105.5 The Team – The Buffalo Bills have plenty of decisions to make this offseason, starting with the more than 30 free agents they’ll contemplate bringing back in 2017. In a domino effect, each individual decision will impact the next and the first of them could come as early as Wednesday when teams are first permitted to bestow the franchise tag on one unrestricted free agent to be. For the Bills, that could very well be CB Stephon Gilmore, who despite getting off to a slow start in 2016, proved – in his fifth season – that he was still the most consistent member of the secondary. Tagging Gilmore however, comes at a lofty one-year price, estimated around $14.04 million – determined by an average of the top five salaries in the league at that position next season. Using the franchise tag on Gilmore would also buy the Bills some time to negotiate a long-term deal, but it’s unlikely the 26-year-old takes a dollar less than his market value, which spotrac estimates at around $14.6 million.
Back in August, as training camp commenced at St. John Fisher College, Gilmore’s future was a hot topic of conversation and the former first-round pick made it clear that he knows what he’s worth, even comparing himself to the highest paid corner in the league – Josh Norman. Norman signed a five-year, $75 million with the Redskins last offseason – the richest contract for a defensive back in NFL history.
We’ll get back to Norman later.
Anyway, since Gilmore made it known that he wants to be paid like a top-five corner, there’s been an – at times – unfair amount of hatred cast his way. As if wanting the big payday he earned is some sort of diss to the Bills Mafia. That disdain was only compounded by Gilmore’s dreadful start to the season and has remained one of the loudest arguments against him. The “show me the money” cleats he wore at the Pro Bowl only added fuel to the fire as well.
Meanwhile, Gilmore reasserted himself as one of the league’s best lockdown defensive backs over his final six games of the season. From Week 11 to Week 16 he hauled in three interceptions – including two in a single game against Cincinnati – defended five other passes and made 19 tackles.
He finished with a single-season best, five interceptions in 2016 – tying him with five other for fifth most in the NFL – and broke up another 12 passes.
The issue isn’t that Gilmore is not a top defensive back asking for way too much money, but rather that his league-wide perception as a “shutdown cornerback” has set him up to fail. It’s a term that is used much too loosely covering today’s NFL and presents a false narrative that no receiver ever catches a pass against (fill in the blank) DB – which is simply ridiculous. Five years into his NFL career and on the good side of 30, Gilmore is as shutdown as shutdown can be on most days. He’s a valuable asset to have in today’s pass happy NFL.
Now, whether or not the Bills see him in that light is key. The hiring of Sean McDermott signifies a transition back to a 4-3 defensive scheme that is dependent on more zone coverages instead of the man-to-man looks where Gilmore has thrived in recent years. However, it is the same system McDermott ran in Carolina that helped get Norman paid in free agency, and without him this past season the Panther’s secondary resembled swiss cheese. Still, Carolina’s reluctance to pay Norman last offseason could provide insight into McDermott’s mindset regarding the value of top-tier cornerbacks like Gilmore. Drafting his replacement could be a very real option for Buffalo.
The biggest question of all becomes whether or not the Bills have the cap space to re-sign Gilmore if they ultimately decide he’s worth retaining. The league has yet to announce the official 2017 salary cap, but an increase to $165 million is assumed. Accounting for $2.8 million in rollover money and applying the rule of 51, Buffalo would have over $21.5 million in cap space this offseason, making it almost impossible to pay Gilmore a franchise tag figure of $14 million and have enough money left over to fill other holes on the roster. In that case, it would benefit the Bills to get a long-term contract ironed out sooner, constructing it in a way that would push the larger cap hits into the later years of the deal, while keeping his 2017 cap hit smaller. In 2018 for example, Buffalo is projected to have upwards of $61 million in cap space; plenty of room to take on a big chunk of Gilmore’s potential contract.
Ironically, the most obvious solution to keeping Gilmore is predicated on declining the infamous option in quarterback Tyrod Talor’s contract; a move that would free up an additional $13.06 million in cap space.
Essentially the Bills most important offseason decision – Taylor’s option – could determine the future of Stephon Gilmore, as it’s nearly impossible financially for Buffalo to retain both players, barring massive roster cuts.
There’s that domino effect.
It comes down to which player they value more. In most cases keeping the quarterback is a no-brainer, however, all indications are that the Bills brass isn’t convinced Taylor is the answer, and numerous reports say they’re moving on. If that’s the case then keeping Gilmore becomes a real possibility and one that I think would serve them well.
For a defense that already has more pressing issues to address at safety, linebacker and depth at each level, leaving another massive void at cornerback is counterintuitive, even if they plan on drafting a replacement with the 10th overall pick. Since training camp I’ve maintained that Gilmore was a bigger priority than Taylor, mostly because with Gilmore you know what you’re getting – a proven, top-flight corner who can consistently take away an opponent’s best receiving threat – while Taylor’s potential has been largely unknown and still is, following another inconsistent season. Simply, Gilmore is the more established building block of the two and if Buffalo wasn’t so handicapped financially this wouldn’t even be a discussion.
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