Cap crunch means Bills likely to restructure or release notable veterans

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- On the first day of NFL free agency last offseason, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane made one of the defining moves of his career, trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs in a monster deal with the Minnesota Vikings.

It was a splashy, albeit necessary move that put a rare spotlight on western New York.

There will be no such cannonball into free agency this time around; Beane said so himself.

"This is not going to be a free agency that we can be as aggressive," Beane said. "We've been aggressive with that because we've built up the resources, and you can only have so many drafts. At the end of the day, we still want to draft, develop and sign our own. We're getting to that point where now we don't have to go out and add pieces from free agency."

With starters such as linebacker Matt Milano, offensive linemen Jon Feliciano, Daryl Williams and Ike Boettger, cornerback Levi Wallace and wide receiver Andre Roberts among 22 pending free agents and a diminishing salary cap, Beane and the Bills are bracing for some "tough decisions" this offseason.

"We've got to see how many of the guys we can retain. We'll fill in here and there are some holes, but I would not anticipate any blockbuster moves of Stef Diggs' type, or some of the moves we made the year before in free agency. It's really going to be plugging some holes depending on who we lose."

Unlike the past two years, when Buffalo had ample salary-cap space, Beane said the cap is expected to drop to $175 million for the 2021 season -- down from a previously-expected $210 million before the coronavirus pandemic affected the 2020 season.

The Bills are roughly $8 million over the cap for 2021, so to make room for one or more of their pending free agents, they could end up restructuring or releasing some notable players, including:

John Brown, wide receiver: As will be a theme with the players on this list, Brown's inclusion is not an indictment of his talent; he set a career-high in receiving yards in 2019 (1,060), his first season with the Bills. However, Buffalo found a gem in rookie receiver Gabriel Davis, who finished as its third-leading receiver (while Brown missed nearly half the season with various injuries). Davis seems primed to break out as the Bills' No. 2 option in 2021, and with Brown's $9.5 million cap hit next season, Buffalo can save $7.9 million by releasing the 31-year-old, according to Spotrac. Brown's contract is up after the 2021 season, so it's possible he agrees to a pay cut.

Jerry Hughes, defensive end: Releasing Hughes would save Buffalo $7.3 million, but it would be a purely business decision as Hughes was arguably the Bills' best defensive lineman in 2020. Though it didn't show in the number of sacks, he won his pass rushes at a higher rate than all but four defensive linemen in the league last season. The 33-year-old, who carries a $9.45 million cap hit in 2021, is the Bills' longest-tenured player and being part of a contender for the first time might make him willing to take a pay cut. If not, it will be a tough call for the Bills, who need the cap space but also need their pass rush to improve, which seems unlikely to happen if they release Hughes and replace his snaps with unproven players.

Mario Addison, defensive end: Beane did not mention Addison by name but did make an interesting comment when discussing the impending decrease of the salary cap.

"It's one of those things you wish we knew that a year ago," Beane said. "Maybe we wouldn't have made every move we did. Maybe we wouldn't have been as aggressive in some areas."

Addison was one of Buffalo's more aggressive signings last offseason at three years, $30 million. Addison was coming off four straight seasons of nine or more sacks, but his production dipped in 2020 (five sacks) and a $10.2 million cap hit is high for the soon-to-be 34-year-old. The Bills could save $2.8 million by restructuring Addison's contract down to his veteran minimum. Releasing him would save the team $6.1 million.

Mitch Morse, center: Buffalo filled a major need in 2019 by making Morse the highest paid center in the NFL at the time. Buffalo could restructure his deal, shrinking his $10.3 million cap hit, or cut him and save roughly $4.8 million. Restructuring would save the Bills the trouble of drafting a starting center or possibly resigning Feliciano and moving him to center. Morse is still a productive player and releasing him seems like a last resort.