A cautionary tale of what not to do…
Bills off-season grade: F+
In the 2019 offseason Buffalo added 67.8 million to their cap. 14.7 million of that total was spent to add Mitch Morse and retaining Lorenzo Alexander. Another 9.5 million was spent on Beasley and Gore. 30 million dollars was set on fire. There are three ways to attack free agency. First, you attack players who should not have reached free agency. These are the impact players of the class. These are the players who make your team better. These are core pieces who have slipped into the open market due to their teams cap limitations or a rostered heir being in place. Mitch Morse is one of those players. Despite the injury history, Morse has proven capable of being one of the best centers in the game. Center is a highly impactful and hard to find position. He was signed to a market value, properly structured contract with a parachute before 2021 if the injuries add up and slow him down. The second way is to add under-rated players to value contracts. These are rare and unless Feliciano proves to be a hidden gem, Buffalo did not add a player with the upside required to outperform his contract value. The third, and last way a team should attack free agency, is to add 1 year stop gap deals, who decrease risk due to contract length, or cheap filler depth. Emphasis on cheap. Cheap means vet minimum to 1.2 million dollars maximum.
Why should teams operate that way? Paying for depth and average talent wastes resources.
Take a jaunt over to the analytic haze that is Major League Baseball. In baseball, there is a contrived metric that has fallen into the past and become a fable of what once was. This metric is WAR. Wins Above Replacement. The vast majority of the NFL, hasn’t even arrived at that point in Baseball’s history yet. Example; Buffalo. Average players do not help you win football games. They have neutral WAR. They make it so that elite talent doesn’t have deficiencies to overcome. That’s all they do. Currently, Buffalo’s elite talent includes Mitch Morse, Jerry Hughes and Tre’Davious White. Find me a team with less elite talent. Miami, it’s close. Even if you believe Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds and Ed Oliver are going to be elite talents, (and I don’t) at the very least you have to admit that they aren’t likely to become elite quite yet. Right? This leaves Buffalo with a lot of mediocre to average talent. After this offseason, they have 53.1 million dollars more of it. No, that’s not fair to say. Only 14.4 million was spent on mediocre to average talent. Roughly 39 million was spent on depth options which is completely worthless to Buffalo.
Why is depth unimportant? It’s not, it’s unimportant to Buffalo. Ask yourself, what does free agent added depth achieve? One thing and one thing only, it stops your season from falling off a cliff if you suffer injuries to neutral WAR players. That is important to teams who have matured and have opened a window on contention. Buffalo’s highest of high hopes are a playoff berth and quick exit. That’s not contention. Nearly every single depth roster spot should be used on players who have the ability to develop into values (or impact talent) on a team leading up to their window of contention. Every single dollar should be used to manufacture future value contracts. Buffalo did not do this on a single contract they signed this offseason. Of the 19 players Buffalo added, 2 players are team building contracts. Both of those two, Morse and Beasley (who will be a 33 year old slot-only WR by the time his contract ends) are flat rate deals. (their cap number stays even over the life of their contract) 17 players are either 1 year deals or have the ability to parachute out of the deal following their 1st year. The vast majority of them absorb bonus money in year 1 and push off base salary cap into the future. This is a cash-out deal. This is a safe business approach. It allows you to cut cap and abort from mistakes easily. While it absorbs guarantees in year 1, it pushes excess cost down the road. That does not make your football team better, and it rids the contract of the opportunity to gain future value due to cap inflation.
This is compounded by the fact that many teams are operating in this fashion. They have money to spend, and they are desperate to get better. The few elite players on the market get paid and a number of teams miss out. The players who slip through the cracks come in on market value contracts. Everything in the middle gets bid up and overpaid because adding something better makes you better, and everyone wants to get better. That is the fallacy of the free agent market. A bunch of infinitesimally small upgrades do not actually make you noticeably better. (Wins Above Replacement) The middle of the free agent market is poison, and no one lived in the middle more than Buffalo in the 2019 offseason.
Say it ain’t so! The internet graded the Buffalo offseason very highly! Ever give a child the choice between 40 pennies and 4 quarters? Did it work on them too? Guess they didn’t understand either.
To make my point, I have a quick question. What’s the difference between John Brown and Phillip Dorsett? 4.9 million dollars on the 2019 cap. Dorsett also has a chance of earning NE a compensation pick in the draft (if he has a statistically strong year and a team like Buffalo latches on to him in 2020) and Dorsett doesn’t have 3.2 million dollars of dead cap on the books next year. Dorsett is younger, and was drafted higher. Next year Dorsett will be a FA. Next year John Brown will be a FA when Buffalo realizes 9.75 million dollars is excessive. Neither WR makes a noticeable difference. Spencer Long and Ben Garland who was a FA until after the draft? That’s 3.1 million dollars. Tyler Kroft and Maxx Williams who was a FA until after the draft? Saves 4.1 million dollars. Jordan Phillips and Danny Shelton? (NE again) Add 3.5 million dollars. Enough examples? 15.6 million dollars and we aren’t even half way home. Notice the higher price Buffalo is paying for equal or inferior talent.
If Buffalo had been frugal they could have added the same exact impact while paying Morse 25.5 million dollars in his 1st year. He’d have 19 million dollars left to be paid in the following 3 years making him a hell of a bargain at 6/6/7 million dollars in the 2020-2022 seasons. All of his guaranteed money could have been exhausted immediately. It’s a contract that frees up cap for Buffalo in the future or could be traded for a very nice draft pick. Instead they lit that money on fire. After all, paying for depth and average talent wastes resources. Saving 5 million each of the next 3 years on Morse or spending wastefully. What’s your choice? Let us not forget the 3.2 million dead cap on Brown and the 1.6 million dead cap on Kroft. Add that up and that’s 9.8 million dollars on the 2020 cap, more than 5 percent of your 2020 cap spent on nothing. You thought Beane was a cap genius? It turns out he’s an unimaginative and wasteful accountant.
