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Brandon Beane deserves to win Executive of the Year for work with Buffalo Bills

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The transformation has been extraordinary.

The 10-6 Buffalo Bills exited the AFC playoffs after a 22-19 overtime loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday. It was a disappointing end to Buffalo’s season, but a sign of the team’s growth that people expected more from this group. A year ago, the team was 6-10 and fielded a historically bad offense. Few people deserve as much praise for how far the Bills have come as Brandon Beane. The general manager, now in his third season with the team, has dramatically transformed Buffalo’s football operations for the better. The Bills may not be one of the NFL’s elite, yet, but he’s taken them so far he deserves to be chosen as the league’s Executive of the Year.

Let’s examine why.


Salary-cap management

Brandon Beane is nothing short of a wizard in this department. His staff has fundamentally rebuilt Buffalo’s entire salary structure in under three seasons. Under Buddy Nix and Doug Whaley, the Bills spent to the cap with lucrative deals for players like Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus, leaving them scarcely enough money for filling their roster with draft picks each season.

Beane joined the Bills in 2017, put the franchise through a Dead Cap fever in 2018, and emerged on the other side with an immensely better situation. The Bills went on a free-agent spending “spree” this year, yet nearly tripled their open salary-cap space thanks to their dead contracts expiring. In the upcoming season, the Bills have 42 players under contract, but a whopping $89 million of cap space to finish up their roster.

Buffalo Bills salary cap space, 2015-2021

Year NFL Salary Cap Active Salaries IR Salaries Dead Cap Total Cap Commit Est. Cap Space (inc. rollover) Contracted players
Year NFL Salary Cap Active Salaries IR Salaries Dead Cap Total Cap Commit Est. Cap Space (inc. rollover) Contracted players
2015 $146,073,884 $93,228,100 $30,552,856 $13,643,764 $139,259,624 $6,814,260 55
2016 $157,375,731 $112,497,692 $17,684,604 $18,773,045 $152,340,574 $5,035,157 53
2017 $166,989,897 $104,955,026 $20,683,295 $28,929,576 $155,791,897 $11,198,000 53
2018 $188,783,459 $104,008,378 $5,244,944 $70,343,254 $179,596,576 $9,186,883 53
2019 $200,426,270 $152,800,449 $5,049,084 $15,744,454 $174,784,987 $25,641,283 53
2020 (proj) $224,641,283 $134,561,808 $- $1,043,674 $135,605,482 $89,035,801 42
2021 (proj) $298,035,801 $99,377,066 $- $- $99,377,066 $198,648,735 27

How did he pull it off? First, the aforementioned fever. Beane completely rebuilt the roster after taking over, sending out players like Sammy Watkins, Charles Clay, and LeSean McCoy. The only veterans left from Rex Ryan’s era are Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander, and Shaq Lawson.

Secondly, he restructured Buffalo’s system of contract writing. The number-one phrase repeated in the Buffalo Rumblings Slack channel during free agency is “wait for the real contract numbers.” Why? Case in point: Tyler Kroft’s contract. When his signing was announced, Ian Rapoport called it a three year, $18.75 million deal. That was technically true, but with most of his contract built into salaries instead of bonuses, his overall cost was closer to $7 million over one year, with “team options” for his future years. We saw similar structures, along with bundled incentives and playtime bonuses, peppered among other contracts. The overall effect drastically lowered Buffalo’s salary commitments from their 2019 free agent class.

Arguably, no team is better positioned for winning in the near future than the Bills. Not only did they make the playoffs with a 10-6 record, but they have more salary-cap space in 2020 than any other playoff team. The Bills own the salary cap now, and it’s thanks to Beane and his staff.

Scouting

You have to be impressed with the remarkable congruence of Buffalo’s roster. Every single player fits into a role on the squad, injury replacements are mostly seamless, and the group forms a single strong unit. The Bills may be bereft of superstars, aside from Tre’Davious White, but every unit of the team has a clear vision and purpose. The offensive line is versatile and nasty. The wideouts are shifty and speedy. The secondary can disguise as one coverage and perfectly run another without a hitch.

In other words, and I’ve heard Erik Turner use this phrase before, the Bills are masters of “self-scouting”—knowing what they have, what they need, and who will fit.

Also remarkable is, well, Buffalo’s success rate with the players they pick up. Let’s start with first-round picks, where every one of “McBeane’s” selections has hit. Tremaine Edmunds is only 21 and a Pro Bowl alternate. Josh Allen stopped being the reason the Bills lose games and started showing he can be the reason they win games. Ed Oliver had five sacks and a forced fumble in his rookie year.

