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Could the Buffalo Bills make a deadline deal for a RB?

The Bills have a strong team with one glaring weakness—and options to address it via trade

San Francisco 49ers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

How desperate are the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl this season? How long do the team’s decision-makers believe they have before their current championship opportunity closes, and a roster re-tool for another run begins? How thin has their patience grown with select members of their running back room?

The answer to those questions may lie in how aggressively—or not—the Bills pursue upgrades on the trade market this month.

The 2022 NFL trade deadline is on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. The Bills are currently well-positioned to contend for the Lombardi Trophy, and are clearly one of the league’s best teams through five games this season. No roster is perfect and every team can improve, however—so with three weeks to speculate, Bills fans are letting their imaginations run wild.

Given that Buffalo boast an elite passing attack with a legitimate MVP candidate at quarterback in Josh Allen, along with a deep and well-established defense that has allowed seven points to opponents in the second half this season, it’s of little surprise that most Bills-centric trade discussion focuses on the team’s less-than-stellar rushing attack.

The Bills currently rank 13th in the NFL in team rushing yardage, with 582 yards gained at 5.1 yards per clip. It’s Allen, however, who leads Buffalo in rushing, gaining 225 of those yards himself through five weeks. He has paced the team in rushing yardage in four out of their five games. Running backs James Cook (17 attempts, 89 yards), and Zack Moss (17 attempts, 91 yards) have yet to establish themselves as necessary members of the rushing attack, leaving Allen and running back Devin Singletary (40 attempts, 171 yards) to carry what little rushing burden there has been on the offense thus far.

In Sunday’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 24-yard touchdown run from Cook—the first of his career—became Buffalo’s first offensive touchdown of the season that didn’t involve Allen.

Two names are routinely linked to discussions about the trade deadline and Buffalo’s rushing attack: New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, and Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.

We’ll start with McCaffrey in Carolina, a franchise that is about to embark on a major transition after today’s firing of head coach Matt Rhule. Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott have strong ties to the Panthers’ organization, up to and including Carolina’s current assistant general manager—former Bills director of player personnel Dan Morgan.

McCaffrey, 26, was one of the league’s most dynamic players in 2018 and 2019, which landed him a four-year contract extension that gives him cap hits ranging between $15-20 million for each of the next three seasons. For a player that has struggled with injury and only appeared in 10 games over the past two full seasons (he is five-for-five so far this year), the contract has become prohibitive.

He no longer seems like a long-term fit for the Panthers as they begin another rebuild. He likely won’t see the end of his contract. However, the structure of his contract—he’s only making $1.035 million in base salary this season, and none of the three remaining years on his deal are guaranteed—makes it feasible for an enterprising contender to acquire him, if they deem it worthwhile.

Barkley, 25, is on the trade radar for a different reason—his expiring rookie contract. Set to become a free agent after this season, Barkley is experiencing something of a career renaissance after a 2020 injury cost him 14 games and slowed him for much of 2021. In his first five games under new head coach Brian Daboll, Barkley has already run for 533 yards (at 5.5 yards per rush), added another 143 receiving yards, and scored three touchdowns.

The Bills also have strong and more obvious ties to New York’s front office, with general manager Joe Schoen assuming that role this past winter after serving as Beane’s understudy in Buffalo. Many former Bills front office members and coaches now work in New York. The DNA for a potential trade certainly exists, particularly if the surprising 4-1 Giants don’t have plans on re-signing Barkley to a long-term deal after the season.

Whether or not it’s likely that the Bills land one of these players via trade depends on the answers to a few questions:

  • Can the Bills swing it financially?
  • Have the Bills lost confidence in all of Singletary, Moss, and Cook?
  • Do the Bills think it’s worth bothering with?

Buffalo doesn’t have a lot of cap room right now. Taking on McCaffrey’s contract would be easier, particularly since they could so easily get out of it. Trading for Barkley would probably require an extension and a re-work of some sort.

The Bills also have significant draft capital tied up in their current running backs. Singletary will be a free agent after this season, and Moss next year, but Cook is the highest-drafted of the three—and also the most explosive. The team would not be faulted at all for doubling down on their investment here and trying to develop a starter out of this group, particularly as it pertains to Cook.

There’s also the question of if this type of investment at running back is worth it. The Bills are an unapologetic pass-first team. They use their running game to keep defenses honest, and to salt away blowout wins. If that part of the offense isn’t a long-term focus, why put yourself behind the eight-ball like the Los Angeles Rams for a player who likely ends up a rental?

Time—three weeks’ worth of it, in fact—will tell a more complete story on where the Bills stand on these issues. For now, they’re a Super Bowl contender toying with the idea of getting even better.