The Buffalo Bills hired Sean McDermott as their head coach on January 11, 2017. On May 9 of the same year, they hired Brandon Beane as the general manager. Both Beane and McDermott worked for the Carolina Panthers prior to coming north to Orchard Park, so they were obviously familiar with one another.
As the team’s transactions since 2017 would suggest, the pair is also quite familiar with players who used to play in Carolina. It’s become somewhat of a tradition to expect the Bills to try to sign multiple Panthers players in free agency. While it isn’t necessarily uncommon for coaches and general managers to take players with them from stop to stop, Bills fans may have a slight disdain for the practice given some of the acquisitions made during the Rex Ryan era (I.K. Enemkpali, anyone?).
When I began compiling this list of former Panthers acquired by the Bills since 2017, I fully expected it to be extensive. However, the list only includes 20 names overall (with 21 transactions, as one player was acquired twice). This doesn’t account for players the Bills have reportedly been interested in signing (Greg Van Roten, for example), just players who actually shuffled north to Buffalo.
FB Mike Tolbert
DE Ryan Davis
WR Philly Brown
CB Leonard Johnson
WR Kaelin Clay
QB/ST Joe Webb
WR Kelvin Benjamin
S L.J. McCray
S Dean Marlowe
In the first year of the McDermott/Beane partnership, the Bills acquired nine former Panthers at some point in the season. Tolbert, Davis, Brown, and Johnson were all signed in March of that year, so Beane wasn’t involved in those transactions at all. Webb signed with the team after roster cuts in September. Clay was acquired from Carolina via trade, was subsequently released, and returned to Carolina. The Bills’ big move at the trade deadline that year was to send a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick to Carolina for Benjamin, who hurt his knee in his first game with the team and never provided anywhere close to the impact expected of him. McCray was on the practice squad through August 2018 before he was released. Marlowe was added to the practice squad that December and ironically, remains the only player on this list still with the team. He reportedly re-signed with the team on March 20 of this year.
DT Star Lotulelei
WR Kaelin Clay
DT Robert Thomas
OL Jeremiah Sirles*
QB Derek Anderson
*played for Carolina after Beane/McDermott were there
Another year, another offseason where the Bills pilfered plenty of former Panthers. The big signing here was obviously Lotulelei, as the Bills gave the massive one-tech defensive tackle a five-year deal worth a total of $50 million, nearly half of which was guaranteed. He renegotiated his deal this offseason. Anderson was coaxed out of retirement in October 2018 as a backup-slash-mentor to then-rookie quarterback Josh Allen. Only 12 days after Anderson signed, he was pressed into duty as a starter when Allen suffered an elbow injury. Anderson was concussed on Monday Night Football against the New England Patriots in the game’s final moments, and he retired before the following season began. Sirles was a versatile backup for Buffalo, and he signed a one-year extension in 2019; however, a foot injury sidelined him for the whole season, and he retired in March 2020. Clay made his second appearance with the Bills after he was released by, you guessed it, the Panthers in his second stint with them. He was released prior to the season beginning. Robert Thomas allowed Skarekrow and I to make plenty of Matchbox 20 jokes, which we thought were Smooth even if most readers wanted us to Get Bent.
S Kurt Coleman
CB Captain Munnerlyn
WR Ray-Ray McCloud III
Perhaps it’s unfair to list McCloud here, given that he was originally a draft choice of Buffalo’s in 2017, but he did go from Buffalo to Carolina and then back to Buffalo again...so he technically counts as a former Panther in a Bills uniform. Kurt Coleman was signed to replace veteran safety Rafael Bush, who decided to retire in July. Munnerlyn was signed as offseason secondary depth and he was cut before the start of the season.
CB Josh Norman
DT Vernon Butler
LB A.J. Klein
EDGE Mario Addison
So far, the Bills have gone hard after former Panthers in free agency to replace departed players. Buffalo signed Norman early to replace veteran Kevin Johnson, who they allowed to sign a one-year deal with the Cleveland Browns. Klein ostensibly replaces Lorenzo Alexander as the team’s third linebacker and special teams contributor. Addison replaces Shaq Lawson as one of the top three defensive ends in the rotation. Butler replaces Jordan Phillips as one of the top three defensive tackles in the rotation, as well.
The Charlotte to Orchard Park shuttle has been used to varying degrees of success over the last four years, but one thing is certain: The frequency with which Buffalo’s brass has tapped its Carolina connections hasn’t led to a downturn in on-field production. Many of the players acquired have been asked to perform very specific roles, and most of them have been depth pieces as opposed to full-fledged starters.
Tolbert, for example, was one of two fullbacks Buffalo signed in March 2017 (the other was Patrick DiMarco). Tolbert carried the ball 66 times for 247 yards and one touchdown that year, adding 14 catches for 78 yards. He was replaced by Chris Ivory the following year. Davis tied for second on the Bills in sacks in 2017, though he only managed three total. He was replaced with Trent Murphy the following season. Leonard Johnson was the team’s primary slot corner in 2017, and he performed pretty well. He had 53 tackles and seven pass breakups, adding a sack and a forced fumble in the Bills’ 10-3 Wild Card Playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was replaced by Taron Johnson the following season.
Acquiring Benjamin turned out to be a huge mistake, as the big-bodied wideout just didn’t provide value in his yearlong stint with the team. Benjamin only caught 39-of-89 targets while with Buffalo for a total of 572 yards and two touchdowns. He and Joe Webb each made their biggest contribution to the team in the same game, as Benjamin caught a touchdown from Nathan Peterman in a driving blizzard, and Webb completed an impossible pass to Deonte Thompson in overtime to help the Bills beat the Indianapolis Colts 13-7.
One could argue that Lotulelei’s contract has been a bad one, as well, given the space-eater’s high earnings relative to his lack of statistical production (Lotulelei has 36 tackles, two for a loss, and two sacks in two seasons with the Bills). A one-tech doesn’t exactly find himself in many situations to earn gaudy stats, though, so it’s hard to quantify his worth based solely on numbers.
The majority of the other players, truthfully, are depth pieces who no one expected to do much other than know the system and be ready to step in if necessary. That’s why someone like Marlowe has been so valuable, as he can come in at any time and be trusted to be in the right place in the back end of the defense. All coaching staffs want players who know their system, and nearly all will have a cadre of players who will go with them from stop to stop in the league.
Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane have definitely shown an affinity for familiar players from Carolina. That makes them similar to nearly any other coach/general manager duo, and it hasn’t limited their success in Buffalo.