Bills offseason takeaways: Salary cap concerns, top free agents, Joe Brady’s future


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There’s nothing quite like the dichotomy of the NFL in-season and how quickly it shuts off. Not even 48 hours before Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane met with the media Tuesday, the team was still going 150 miles per hour, hoping this was the season to win a Super Bowl.

Another stinging loss to the Kansas City Chiefs brings the whole thing to a screeching halt. Twelve hours after the Bills left the stadium, they were packing up their lockers.

Now? Another offseason full of questions, as the Bills look to make the playoffs for a sixth straight season in 2024. With focus shifting to the offseason, here are several takeaways concerning the biggest questions facing the team.

The 2024 salary cap concerns are real

The moment franchise quarterback Josh Allen’s massive multi-year extension kicked in with big salary cap hits, the Bills knew they were in for an adventure with the salary cap. Allen’s deal, combined with the nearly $16 million decrease of the salary cap from 2020 to 2021, leaves the Bills in a situation where they need to answer major cap questions almost every year Allen is on the books. The only way to properly fix it is to do a full-on roster reset as they did in 2017 and 2018, but the Bills won’t sacrifice a year in that way as long as Allen is their quarterback.

This year’s challenge is the biggest one yet. The NFL is yet to set its salary cap for 2024, though an early look from OverTheCap.com, which also projects what the league’s cap will be next year, has the Bills at a projected $49 million over the cap. Most years, two or three restructures would do the trick. But the Bills’ roster is far more convoluted than that with both aging players and an uncanny amount of cap to shed before they can even consider spending in free agency. And just as he did last year, Beane set the record straight about what to expect from a spending perspective this offseason.

“I don’t think you’re going to see any splashes,” Beane said. “Even if I found something that was exciting to me, I don’t think it would fit within our cap parameters. I think everyone needs to understand that we’re going to be shopping at some of those same stores we were shopping last year. We’re not going to be on Main Street of New York City or whatever all those high-end shopping centers are. It’s not feasible to where we’re at.”

Last year, after a bevy of moves to get cap compliant, the most expensive free agent move the Bills made was signing guard Connor McGovern to a three-year, $22.5 million contract with only $9 million guaranteed. The deal carried only a $4 million cap hit in 2023. And with how many roster spots they’ll need to fill this offseason, they may not even be able to do a deal like that one next season.

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Not a definite, but Joe Brady sounds like favorite to remain OC

Desperate to make the most of the 2023 season, the Bills fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey after losing to the Denver Broncos in November. Attention quickly turned to quarterbacks coach Joe Brady, who was named interim offensive coordinator, and the offense made strides each week as Brady grew more comfortable to the role. Brady isolated a lot of concepts to helped the two-dimensional capabilities of the offense, eliminated some concepts that weren’t working for them early in the year under Dorsey and reinstituted Allen as a rushing threat. Brady was lauded across the board by players and staff for his ability to communicate, breaking down the barrier between coach and player and installing a collaborative effort where everyone felt invested.

On Monday, Brady had loud support from notable offensive players to retain the job permanently — none bigger than Allen. On Tuesday, both McDermott and Beane said they weren’t ready to discuss staff decisions this quickly, but both included how good of a job they felt Brady did once he took over. And after that, both decision-makers didn’t hide from how much Allen’s opinion matters. So, while the Bills still could interview other candidates for the opening, all of this over two days sounded a lot like it did when Brian Daboll left for the New York Giants and there was a lot of internal momentum for Dorsey. It wouldn’t be a shock for this to be wrapped up within the next week or two with Brady losing the interim tag. But at least this time around, they know what Brady is like in the seat, which gives them a big advantage over the last time when they hired a first-time offensive coordinator in Dorsey.

Bills can’t drag feet with DC decision

After Leslie Frazier’s departure last offseason, McDermott decided to make himself the defensive coordinator and play-caller for the 2023 season. All along, there wasn’t any indication if it was just a one-year idea or if this was more of a permanent solution and that still wasn’t made clear on Tuesday. But they have a bit of a timeline on this, especially with perhaps their top in-house defensive coordinator candidate getting some attention elsewhere. Beane said he thought McDermott did a good job of being both the head coach and the defensive coordinator in 2023 and saw no reason why McDermott wouldn’t be capable of that moving forward, but that they would leave the decision to the head coach while providing some input along the way.

So really, it’s up to McDermott. If he decides it’s too much for him, they likely would look in-house to fill the role. Lnebackers coach Bobby Babich might have the strongest case. Babich, 40, got his NFL start with McDermott in Carolina before making a handful of stops. Then in 2017, McDermott brought Babich to Buffalo and has promoted him two different times while watching him have success in every role. Babich’s career reads pretty similarly to how McDermott got his start as a defensive coordinator. Now with the Giants reportedly requesting permission to interview Babich about their defensive coordinator job, the biggest up-and-comer on the Bills coaching staff is at risk of reaching his potential elsewhere.

McDermott could choose to split the difference here if he feels as strongly about Babich’s potential as he shows whenever asked about him. The team could name Babich the defensive coordinator and thwart the Giants threat, while creating a plan to eventually hand off play-calling duties to him sometime in 2024 or in 2025 once he is fully comfortable with the role. But again, it all depends on McDermott and they’ll give him the space to decide if he wants to do both roles for the foreseeable future.

Enhanced attention on explosive plays?