However, that is not the end of the cap and roster mismanagement. Developing home grown talent is vital to every team in the league and Buffalo did a great job of spending money to choke off their opportunity to do that. Taron Johnson, and Siran Neal played quality snaps for Buffalo last year. Levi Wallace was a fantastic find. Letting Wallace, Johnson, and Neal continue to prove themselves alongside White, Hyde, Poyer and Bush made perfect sense. Yet, Buffalo added “competition” to the CB room with 5.1 million dollars spent on EJ Gaines and Kevin (the walking injury) Johnson. Even if these two play up to their ceilings they don’t make a difference over what Wallace and Johnson started proving last year. It’s also horrible roster management. Zone CBs are dime a dozen. Not because they are easy to find, but because most teams are trying to gobble up every man CB they can get. By running a heavy zone coverage percentage, Buffalo positions themselves in a buyers’ market. They zig, where the league zags. Last year alone, they turned a 4th rounder, a 5th rounder and an UDFA into quality players. This year, those 3 players will cost a grand total of 1.71 million dollars against the cap. They are cheap for 3 more years and are under team control. Gaines costs 2.1 million alone and Johnson costs another 3 million. No control beyond 2019. Why pay backups more than starters? Why stunt the growth of your young players with potential to be a valuable assets? Why pay for players at a position that you proved, just last year, you could add at a bargain basement price. Again, Buffalo spends 4.1 million dollars for no good reason. The total has grown to 19.7 million dollars.
There is also an old saying, “a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush.” Buffalo apparently prefers 4 in the bush to 1 in the hand. There are some new aged analytics for you! Nsekhe 4.8 million, Feliciano 3.4 million, Spain 2 million, Waddle 2 million. 12.2 million dollars. Do any of them start? Do any of them have long term developmental control? Do any of them have upside? Are any of them decidedly better than Ducasse? Most likely no. Rodger Saffold cost 11.75 million dollars per year. He’s actually quite good. Instead, Buffalo threw stop gap slop at the wall and are hoping something sticks. Buffalo choked their roster full of paid depth pieces. A four player spree of UDFA OL would cost you 2 million dollars. If you hit 1, you’ve done more good for your team than this did. That’s not what the Bills do. They don’t go after the impact players. They don’t take risks to team build. They sit in the poisonous middle wasting resources. Even if you want to make a case for Nsekhe value, 5 million dollars of waste was burned in these additions. Total, now at 24.7 million dollars.
So, why is this taking place?
It has been blatantly obvious since Sean McDermott was hired that he was calling the shots. He is not the coach, but the football czar. There are very few coaches who can get away with having a large voice in decisions and McDermott is not one of them. He is a quality coach, at least on the defensive side of the ball and is a very good leader for the team, but that’s where his role needs to stop. Unfortunately for Buffalo, that is not the case. He specifically targets guys he feels he needs in the draft/free agency and he spits up value as he chases them down. Trade up after trade up, over pay after over pay. Why else would Buffalo be so incredibly concerned with checking role player boxes like KR and blocking TE? (4.2 million dollars wasted) Why else, would buffalo have 16 million dollars tied up in run stuffing DTs? NE, who understands this, has Shelton and Pennel for 3.5 million dollars combined. Your coach, who doesn’t understand value, is destroying his chances and your team by playing GM. He believes that if a team plays hard and executes, they will win. That’s only the case when your talent exceeds your competition. His management, that doesn’t look beyond today, is costing you a chance to gain both value and talent. He is shooting himself in the foot and leaving the team stuck in a 6-10 rut. Buffalo is less talented today than they were when he inherited the team. 3 drafts and 3 off-seasons with nothing to show for it but treading water.
Frank Gore is an ageless wonder and his 2 million dollar deal could help McCoy and Gore produces in his role. Yeldon, on the other hand is no better than a UDFA. (1.1 million wasted) Cole Beasley is a good player. I’ve liked him for a long time but you have to question the price tag as much as you have to question the fit. He is a man coverage beater in the slot. Allen is a running QB and will see more zone as time goes along. A precision route runner paired with an inaccurate running QB is an odd couple. Zay Jones as a big slot makes more sense with Allen. Robert Foster as a speed slot does as well. Adding a WR like the underrated Dontrelle Inman (1.5 million and yes, NE again) to play the 1 and push Zay into the slot is a cleaner fit and is again 6 million dollars cheaper. Although I don’t agree with the fit or price, Beasley is at least a quality starter, even if he will be a 33 year old slot WR by the end of the deal.
There are a few positives to take away from this offseason for Buffalo. Morse should help the team rebound from the unexpected retirement of Eric Wood. They didn’t sign any deals that handicap them long term. Beane did a solid job as an accountant and structured the deals so that they could be jettisoned without much dead cap pain. Buffalo didn’t sign a deal as toxic as the Star Lotulelei deal from 2018. That’s the plus on the F plus. The F comes directly from the fact that Buffalo wasted 30 million dollars of cap space on 2019’s cap alone. Conservatively. They spent 67.8 million dollars of cap and the only truly impactful player that they added was Mitch Morse. They are deeper, but they did not get better. They did not add value. They did not build their future. They were a 6-10 team. They added 67.8 million dollars and they still are a 6-10 team.
Think of the ways that Buffalo could improve with an extra 30 million dollars to spend. Then thank McDermott for blowing that opportunity. Although, we all should have seen this coming.