The Bills Could Be 2012’s Surprise Playoff Team

  • Shane Richardson
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Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills couldn't maintain their hot start.

The analogy that best fits the 2011 Buffalo Bills is the horse that started fast out of the gate but completely broke down before the end of the race. Leaping out to a 5-2 AFC East lead, the Bills crumbled the rest of the way, going 1-8 for the rest of the season and finishing 6-10 in the division cellar.  In that skid, the Bills had just one loss that was closer than six points and their lone win was a crushing of the eventual AFC West champion, the Denver Broncos. In those losses, they averaged just 13.8 points on offense, but allowed opponents to score a whopping 35.4 points per game. Despite a collapse of Raheem Morris-like proportions, the Bills are not so far off from adding a few key pieces to their team to make them competitive in the tough AFC East.

According to Football Outsiders, the Bills  are estimated to be $30M-plus under the projected $124M NFL salary cap this year, before any cap casualties or contract re-negotiations.  There are quite a few players that should be hitting the open market, but it is doubtful the Bills will be able to gain cap relief from contract re-negotiations.  Sports-Kings has previewed the Oakland Raiders, Baltimore Ravens, Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants so far, and the Bills are the first team that did not have a top-3 salary exceed $7.8M. (Note: For people viewing this at YardBarker, to read these tables formatted properly, use this direct link: http://sports-kings.com/downanddistance/?p=713)

PLAYER

BASE SALARY

BONUSES

SALARY CAP HIT

Terrence McGee

$3.6M

$2.7M

$6.3M

Ryan Fitzpatrick

$2.8M

$3.2M

$6.0M

Kyle Williams

$3.0M

$3.0M

$6.0M

Chris Kelsay

$3.5M

$2.3M

$5.8M

Shawne Merriman

$4.0M

$1.8M

$5.8M

DraytonFlorence

$4.0M

$900K

$4.9M

Marcell Dareus

$1.3M

$3.3M

$4.6M

Spencer Johnson

$3.0M

$1.0M

$4.0M

Nick Barnett

#3.0M

$1.0M

$4.0

Dwan Edwards

$3.6M

$400K

$4.0M

Brad Smith

$2.3M

$1.5M

$3.8M

C.J. Spiller

$853K

$2.1M

$3.0

(www.spotrac.com)

While not a lot of contracts may be re-worked, GM Buddy Nix has a lot of cap space this off-season.

As any Bills’ fan can see, there will be little room for General Manager Buddy Nix to create by re-working contracts.  However, of their top-12 salary cap hits, only three would cause a bigger salary cap hit due to accelerating bonuses, and none of those players (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Marcell Dareus, and CJ Spiller) will be released. That’s good news for the Bills, as they can look closer at the value of their top money makers and determine if it is a smart investment to keep those players around for 2012.

The table below details how Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded out each player in their position and then displays where that player ranks in terms of salary cap hits for their positions.  For example, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick graded out as the 19th highest ranked quarterback and the 26th highest salary cap hit at that position.  Players must play 25% of a team’s snaps to qualify for PFF’s default ranking.

PLAYER

PFF POSITION RANK

SALARY CAP RANK

Terrence McGee

Not Ranked

17th

Ryan Fitzpatrick

19th

26th

Kyle Williams

Not Ranked

11th

Chris Kelsay

18th

9th

Shawne Merriman

Not Ranked

19th

DraytonFlorence

100th

27th

Marcell Dareus

12th

21st

Spencer Johnson

55th

26th (T)

Nick Barnett

13th

39th

Dwan Edwards

81st

26th (T)

Brad Smith

98th

27th

C.J. Spiller

15th

17th

(www.profootballfocus.com)

Running back Fred Jackson "wowed" the NFL in 2011 before his injury.

Out of the Bills top-12 salary cap hits, they do not have a single player ranked in the top-10 at their respective positions.  This doesn’t mean they aren’t getting value for some of their highest paid players, but when fielding a competitive team, teams often get what they pay for. According to Nix, the Bills roster could see a major overhaul and cutting loose some of the underperformers will be part of the task. On a related note, star running back Fred Jackson, who is scheduled to make less than Spiller in 2012, was PFF’s 2011 top-rated running back and will likely be looking for a pay increase in 2012.