The team has hits throughout the entire draft. Devin Singletary and Dawson Knox. Potential future starters with Cody Ford and Harrison Phillips. Potential late-round hits with Siran Neal, Jaquan Johnson, and Tommy Sweeney. The team’s only bust through the past three seasons is Zay Jones (who, we should mention, was selected before Beane joined the Bills).

Pro scouting is also a huge hit. Mitch Morse, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Jon Feliciano, Quinton Spain, Ty Nsekhe, Andre Roberts—practically every free agent from 2019 was a winner. The 2018 free-agent list, led by Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy, is less encouraging, but the team took major strides this year en route to the playoffs.

Draft pick management

Another gold star for Beane. While he was in the process of rebuilding Buffalo’s roster from the ground up, and resetting the team’s salary-cap position, he also managed to build up a tidy nest egg of current and future draft picks, through shrewd trading of both picks and players.

Let’s review some of his big wins from 2018 and 2019:

  • Bundling Cordy Glenn to trade up from the 21st overall pick to the 12th overall pick
  • Trading Sammy Watkins on a one-year deal to the Los Angeles Rams for a second-round pick
  • Trading Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns for a third-round pick
  • Trading A.J. McCarron to the Oakland Raiders for a future fifth-round pick
  • Trading Russell Bodine to the New England Patriots for a sixth-round pick
  • Turning a first and third into a higher first and fifth in order to set up drafting Tremaine Edmunds

In a seven round draft, the Bills have drafted eight players in each of the past two seasons. That list includes three first-round picks, a second-round pick, and three third-round picks—in other words, the Bills haven’t just had a higher-than-average amount of picks, they were at a surplus on the premium choices needed to build a competitive roster.

Though they’ll pick lower in the draft order this year, the Bills are once again picking from a position of strength. They have a pick in each of the first four rounds, plus two fifth-round selections, two sixth-round selections, and a seventh-round pick. That’s plenty of flexibility to add more premium prospects.

The only potential negative in this category is compensatory pick management. This has never been Buffalo’s strong suit, and the Bills didn’t take advantage of it during their process of reconstructing the roster. But it’s a moot point, since they’re finding bonus fifth- and sixth-round picks in other avenues.

Culture and accountability

All the football qualities aside, Beane deserves commendation because he’s part of a staff that preached “culture change” and actually delivered it. From top to bottom, the Bills are more professional, organized, and considerate than they were at any point since before Josh Allen was born.

From a state-of-the-art training and conditioning center that helped alleviate injuries, to the hiring of and trust in a serious analytical staff that has the Bills as one of the most aggressive decision-making teams in the league, Buffalo’s football organization is impressively forward-thinking. The team continues to find the “right” fit with the players and coaches it seeks, and it’s clear that the “McBeane” regime has firmly found its footing.

Other contenders

Eric DeCosta has a very strong case for the award. In his first year on the job, the Baltimore Ravens netted the best record in the league. Twelve players were selected to the Pro Bowl, Lamar Jackson is likely the MVP, and a shrewd trade for Marcus Peters lifted the defense to one of the league’s best. That said, you could argue that much of his success was on the coattails of Ozzie Newsome’s outgoing preparation.

Mike Mayock deserves praise for successfully transitioning from NFL Network analyst to football executive without a hitch. He’s still shaping the Raiders’ roster, but already had a strong draft class between likely Offensive Rookie of the Year Josh Jacobs, Clelin Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Foster Moreau, and others. Signing Ritchie Incognito was a gamble that paid off handsomely. But the 7-9 Raiders missing the postseason likely disqualifies him.

John Lynch also has a strong case for recognition, turning around his San Francisco 49ers from 4-12 to 13-3 and the number-one seed. Rookie Nick Bosa was a no-brainer selection, but Deebo Samuel fit perfectly into Kyle Shanahan’s offense. If there’s a knock on Lynch’s chances, it’s that outside of Nick Bosa, his 2019 moves didn’t fundamentally alter his team’s fortunes. Free-agent signings like Kwon Alexander, Jason Verrett, and Tevin Coleman all had limited impacts due to injuries.

I rest my case

I already argued that Sean McDermott should be a Coach of the Year candidate, and his partner in the front office deserves to be awarded for his own achievements. The Bills have come so far from their disjointed, short-sighted, mistake-prone management of years past. There’s no more back-stabbing, no incongruous moves and, honestly, a real lack of ineptitude. Buffalo now has an organization to envy, and the rest of the league should take notice. In Cleveland, one beat reporter for The Athletic already has. For how far he’s taken the Bills in such a short span of time, Brandon Beane should be the front-runner for Executive of the Year.