Usually, season-ending playoff losses exploit where a team may be lacking. And after the game, the losing team is left to stew on that, which may impact offseason decisions. We’ve seen it impact the Bills before in how they furiously added pass-rushing pieces following previous postseason exits. And after their loss to the Chiefs this time around, it might revolve around not having the players to create big plays on offense consistently. The Bills moved the ball on the Chiefs in more of a methodical, time-consuming manner, which led to some offensive success, but narrowed the margin for error. They whiffed on their downfield opportunities, so despite the excellent performance from Allen, it left them wanting more.

“You need to create explosive plays,” McDermott said Tuesday. “If you study the game, when you look at scoring points, usually a scoring drive has baked into it an explosive run or an explosive pass, or a big time penalty, say, on the defense. I understand that we understand that. And that’s, a part of us moving forward, as we look at our roster and we look at player acquisition, something that we need to take a hard look at.”

As the season went along, it became very clear the Bills lacked in their search for explosive passing plays. Allen and Diggs couldn’t connect on one, and outside of those two, the downfield targets dissipated. Gabe Davis struggled to stand out. Khalil Shakir was more of an underneath route, catch-and-run player. Trent Sherfield wasn’t a factor in the passing game most weeks. And they barely wanted to give Deonte Harty any time on the field. With a wide receiver room looking ripe for changes, the search for explosive plays may wind up being a centralized theme for the Bills this offseason. And in a wide receiver-friendly draft class, they’ll likely have plenty of options.

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Buffalo Bills’ pass rusher Von Miller did not register a sack in 2023 after recovering from a torn ACL in 2022. (Timothy T Ludwig / Getty Images)

Miller, Diggs appear to be in the 2024 plans as of now

In end-of-season news conferences, there’s always some necessary between-the-lines reading. But generally speaking, one rule of thumb with this Bills regime is they won’t go out of their way to say something knowingly false. And if there’s a strong allusion to the future with the organization for some players whose return may be unclear, it’s usually a good and telling sign. Two such players are defensive end Von Miller and wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who have not had the best seasons, and take up over $51 million of 2024 cap space between them. They are two contracts the Bills won’t have an easy time getting out of this offseason, but the team may not even be thinking in that way.

In Miller’s case, McDermott continued to reference stepping stones to next year, and being hopeful the promise Miller showed in the playoffs will be the catalyst to success next season. The coach referenced next year in the context of Miller twice in three sentences. If they didn’t have cap concerns, or if they had more than three core defensive linemen under contract for 2024, it might be different. But they may be headed toward a defensive line overhaul due to all their free agents, and with negative cap savings to move on from Miller in 2024 with a regular release, the Bills sound like a team ready for one more year with him.

With Diggs, the most telling piece came from Beane, who was quite matter of fact in his belief, while also alluding to the future.

“He’s a No. 1 receiver,” Beane said. “I firmly believe that. I’m not wavering off of that. Listen, we have to continue to put weapons out there to keep teams from bracketing him or, you know, locking him down in different ways to take him away.”

Perhaps the more telling piece is Beane talking about the need “to put weapons out there” to help Diggs, which could play into what McDermott discussed about explosive plays. Regardless, the Bills would be on the hook for a lot of dead cap space to move on from Diggs this offseason, and like Miller, they may just not be in a position to even consider the notion — especially if they still believe in Diggs as much as Beane does.

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As much as they referenced the future with those two players, the same wasn’t done with cornerback Tre’Davious White, who is rehabbing a torn Achilles injury from Oct. 1, after taking a full year to return from a torn ACL suffered in November 2021. It’s even more complex for White, because the Bills have all of Rasul Douglas, Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam under contract in 2024 already, and both Douglas and Benford flourished down the stretch of the regular season. Plus, the Bills could save over $6 million to cut White with a regular designation, and possibly even $10 million to cut him with a post-June 1 designation, which would only push $4.1 million of dead cap to the 2025 sheet.

Beane was asked pretty clearly whether they still need to weigh their options with White, or if they believed he would be on the roster in 2024. Beane’s immediate response was, “That’s a good question.” The team wants to see him get healthy enough to make some sort of decision, but the clock may be ticking. White is due a $1.5 million roster bonus just days after the start of the new league year on March 13, and once that happens, the amount gets added to potential dead cap. White remains one of the names to monitor when it comes to the Bills clearing out cap space, despite his long history in Buffalo.

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Expect most, if not all their top free agents to head to free agency

The Bills are clearly up against the 2024 salary cap and will need to make every dollar count, which sets them up for not being able to do as much with their own free agents as they may have wanted. The good news is it could yield more compensatory picks in 2025, but the obvious short-term impact is their 2024 roster may worsen. On Monday, a few of their top available free agents updated their status, with the caveat that all remained open to a return to the Bills.

  • WR Gabe Davis said he intends to go to free agency in March and said, “I think they know” when asked if he let the Bills know that.
  • DT DaQuan Jones told The Athletic he hasn’t had any talks with the Bills yet. He said he’s not shying away or scared of free agency. He said he’s excited about it and isn’t in any rush to make a decision.
  • DE Leonard Floyd candidly said he’s going to follow the money in free agency and wants to play for a Super Bowl contender. He still believes the Bills can be a Super Bowl contender.
  • DE A.J. Epenesa said, “I haven’t spoken with anybody yet. Just kind of figuring things out right now.” Epenesa said he’ll talk with his agent and do some research and have a better grasp on it in the near future.

(Top photo of Joe Brady: Perry Knotts / Getty Images)





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