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Pollock: The Bills are trying to figure out salary cap mess, but it’s not the darkest time in history

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By Sun Senior Columnist CHUCK POLLOCK

The messages trickled into my phone Wednesday afternoon revealing the roster dismantling the Bills had begun as they desperately tried to dig out of one of the NFL’s deepest salary cap holes.

Oh, they’d already gotten an unexpected break when the league, in deference to the financial issues created by Covid in the 2021 season, bumped the salary cap up an unexpected $30 million. Thus, Buffalo, which was projected to be $50 million over the assumed 2024 cap, found itself “only” $37 million over.

Still, that left Bills general manager Brandon Beane a heavy-lift to get under.

Hence, the announcement that center Mitch Morse, the lynchpin of the offensive line and Jordan Poyer, half of one of the NFL’s elite safety combinations since 2017, were being released along with defensive back and special teams star Siran Neal, wide receiver/kick returner Deonte Hardy and running back Nyheim Hines, he of the two kickoff returns for touchdowns in one game.

Separately, it was revealed that as of June 1, former elite cornerback Tre’Davious White, who played only 23 games in the last three seasons due to injury, was also being waived.

IT’S NOT unusual for the Bills to be over the cap, indeed it’s happened several times under Beane’s seven-year run as GM.

However, the worst carnage to the Buffalo roster came in 2000 under the late, beloved general manager, John Butler. In one February day, he cut a trio of Hall of Famers: defensive end Bruce Smith, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed.

They, and fellow HOF member Jim Kelly, were the heart of the Buffalo teams that went to four straight Super Bowls.

To be sure, it wasn’t a total stunner. Smith and Reed were 36 and Thomas would be 34 that coming season.

For Butler, what is almost a universally-admired trait, loyalty, proved his undoing in the thankless job of GM. He hung onto them too long, the heavy weight of their salaries far overshadowing their fading skills.

The same thing happened to the 49ers in the 1980s when they won four Super Bowls in nine seasons … the salary cap finally got them.

Patriots’ legendary coach and quasi general manager Bill Belichick put it best: “I’d rather get rid of a player one year too early than one-year too late.

BEANE is partially the victim of circumstances but isn’t blameless in the current salary cap morass.

The biggest factor is quarterback Josh Allen’s salary.

His contract averages $43 million through the 2028 season and that’s the going rate, there are only a handful of elite QBs worth that money and Allen is one of them.

Things change dramatically for teams, financially, when a franchise quarterback plays out his rookie contract. The Bills strengthened their roster while Allen was in his initial deal. Now that he’s the QB they hoped for, Allen effectively accounts for about 17% of Buffalo’s cap figure.

Much the same happened with Seattle and Russell Wilson. The Seahawks built themselves into one of the NFL’s top teams while he was on his rookie contract and Wilson took them to two Super Bowls, winning one. But once he started getting “paid” the Seahawks didn’t think his price was worth the diminishing production and made him part of one of the worst trades in NFL history.

The Broncos sent two first round, two second round and a fifth-round draft choice plus three players — a quarterback, tight end and defensive tackle — to Seattle for Wilson and a fourth-round pick.

It took two years for Denver to realize he wasn’t the guy and this past week cut him and at an $85 million dead-cap hit. Now that he’s a free agent and supposedly Pittsburgh is looking to sign him for the NFL minimum of $1.2 million while the Broncos pickg up the rest.

MEANWHILE, though team executives deny it, the Bills, at very least, are in the midst of a partial rebuild.

The current refrain is that Buffalo’s Super Bowl window is open as long as Josh Allen is on the roster, but this team isn’t as good as it was two years ago.

On offense, after Allen, running back James Cook and Ty Johnson are ‘B’ performers and tight end is solid with Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox. The offensive live, which had the same starters for all 19 games last season, will now put former left guard Connor McGovern in Morse spot at center with recently-signed David Edwards in McGovern’s left guard spot.

Then there’s wide receiver, alleged No. 1, Stefon Diggs, caught one touchdown pass in the last 10 games, including playoffs, a season ago, and the last two years he’s shown a bit of the attitude that made him expendable in Minnesota. Starting opposite him will be rising receiver Khalil Shakir. Former No. 2 Gabriel Davis is a free agent and losing him might well be addition by subtraction, skills notwithstanding, as his inconsistency was maddening. The rest of the wideouts are JAG(s) “Just Another Guy.”

But it’s on defense where Beane has to be right with free agents and the draft.

As it is there will be four new starters and maybe five when the regular season begins.

The line is a mess with underachieving Greg Rousseau at one end and Von Miller at the other — more on him in a moment — as last year’s starter Leonard Floyd is a free agent. The lone returning tackle is Ed Oliver.

Indeed only four defensive linemen of the top 12 figure to be back as, beside Floyd,

seven others are also free agents: ends A.J. Epenesa and Shaq Lawson and tackles Da/Quon Jones, a starter,  Jordan Phillips, Tim Settle and Linval Joseph.

Besides Poyer and White another missing starter from the secondary is likely the other safety as Micah Hyde is a free agent contemplating retirement.

And that bring us to Beane’s part in all this.

Start with Miller, whose ridiculously high contract was exacerbated by a bad-luck injury. He gave the Bills nothing after rehab of his torn ACL and only that he agreed to a pay cut that his absurd cap hit was reduced.

But that’s not all.

Beane overpaying for some average talent is what ballooned the team’s salary cap woes.

Some observers think he’s been very astute drafter but he hasn’t been … call it average at best. He’s done much better signing free agents.

But, this pivotal year, he’s got to get both right.

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

Read more from Chuck Pollock:

Caitlin Clark brings up memories of St. Bonaventure women and men’s basketball players

• St. Bonaventure primed for strong finish in Atlantic 10

• Feature on the Bonnies as the season winds down

• What to make from the Super Bowl

• A look at free agency with the Buffalo Bills

• Don’t blame Bass for the playoff loss

• St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt was right about the Atlantic 10 and the Bonnies

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