various players who are still out there for consideration, I would hope that the Bills can land at least a couple of the players that we highlighted in that piece. The top 10 undrafted rookie free agents I sighted were: QB's Pat Devlin and Scott Tolzien; LB's Mark Herzlich and Alex Wujciak; defensive backs DeAndre McDaniel and Deunta Williams; wide receiver Jeff Maehl; defensive end Pierre Allen; tight end Wesley Saunders; and fullback Henry Hynoski.
Other notable players who are still unsigned: defensive back Kendrick Burney, defensive tackle Ian Williams, linebackers Orie Lemon and Mario Harvey, running back Noel Devine and wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacker.
Remember these guys don't create a blip on the salary cap, so this is another economical way the Bills can create competition in summer camp and restock their practice squad. Plus, look at how many players have been promoted from the practice squad in the past two seasons alone.
Since the Bills have not been allowed to talk to their own players or their agents during the lockout, there may have been some players who the Bills would have wanted to lock up to longer term deals before the new season starts. Many players are not very interested in having their renewal contracts negotiated during the season, as it can be a major distraction that causes their focus to shift.
So, along that line, what are some of the key Bills players who will have their contract expire after the 2011 season? We don't know for sure yet which Bills players will become free agents in 2012 until the new CBA terms are finalized, so that will be addressed down the road.
Players we know for sure are currently playing on the final year of their contract, along with their 2011 salary as per the contract details on Rotoworld are: Ryan Fitzpatrick ($3.195 MM); Steve Johnson ($550 K); Demetrius Bell ($550 K); Andra Davis ($1.1 MM); Roscoe Parrish ($1.025 MM); Reggie Torbor ($950 K); and Erik Pears ($640 K).
Obviously the biggest concerns from that group are Fitzpatrick, Johnson, Bell and Parrish. It is still unknown if Pears starts at tackle or if the Bills are able to upgrade in free agency. It is doubtful that the Bills would want to let Fitzpatrick have a solid 2011 season without a contract extension already in place. With so many NFL teams in search of quality QB play, Fitzpatrick would be in demand if he became a free agent.
Buddy Nix needs to learn what the final interpretation is on the various players who will comprise the free agent pool. Which players wind up being restricted, which ones are unrestricted. Which teams are going to have salary cap space to be able to match the Bills offers to free agents?
To find out the answers to those questions, Nix and his staff will be burning the midnight oil to determine and rank how aggressively they need to be to get the quality and quantity of free agents that they need to be more competitive in 2011. So, how much of the $38 MM do the Bills spend in free agency?
Part of the problem in figuring out who to go after is knowing all of the answers about who do we currently have. For example, do the Bills go out and sign an expensive pass rusher off the edge not having seen Shawne Merriman to know if he is healthy or not? The Bills passed on drafting a pass rusher because Nix stated that we didn't see one in the draft better than the one we have (Merriman). Well, Nix hasn't seen Merriman in some time, so that appears to be one huge assumption that could backfire.
Signing a strong veteran tackle, either left tackle or right tackle, makes tremendous sense. It would provide the Bills with some options, increase the level of competition at camp and give the Bills some needed depth.
Examples of veteran free agent tackles are: Tyson Clabo (Atlanta), Willie Colon (Pittsburgh) and Jared Gaither (Baltimore). If Demetrius Bell, who is playing on the final year of his contract, gets hurt again or does not take a step up as the Bills hope, then this signing could also be his replacement in 2012.
When the 2009 offseason started to unroll, Bills fans around the country would have told you that you were on drugs if you would have predicted that the Bills would sign Terrell Owens to be part of the team that year. That is the thing about free agency that is so unpredictable. When a specific star player finds that the vast majority of the league has soured on a legend, who still is open to allowing them to extend their career for another year or two?
Looking at the current market for Donovan McNabb, it appears that his options are drying up quickly. The Redskins don't apparently want him back. Word out of Arizona and Minnesota is that the Cardinals and the Vikings aren't interested in him either. Does he go to Carolina to mentor Cam Newton? What about Tennessee, to go and mentor Jake Locker? If both of those pass, then where will McNabb play in 2011? Could he be willing to come to Buffalo and back up Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Is McNabb's pride to big to allow him to serve the Bills as a backup? Clearly he would have a local New York following from his days at Syracuse. I would breathe easier when Fitz goes on his hell-bent scrambles or throws his body to block somebody knowing that we had McNabb on the sidelines if Fitz got hurt.
If not McNabb, then who would be our backup quarterback? You have a myriad of options from Marc Bulger, Vince Young, Tarvaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen, Troy Smith, Bruce Gradkowski, Billy Volek, Matt Leinart, Drew Stanton and Seneca Wallace. Oh, and then there are a few ex-Bills free agent quarterbacks looking for a new home, namely Trent Edwards, J.P. Losman and Todd Collins.
While Buddy Nix works out all of the potential deals to complete the roster, the Bills will be starting up their training camp at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. All indications now seem to be pointing to the last weekend of July and early August for practices to begin there. An article yesterday attempted to pin the opening of camp to fall in the range of July 29-Aug. 2.
It appears that the owners are going to make some concessions to the players regarding training camp. You will probably be seeing more days without helmets and probably more walk-through practices, as the coaches try to not overwhelm or exhaust the players due to summer heat and trying to cram everything in to a small time frame.
I hope to attend several practices in early August and will post my observations on future Bleacher Report articles. Hopefully, we can interview some players and will share those with Bills fans as well. It is looking more and more likely that we will have football again in 2011, and I am delighted at the prospect.