Bills' loss of Mike Gillislee could be Jonathan Williams' gain


The Buffalo Bills‘ decision Monday not to match the New England Patriots‘ two-year, $6.4 million offer sheet to restricted free-agent running back Mike Gillislee strengthens Buffalo’s long-dominant division rival while stripping the Bills of one of the league’s most efficient running backs last season.

While the Bills lose one of their promising young players to New England, there are benefits for Buffalo in this week’s draft and in their financial outlook moving forward.

As a result of losing Gillislee, who was tendered at an original-round level, Buffalo receives the higher of New England’s three fifth-round picks, No. 163 overall. The Bills now have seven selections in this week’s draft. They have three fifth-round picks, but they sent their original fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears during the 2016 draft to trade up for linebacker Reggie Ragland.

The Bills also gain $1.8 million in 2017 salary-cap space, which is money they can roll over into 2018 and combine with the approximately $2 million in 2018 cap space they will save by not matching Gillislee’s deal. That will give the Bills, who now have about $13 million in 2017 cap space, some extra wiggle room as they decide which players to sign and retain next offseason.

This season, the Bills have several directions in which they can attempt to replace Gillislee’s 2016 production (577 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 carries).

The most likely replacement for Gillislee as the Bills’ No. 2 running back is Jonathan Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2016. Williams was active for 11 games as a rookie last season, rushing 27 times for 94 yards and one touchdown. A 5-foot-11, 223-pound product of Arkansas, Williams could provide a short-yardage replacement for LeSean McCoy. The question is whether Williams, with a heavier load of carries, can rival Gillislee’s efficiency last season — a league-best 5.7 yards per carry.

But before potential fantasy owners bump up Williams’ potential draft value this fall, consider the possibility that fullback Mike Tolbert could poach some short-yardage and goal-line carries. When signing Tolbert last month, the Bills emphasized Tolbert would be used as more than just a lead-blocking fullback, indicating that Tolbert could take some carries away from the more traditional running backs on Buffalo’s depth chart.

Another possibility for the Bills to address the loss of Gillislee is to use a mid-round draft pick this week on a running back. This draft is considered deep among running backs, with 12 players at the position listed among Scouts Inc.’s ranking of the top 150 prospects. While Buffalo remains unlikely to select a running back with the No. 10 overall pick, there are mid-round options such as Samaje Perine, D’Onta Foreman and Kareem Hunt who could be considered in the third round, or if the Bills reacquire a fourth-round draft choice.

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