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Defending the Star Lotulelei Contract

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Last week, when I published my Top 3 worst contracts piece, the uproar over omitting Star Lotulelei was immediate. Now, I will admit that it was not an oversight. I left him off of the list intentionally. And, today, I hope to holistically explain why Star’s contract is not one of the worst on the team.

The Contract

In 2018, the Bills signed Star Lotulelei to a five-year, $50 million deal, with nearly half of that fully guaranteed. Before he opted out of the 2020 season, Star and the Bills agreed to a contract restructure. The restructure changed the remainder of his deal to a three-year, $18.6 million contract. As a result of his opt-out, everything shifts down a year contractually. So Star will start the first of his final three years in 2021.

The Cap Hit

This year, Star’s cap hit is $7.6 million. Next year, that number is set to balloon to $9.4 million, and then $9 million in his final year. That is slightly above Ed Oliver and Vernon Butler’s cap hits of $5.3 million. Something I noted while doing some research is that the Bills have three of the Top 25 cap hits for Defensive Tackles in the league (Lotulelei, Oliver, and Butler). This is odd as a few other teams have two such players, but no other team has three.

“We can’t get out of it.”

Fans throw this expression around because they think the Bills are tied to Star for years to come. The fact is that is simply not true. After this season, the Bills are in a position to move on from Star. They can save anywhere from $4.25 million (release) to $6.8 million (trade). I know $4.25 million doesn’t sound like a lot next year, but, for a team that is about to shell out a massive contract for their franchise Quarterback, you can bet Beane will consider pinching pennies where they can. Furthermore, gaining $4.25 million in cap space when they already have three of the top 25 highest-paid DTs in the league would be a realistic option.

Now let’s assume the Bills want to keep him in 2022. If they cut him before 2023, the final year of his deal, they would save $9 million with no dead cap. It will cost nothing to get rid of him because there’s no more guaranteed money. The next time someone tells you that the Bills are “stuck with Star for three years”, feel free to educate them on the numbers. If the argument is that they can’t get out of it right now, that is a bad argument to make. As last year showed us, the Bills need Star Lotulelei on this roster until they find a replacement.

The Impact

The main reason Star is caught in the crosshairs of the fanbase is because there is a perception that he does not warrant his salary. It is important for fans to remember though that Star’s value is not measured in sacks and tackles for loss. While it would be great if he turned in a career year in those categories, as a 1T, Star Lotulelei does his job very well. His whole role is predicated on taking up space; to take on double-teams and allow his teammates to make plays.

I think the majority of us Bills fans took Star for granted when he opted out. Harrison Phillips and Vernon Butler were forced to play out of position all year, resulting in serious breakdowns along Sean McDermott’s Defensive Line. Assuming the now 32-year-old Lotulelei can come back refreshed, we should see a better year from the Bills run defense.

Another aspect of a Sean McDermott-coached team is the impact of veteran leadership. With the return of Star, the Bills are gaining another leader in the locker room. In his absence, we saw younger players like Tremaine Edmunds step up and take on more responsibility. While a transition of leadership is expected on a football team, having an experienced veteran voice back in the fold will help galvanize the troops.

The Buffalo Bills are a better team with Star Lotulelei – I truly believe that. Don’t let the loud voices convince you that the Bills are stuck with an overpaid and underproductive player for years to come. The reality is if Star returns and underperforms due to his time away, the Bills can move on from him as soon as next offseason. For the sake of the team, we should be rooting for Star’s success.