As this article was being written, McGee restructured his contract per a tweet from the official Buffalo Bills Twitterfeed, @BuffaloBills. That is great news, as McGee would have been the top target for releasing had he not restructured.  Merriman, on the other hand, should be a candidate for release with a $4.0M base salary for 2012 and an injury history that caused him to miss the majority of the last two years. The Bills did not give up any draft picks for Merriman, as he was claimed off waivers after his release from the San Diego Chargers in 2010. With Merriman, cornerback Florence may also be shown the door, despite signing a 3-year $15M contract last year. He is due $4M in 2012 and $5M in 2013 with no guaranteed money.  Williams, a Bills’ Pro Bowler from 2010, signed a $39M contract before the 2011 season, with $17M guaranteed, and he will likely not be the target of re-negotiations this off-season.  Smith, a free agent from the New York Jets last off-season, also should not be the target of re-negotiations as his contributions are multi-faceted.

Despite his touchdown celebrations, wide receiver Stevie Johnson is still a top free agency target.

In free agency, specifically at the receiver position, the Bills are reportedly not going to use the franchise tag on breakout receiver Stevie Johnson. While some fans may not agree, this is the correct move in a very deep wide receiver free agency market, and allowing Johnson to test the market to determine his value may help the Bills long-term. While clearly a playmaker, Johnson has demonstrated a problem for dropping the ball in key situations. The team apparently likes the core of young receivers it has in Donald Jones and David Nelson, so the Johnson situation will dictate the Bills moves at the receiver position in free agency. Despite reports that indicate they are far apart in talks, Johnson could be back in the fold with the Bills next season, as the Bills may still end up being the team that offers him the best contract.

Outside of Johnson, the Bills’ priority for retaining their own free agents will definitely include left tackle Demetrius Bell. A seventh round pick by the Bills in 2008, Bell is widely considered to be on of the top left tackles in free agency in a very shallow tackle class along with Jared Gaither. Despite some injury concerns, signing Bell before free agency starts should be a priority for Nix as the price could escalate after the market opens.  In terms of who they should target in free agency, Texans’ defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams should get a solid look from the Bills. Williams will bring great value and versatility in a defense transitioning from 3-4 to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Although the Texans have reportedly sent signals they may consider franchising Williams (even with the $21M+ cap hit), if he hits free agency, the Bills must attempt to sign him. They may also look to upgrade their cornerback position in free agency, with solid defensive backs like Tennessee Titans’ Cortland Finnegan, San Francisco 49ers’ Carlos Rogers, and Kansas City Chiefs’ Brandon Carr heading up a deep cornerback market.

Nose tackle Marcell Dareus is evidence of solid drafting by the Bills.

One major positive to take away from the (way) above tables is that the Bills drafted Spiller, Kelsay, and Dareus, a sign that the Bills are finding starting caliber talent in the draft. In the upcoming draft, the Bills should target pass rush, as they ranked 29th in sacks (29), 26th in opponent quarterback rating (90.4), and 29th in total passing touchdowns allowed (30). Due to the switch to the 4-3, the Bills will need to target defensive end and strong-side linebacker early, and Courtney Upshaw would be a perfect fit if he is there when the Bills pick at 10. In early rounds, the team will look to add depth at right tackle and on the defensive front seven (except at nose tackle). Given that Florence should be released, the Bills could look to add another cornerback behind McGee and Leodis McKelvin.

Looking to 2012, the Bills will look to end an NFL-leading 12-year playoff drought, but in a tough AFC East, it will be a tall order. The division still goes through the New England Patriots, who are the reigning AFC Champions, have salary cap space to maneuver with, and are flush with draft picks to replenish their defense. The Bills have one of the big pieces of their team locked up in quarterback Fitzpatrick, who is rumored to have played with a rib injury last season, and may be the reason for his collapse in the second half of the season. The Bills ranked in the middle of the pack (14th) in overall offense last season, despite the injuries to Fitzpatrick and Jackson. If they spend this off-season upgrading their defense, specifically the pass rush, the Bills may be back in the playoffs quicker than most people think.  Remember, every year, the NFL playoffs have a huge turnover in terms of teams making it, and the competitive balance that exists in the league definitely make it possible for a team that makes the right moves to surprise everyone. The Bills certainly are capable of being that team in 2012; question is can Nix and Head Coach Chan Gailey take them there?

With the right moves, the return to the success of the Bills franchise is not far away.

– Follow me on Twitter: @Shaner021

– Follow the Sports Kings: @RealSportsKings

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