On Tuesday, March 6, the Buffalo Bills signed running back Chris Ivory to a two-year contract. The team made a head start on its free agent replacements, with both Mike Tolbert and Travaris Cadet out of contract this offseason, and it gave the team a player with a solid resume, especially relative to last year’s primary backup. McCoy will still do the heavy lifting for the offense, but it’s nice to know that the team has a player capable of reaching 100 yards if he needs to carry the load. Ivory has crossed that mark twelve times in his career, while the departing Tolbert had only managed it thrice.
There’s a valid argument to be made that the Bills are mismanaging their payroll with respect to the running back position. The team already has LeSean McCoy signed to one of the most expensive active contracts for a running back, and they just added Ivory on a $5.5M deal that ranks 21st among NFL running backs in terms of average annual value. Where most of the NFL is paying star kickers more than star running backs, the Bills are swimming against the current, and that decision could make their salary cap origami more complicated than it needs to be.
There’s also a claim to be made that Ivory wasn’t the best signing the team could’ve made. It’s true that his production dipped the past two seasons and he played as a backup in 2017. Other options like LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, Jonathan Stewart, and Alfred Morris (among others) could be available, with better production at a younger age.
It’s important not to discount the value of an effective scheme/team fit in a free agent signing. Under their previous general manager, the Bills drafted talent and signed coaches without careful consideration for continuity, wasting investments on players who didn’t match the playbook or fit into a tightly-knit culture. Ivory’s power and ability to cut laterally will make him a good fit in the type of offense Brian Daboll wants to run.
The other important factor to consider is that Chris Ivory won’t cost any compensatory picks to add. Like Vontae Davis before him, Ivory was cut before the start of the league year, keeping him from factoring into the calculation in next year’s draft allocation.
Consider that the Bills have several free agents with the potential to cash in during this offseason. Preston Brown is aiming to earn $35-40 million over four years. E.J. Gaines is a solid starting zone cornerback hitting free agency for the first time. Jordan Matthews is 25 years old and began his career with 2,673 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns over three seasons, before being traded to Buffalo and playing through injuries in a bad all-around offense. If Buffalo manages their signings appropriately, they can add multiple third, fourth, or fifth round selections in 2019.
Why is this relevant? Because of all of the teams in the NFL, Buffalo is most likely to sacrifice some picks in April to add a rookie quarterback. General Manager Brandon Beane has reshaped the team with a slew of trades in his first year, and Sean McDermott already signed off on a major trade in the other direction of the draft last year. Between the Giants, whose new GM Dave Gettleman has a strong relationship with Beane, the Indianapolis Colts, whose new head coach Frank Reich played ten seasons with the Bills, and the Browns, who own an extra first round pick, the top of the draft is loaded with potentially amicable trade partners.
Trading from 21st overall to 2nd or 3rd overall will carry a steep price. Even with Buffalo’s four top-64 picks, it would likely require a sacrifice of future draft picks to complete the deal. What’s one way to ease that sting? Acquire extra draft picks. Consider a scenario in which Buffalo spends #21 and #22 overall, a 2018 second rounder, a 2019 second rounder, and a 2019 fourth rounder to seal the deal for the third overall pick. The team would head into 2019 with only five picks – until the compensatory picks come in, giving Buffalo one to three extra choices (which could be traded, if need be).
When Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane joined the Buffalo Bills, they began making choices that were difficult in the present, but offered the team future flexibility. Adding draft picks by giving up valuable picks or players. Signing players at or near the end of their contract to help set up negotiations and keep the overall cost lower while boosting present performance. Signing a soon-to-be 30 year old running back with $3.5 million guaranteed doesn’t seem to carry much forethought, but for the cost of 2 percent of the salary cap, it gives the team a reliable backup while preserving the option to make a future blockbuster trade in April.