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How the Buffalo Bills turned their Dead Cap from handicap to strength

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Sean McDermott is a pretty even-keel guy. It is not often the Buffalo Bills head coach goes off script and criticizes a player or former staff member. That is why it was surprising when, a few years ago, McDermott took a jab at the coaches and general managers employed before him. After the 2019 NFL trade deadline came and went without a move by the Buffalo Bills, McDermott responded to a reporter’s question about the lack of action, saying:

“There’s been way too many years of irresponsible decision-making, let’s just put it that way.”

Sean McDermott

Again, for someone who is as politically correct as they come, this statement would classify as “blasting” the prior regime. It certainly turned a few heads in the media and among the fanbase at the time. Despite calling out Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan, McDermott was not wrong with his assertion. When McDermott and Beane arrived in Buffalo, they faced a myriad of difficult decisions to clear the Bills out of significant cap trouble. Over the next few years, the Buffalo Bills had to endure an unprecedented amount of dead cap.

What is “Dead Cap”?

Dead cap is guaranteed money that the team is still required to pay a player that they have since cut. This is considered the ultimate waste of money since the team essentially pays a player to not play for them; a sign of poor contracts given out to players that just didn’t pan out. Take a look at the Bills’ dead cap numbers and where they ranked in the NFL for every season of the McDermott/Beane era.

YearDead CapNFL Rank
2017$28,929,5763rd
2018$70,343,2541st
2019$16,935,454 21st
2020$12,669,54029th
2021$5,181,04427th
Dead cap numbers courtesy of Spotrac

The number that is mind-blowing above is the dead cap for the 2018 season. Consider this, the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs to end the drought in 2017 and Brandon Beane immediately begins his rebuild. In doing so, he takes on $70 million in dead cap space. For reference, the Giants were second in dead cap that season with $44 million. The $70 million in dead cap is the largest amount of dead cap that an NFL team has ever had. Granted, that statistic is a little misleading because the salary cap is always growing (more money available for dead cap), but for the time being Brandon Beane holds the title. It is a title that he wasn’t proud of at the time, but one that was necessary to get to where the Bills are today.

How “Biting the Bullet” Paid Off

Remember the starting wide receivers that the Bills trotted onto the field in 2018? No disrespect to them, but they literally did not have any money for quality players at the position. To take a trip down memory lane, some of the players and “irresponsible decisions” from the previous regime that contributed to the record-setting number included: Marcell Dareus, Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn, Tyrod Taylor, Aaron Williams, Reggie Ragland, and Richie Incognito.

Think of this, Brandon Beane sacrificed the 2018 season to rebuild his team, and, just two years later, the Buffalo Bills were one game away from the Super Bowl. It is incredible. Plus, that “rebuild” season included a 6-10 finish where their future franchise Quarterback saw significant playing time and showed growth throughout the season. Hardly constitutes a rebuild if you ask me. Or you could ask Sabres fans…

Today, the Buffalo Bills have a minuscule $5.2 million in dead cap. That small number speaks to Brandon Beane’s ability to structure contracts in a way that will not hurt the team and their ability to draft, develop, and sign talent. It also means they are not missing on and looking to move away from talent after a season or two. In a year where the NFL salary cap dipped nearly $15 million, the Bills needed every last penny they could get to re-sign their free agents and add to their roster any positions of need. The dead cap situation went from nightmare to strength for the Buffalo Bills in just a few short seasons. Competent management is a huge factor in the success of a football franchise and, after 17 years of not having it, Bills fans should be enjoying having it now.

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