The cash-flush Buffalo Bills could be among the more active teams when NFL free agency begins March 13, but the organization has tried to keep fan expectations in check.
General manager Brandon Beane sent a letter to season-ticket holders early in the offseason that underlined Beane's philosophy of "draft[ing], develop[ing] and sign[ing] our own players," along with a stated intention to be "active" but "calculated" in free agency.
Even with $79 million in salary-cap space, the Bills are not expected to rebuild their 30th-ranked offense through a spending spree at key positions of need -- wide receiver, tight end and offensive line. Instead, Beane wants to reserve cap space to re-sign players the team has drafted since coach Sean McDermott's arrival in 2017 and eventually those the Bills will select with their stash of 10 picks in April's draft.
"That's just the philosophy that I think works best: to draft, develop and sign your own," Beane told the Bills' official radio program last month. "We've got cap room and we're gonna use it to try and fill some holes. We also have to be wise with our money for these guys who are heading into Years 3 and 4 -- [cornerback] Tre'Davious [White], [linebacker] Matt Milano and all those guys -- so that when they come up, we have money to spend.
"We can't just go spend all of our cap money now, or we'll be back in the same spot. Then we're gonna be watching some of our own that we grew walk out the door, which is not what we want."
The 2019 offseason is being viewed as a turning point in the Bills' rebuilding project begun by McDermott two years ago and continued when Beane was hired later in 2017. Several trades and other roster moves cleared contracts that previously bogged down the Bills' salary cap under former general manager Doug Whaley, leading to players such as cornerback Stephon Gilmore signing their second contracts elsewhere.
The roster purge has left only five players under contract for 2019 who were acquired prior to 2017: running back LeSean McCoy, defensive end Jerry Hughes, defensive end Shaq Lawson, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and long-snapper Reid Ferguson. It has also positioned Buffalo to have the NFL's fourth-most salary-cap space this offseason (behind the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts) and the most projected cap space in 2020.
However, the ability for the Bills to carry unused cap space from 2019 into 2020 means that whatever they spend this offseason takes away from what the team can spend next season -- on its own players or those from other teams.
Which players might the Bills want to re-sign on their roster? Here is a look:
Hughes: The Bills must decide their future plans with their most productive and reliable pass-rusher, who turns 31 in August. Their options include extending his contract this offseason, trading him this offseason or waiting it out and keeping the franchise tag -- which could approach $20 million for a defensive end in 2020 -- on the table. If the Bills decide to extend Hughes this offseason, they could front-load the deal to minimize their risk in future years as Hughes enters his mid-30s. That could eat into the Bills' cap space this offseason.
Lawson: It seems unlikely the Bills would extend Lawson, who was Whaley's first-round pick in 2016. However, that option exists now that Lawson has completed his third NFL season and is eligible for a new contract. The more relevant decision for Buffalo right now is whether to exercise Lawson's fifth-year option, which is due by early May. That would extend Lawson's deal, currently set to expire after this season, through the 2020 season at an amount that would be guaranteed for injury only until next offseason. It would then become fully guaranteed. Exercising Lawson's 2020 option would not affect the Bills' 2019 cap space but would tentatively take a chunk out of their spending power next year.
Stephen Hauschka: The Bills' 12th-year kicker converted only 78.6 percent of his field goals in 2018, his worst rate since 2009. Some of his struggles could be attributed to a late-season hip injury, and he will have a chance to bounce back in 2019, the final season of a three-year deal he signed in 2017. If the Bills feel comfortable with Hauschka, they could extend his deal.
White: The Bills' 2017 first-round pick and top cornerback will become eligible to sign an extension after the 2019 season, but because he was a first-round pick, Buffalo will have until May 2020 to exercise White's fifth-year option for 2021. Although White finished as Pro Football Focus' 88th-ranked NFL cornerback last season after being among the website's top ranked at the position in 2017, his first two seasons in the NFL still make the Bills' exercising White's option next offseason a no-brainer. If he plays well in 2019, White will be on the doorstep of a massive contract extension.
Milano: Buffalo's 2017 fifth-round pick was one of the team's most improved players in 2018, finishing the season with three interceptions and seven passes defensed before breaking his leg in December. Like White, he will become eligible for an extension after 2019 but will not have a fifth-year option, meaning his contract will expire after the 2020 season. Expect the Bills to budget an extension for Milano next offseason if his solid play continues.
Jordan Poyer: Among the veteran candidates for an extension during the 2020 offseason will be Poyer, who signed a four-year deal in 2017 that expires after the 2020 season. After four seasons (2013-16) as a part-time defender for the Browns, Poyer has started 31 games for Buffalo over the past two seasons while making 195 tackles along with four sacks, 19 passes defensed and nine interceptions. He will turn 29 during the 2020 offseason and will still be young enough to earn a big, new deal if his trajectory continues upward.
Dion Dawkins: The Bills' starting left tackle each of the past two seasons, the 2017 second-round pick acknowledged his play dipped after a strong rookie campaign. Whether an extension for Dawkins is on the Bills' radar in 2020, entering the final season of his deal, will depend on how he plays in 2019. Right now, there is a question of where he will play, as the opportunity for the Bills to move Dawkins from left tackle exists if Buffalo drafts or signs a left tackle.
Zay Jones: The 2017 second-round pick took a step forward in 2017. Like Dawkins and Milano, he will be eligible for an extension before he enters the final season of his rookie deal in 2020. That makes the upcoming season critical for Jones to continue improving, potentially amid a more crowded wide receiver room that could get upgraded in free agency and the draft.