CAPACCIO: Everything you need to know about the Mike Gillislee situation

April 18, 2017 - 20:04 pm
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The New England Patriots signed Bills RB Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet for a reported 2-years, $6.4 million with $4 million in the first year.  What does that mean and what are the Bills options from here?
 

Timeline

The Bills have until Monday to match the offer sheet.  They can do that, or officially decline to do that at any time before then.
 

Option 1

Match the offer sheet.

Right now, Gillislee is counting $1.8 million against the Bills salary cap for 2017.  If they match, it will cost them roughly $2.2 million more, leaving them with approximately $8.6 million in cap space.  They’ll need to have about $3.5 million available for drafted rookies, leaving about $5 million to sign veteran free agents for the rest of the offseason.
 

Option 2

Decline to match the offer sheet

If the Bills let Gillislee go to New England they’ll receive the Patriots’ 5th round draft pick next week, #163 overall they acquired from the Denver Broncos (the Pats don’t have their own pick in that round other than a compensatory selection).  The $1.8 million Gillislee is accounting for would immediately be wiped away, leaving the team with about $12.6 million in cap space, then a little over $9 million after the rookies are factored in.  They’d have 70 players on their roster, needing 20 more to get to the 90-man training camp limit.  They’d also be losing a very valuable asset to their offense for the past season and a half and may have to look to the draft to add more depth.
 

Option 3?

Can the Bills match the offer sheet then work out extension with Gillislee?

The Bills were already working on an extension for the running back before he signed the offer sheet from the Patriots.  It’s very possible he wasn’t being offered what he liked so he signed New England’s offer for more money instead.  Could the Bills elect to match it, guaranteeing he stays in Buffalo at the offer sheet price, but then work out a new deal sometime this summer, tacking on an extra year or even two (Gillislee is 26 years old) to spread the cap hit out?  League sources tell me that's unclear based on the wording of the CBA.  It says the original team (Bills) must match the "principle terms" of the deal, which they would be doing, but then signing a new deal shortly after may very well be considered altering the principle terms.  So it's either not allowed or would at least result in a fight between the Bills, Pats, and maybe even the league.  The league would most likely fall on the "can't renegotiate" side and make the Bills wait until next season to do that.
 

The RB depth chart

LeSean McCoy
Mike Gillislee
Jonathan Williams
Mike Tolbert (FB/RB)
Joe Banyard
Cedric O’Neal
Patrick DiMarco (FB)

Gillislee is the clear #2 running back right now behind LeSean McCoy, with 2nd-year back Jonathan Williams hoping to compete for that spot come training camp.  Williams had 27 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown his rookie year.  The team signed 5-year veteran Joe Banyard, but he has even fewer carries (23) than Williams for his entire career.  Cedric O’Neal has yet to play in an NFL game.  Mike Tolbert was brought in from Carolina because of his veteran leadership and versatility.  He does have over 100 carries three times in his career but he’s 31 years old and the last time that happened was 2013. Patrick DiMarco is a blocking fullback who can contribute as a receiver out of the backfield but has exactly one carry through his five year career.
 

The bottom line

For a backup with limited snaps, Gillislee has been one of the most efficient and productive backs in the league his one-plus season in Buffalo.  He led the league in yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns on only 148 carries, earning him the nickname “Touchdown Mike” in the locker room.  In fact, Gillislee’s 2016 season ranks 13th best since the merger (47 years!) with 5.71 yards per carry. That number led the entire NFL last season.  He was also tied for the 11th-most rushing touchdowns last year with eight, despite having far fewer carries than anyone else in front of him.  And it didn't start just last year with him. In only five games he played for the Bills in 2015, he also ran for an average of 5.7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns, twice on runs of 50 yards or more. He turned out to be one gem Doug Whaley and his scouting staff found on the street. With the way running backs get hurt, and LeSean McCoy 29 years old to start next season, he’d be a valuable asset to return a team that led the league in rushing two straight seasons.

But how much is a backup running back worth?  Even with those numbers, usually not over $3 million average per season, or especially $4 million for one year.  Add to that McCoy is going to count just shy of $9 million on the cap in 2017 and the Bills would be paying over $12 million to their top two running backs next year, far and away the most in the NFL.  In fact, on a per-year basis, according to OverTheCap.com, only two teams are paying their 2nd highest paid RB more than $2M per year, the Eagles and Jets. Teams rarely do it.  Running backs are basically paid in two tiers in the NFL: starter or backup.  Above $4M/year or below $2M/year.  There's not much in-between.

The Bills could have tendered Gillislee at a 2nd round level and basically guaranteed retaining him.  That would have cost them $2.746 million to keep the running back this year.  No other team would have been willing to part with a 2nd round pick for him, and the Bills would gladly have taken that if one did come calling.  

So why didn’t they?  Each team places a value on every player and the Bills obviously didn’t value Gillislee at that high of a price.  They also had to know the risk that they could lose him by only giving him an “original round” qualifying tender, which was a 5th rounder for him (by the way, there was no other option outside of 1st round ($3.91M), 2nd round, or originally drafted round).  So by placing that tender on him, they had to at least be accepting of the fact they could lose him for that compensation. 
 

Verdict

The Bills should have tendered Gillislee at a 2nd round level, which would have cost just shy of $1 million more.  Even for a team with limited cap space, that wouldn’t have been so cost-prohibitive they couldn’t fit it in.  Then they could still try to hammer out a new deal and reduce that cap number.

But now that they are faced with the choice they are, they should let Gillislee move on to the Patriots.  It's an average of close to double the salary they were originally willing to pay.  It’s just too much to dish out for a backup running back.  As good as he’s been, let’s remember the Bills had another 5th round RB that was arguably even better to start his career in Karlos Williams before he ate and smoked his way out of the league.  There are players who can fill that role who can be found, even late in the season as the Bills did with Gillislee (he was signed in November of 2015….to the practice squad).  It’s not easy, and they probably won’t average numbers that rank among the best in the NFL, but considering the way this team has run the ball no matter who was doing it the last two years, the drop-off to whomever it is and whatever numbers he puts up shouldn’t fall off a cliff.

The Bills need draft picks, too.  They go into next week’s draft, as it stands, with only six picks, tied for the lowest in the NFL.  They have very little collateral.  This is also considered one of the best running back drafts in many years.  There are good players who the Bills could select and compete to play right away, even in the later rounds.  And that player will cost probably about $500-600K in 2017.  Again, maybe not Mike Gillislee, but if that rookie beats out Williams for the No. 2 role, can the drop-off really be a $3.5 million difference?  Paying your roster is about maximizing value.  

Which brings me to my final point…

One thing Bills fans have complained a lot about over the last few years is salary cap mismanagement.  Overpaying players.  Over-valuing their own players.  Reacting instead of being proactive.  You know how you continue to do that?  Pay your backup running back, who will be a limited contributor, the 10-highest amount of cash in the league for his position.


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