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Bills continue to show lack of logical roster building with latest RB signing

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Jacksonville Jaguars v Buffalo Bills Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

In 2014, they finally got a change in ownership, going from the late Ralph Wilson to Terry Pegula.

In January of 2015, Pegula made his first coaching hire, adding Rex Ryan after Doug Marrone surprisingly opted out after two years and a 9-7 record in the previous season.

In January of 2017, Pegula was already onto his second coaching hire, replacing Ryan with former Carolina Panthers assistant Sean McDermott.

In April of 2017, Pegula fired general manager Doug Whaley, hours after the completion of the draft. Whaley had signed a contract extension just 16 months earlier. Pegula then hired Brandon Beane, who had spent 19 years in the Panthers front office, as the next GM.

Then something else interesting happened, as the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs in 2017, ending the longest playoff drought for any team in one of the four major American sports, handing that honor over to the Seattle Mariners. For all intents and purposes, it may seem as though the Bills are headed in the right direction and finally doing the right things. But then other moves happen that make you think that despite the new ownership and the playoff appearance, things in Buffalo are actually still more of the same.

That’s when I start to wonder if Marrone didn’t just leave so he could collect a $4 million buyout, but also because he knew the future wouldn’t be any brighter than the past.

On Tuesday it was announced that the Bills were signing Chris Ivory to a two-year deal, worth $5.5 million in base salary, up to $6 million with incentives, and at least $3.25 million in 2018 alone. That may sound like a “minor” deal, as $3.25 million is just 1.8% of the $177 million cap for next season, but it would appear to be a symptom of the larger problem that Buffalo may lack respect for logical moves and instead focuses on adding players who come with adjectives like “bruiser” and “gritty veteran.”

I saw some positive remarks on the move coming through in stories and on Twitter:

“The Buffalo Bills added a bruising runner to their backfield.” - NFL.com

“Good 1-2 punch” -

“going for it” with Chris Ivory....

Of course, the praise for the Ivory signing hasn’t been abundant and the reasons for this are evident without much research. As Bill Barnwell pointed out, he’s been one of the worst running backs in football since signing a team-regrettable contract with the Jaguars in 2016.

So the production hasn’t been there, and even before then Ivory wasn’t Marshawn Lynch. He was at best a poor man’s Jonathan Stewart -- who is available himself right now. Turned off by Stewart because of his age? Well, if Danny Woodhead, Adrian Peterson, Lynch, and DeMarco Murray are cut -- all ranging from likely to probable — Ivory will be the oldest running back under contract for next season. Just barely ahead of his now-teammate LeSean McCoy.

There you have the fact that the Bills will be paying the two oldest running backs in football (or at least, thereabouts), something like $12-$13 million next season. Damn the signing of Eddie Lacy by the Seahawks all you want, but when you line up it next to the signing of Ivory on Tuesday, you’ll notice that:

  • Lacy was 26 when he signed
  • He signed for one year, not two
  • He had averaged 5.1 YPC the year before and was only two years removed from two 1,100-yard seasons
  • He was signed to compete to start, not with the intention to grab a few backup carries and therefore began the season with a much higher expected value than that of Ivory

In a vacuum, the signing of Ivory to a deal that pays him $3.25 million is enough to make you frustrated (if you’re a Buffalo fan) but outside of that vacuum are even more factors that can make any logical person grow a little weary regardless of how you feel about the Bills’ future success.

The most obvious of which is that free agency isn’t even open yet and somehow Buffalo is worried that there won’t be another back of Ivory’s caliber (which, again, is not that exceptional anymore) on the market when it opens next Wednesday. Seattle did not struggle to sign Lacy. The Minnesota Vikings could wait to land Latavius Murray. The New Orleans Saints added Peterson. The New England Patriots could hold out and land Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. The Philadelphia Eagles grabbed LeGarrette Blount without panicking a week before free agency. In fact, they signed Blount, in May.

And he had just scored 18 touchdowns and won the Super Bowl.

This year’s free agent backs include Lacy, Dion Lewis, Carlos Hyde, Isaiah Crowell, Burkhead, Doug Martin, Stewart, Darren Sproles, Jeremy Hill, Jerick McKinnon, Blount, Alfred Morris, and potentially Thomas Rawls, Mike Davis from Seattle. Ivory’s status as a free agent might legitimately be the least interesting from all of those backs.

Others who could be added to free agency include DeMarco Murray, Lynch, C.J. Anderson, Lamar Miller, Bilal Powell, Danny Woodhead, Peterson, and who knows. When Le’Veon Bell signs his franchise tag, McCoy will become the second-highest paid back in football and Ivory currently checks in the top 20. Given that an open market will likely relieve the pressure to “make a move now” when teams see all the options available (and some of those names likely won’t even find homes), Ivory’s cap hit could remain in the top 20. As a backup. As a 30-year-old backup with 3.6 YPC and seven fumbles in the last two seasons. Seven fumbles on 229 carries.

What are the Bills even doing?

The other important factor behind not signing a 30-year-old backup to be the ~20th-highest paid player at his position is the NFL draft. As Rob Staton of SeahawksDraftBlog.com pointed out to me, he sees as many as eight running backs going in the top 75. He calls it the strongest position group in the draft, to the point where the Seahawks could still find quality backs by the time they’re back on the board in the middle of round four. That’s an issue for Seattle right now, but not for Buffalo.

The Bills pick four times in the top 56.

1.21

1.22

2.21 (53)

2.24 (56)

That is four opportunities for them to draft a running back who could:

  • Become the future for the Bills at the position after McCoy
  • Be an explosive backup to McCoy
  • Would be an exceptionally better value than the veteran contract that they just gave to Ivory

If they used one of their first round picks on a back, say Ronald Jones II or Kerryon Johnson, they may be paying him something like $2 million next season. And odds would say that he’d be better than Ivory, regardless of the cost. The Bills would also control that player for 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022 with the fifth-year option. At which point he may be about 26-years-old.

They could also use one of their second round picks on a back, say Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, or Royce Freeman, and be paying him barely more than $1 million next season, then similarly low hits in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Again, who wouldn’t rather have Chubb than Ivory?

Well, as some have pointed out, the Bills could still draft a running back on day one or day two. This does not preclude them from doing so. But why? Please tell me why. Why did they need to do the thing that didn’t preclude them from doing the thing that they needed to do? Especially given that the Buffalo Bills actually are not in financial heaven.

OvertheCap.com has listed the Bills at being around $24 million under the 2018 cap. (They should save a little bit more with the retirement of Eric Wood.) They also don’t have a ton of notable cap casualty candidates. The first of those would be Tyrod Taylor, who could save them $9.4 million if released, and $15 million if released after June 1. However, cutting your starting quarterback would not seem to jive with the notion of “trying to win now.” They might need to upgrade the QB position regardless. They could trade up in the first round or push hard to sign someone or trade for someone, but signing Ivory only seems to limit them a little bit more in that regard.

They could cut Cordy Glenn to save $3.35 million, but they clearly don’t seem to place a high value on figures around $3.25 million, and they’d only be weakening their offensive line. In general, this is the cap they’re working with and Seahawks fans know first-hand how frustrating it can be to see $3-$4 million going to a backup running back can be.

All told, it’s hard to justify this move from any angle. When I wrote about Seattle potentially signing Ivory, I did so with the caveat that I expected him to get $1-$1.5 million, zero guaranteed. That’s the logical move. One thing that I didn’t anticipate though, and will have to make note of in the future:

Not all organizations are operating on logic.