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Opinion: Bills GM Brandon Beane faces critical offseason

Draft, free agency success needed in 2023 to avoid backslide

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Nobody should be surprised that this offseason is a pivotal one for the Buffalo Bills. When the Bills signed quarterback Josh Allen to a six year, $258 million extension, one of the prevailing narratives was “well, you locked up your quarterback. You’re gonna have to hit on draft picks and lower-cost free agents now to build around him.” The pinch started even before that, with the 2017 draft class that includes cornerback Tre’Davious White, left tackle Dion Dawkins, and linebacker Matt Milano all getting market contracts at their respective positions. With each justifiable contract, the need for low-cost hits increased, reaching its zenith with the mega-extension signed by Allen.

But the hits haven’t come the way we had hoped. The 2017 class was an unquestioned hit for the Bills and the 2018 class delivered three current Bills starters in Allen, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, and nickel cornerback Taron Johnson. But since that 2018 class, it can be argued that none of Buffalo’s draft picks represent players who are top eight at their position. Just getting a handful of “it’s a no-brainer to sign this player to a market or close-to-market second contract” draft picks seems like it’s been a tall order since the 2018 class.

Tight end Dawson Knox (drafted in 2019) might be the closest to that top-eight designation and is being paid as such, but was hampered by an early season injury and finished with only 504 yards receiving during the season. His second contract hasn’t proven itself to be an obvious win in hindsight thus far.

Defensive tackle Ed Oliver continues to show flashes, but was also impacted by an early season injury and has unquestionably had a less productive career overall than four of the the other five defensive tackles taken in the first round in 2019 (Quinnen Williams, Christian Wilkins, Jeffery Simmons, and Dexter Lawrence), with Jerry Tillery being the player obviously beneath Oliver in terms of impact. His pass-rush win rate of 10.4% per Pro Football Focus (PFF) during the 2022 season was the lowest since his rookie year.

Edge Rusher A.J. Epenesa managed to have the quietest seven-sack season in recent memory and was 53rd in the NFL in pass-rush win rate (14.5%) per PFF. As he enters the final year of his rookie contract, are we pounding the table to re-sign him as a cornerstone piece of the defensive line rotation? Fellow defensive end Boogie Basham recorded just 13 pressures on 246 pass rush snaps in 2022 and was outplayed this year by former Bills draft pick and journeyman Shaq Lawson.

Running back Zack Moss was largely a disappointment before being traded to the Indianapolis Colts with a sixth-round pick for Nyheim Hines — who was then promptly underutilized by the team on offense. Gabe Davis put up reasonable results as the WR2 opposite Stefon Diggs this year but failed to take the jump many expected and is not a lock to be re-signed by the team as he enters his contract year.

Offensive lineman Cody Ford was partially a victim of role vagueness during his time in Buffalo, with the team insisting he was a tackle before moving him to guard and having him struggle in both places before trading him to the Arizona Cardinals. Linebacker Vosean Joseph, edge rusher Darryl Johnson, tight end Tommy Sweeney, quarterback Jake Fromm, wide receiver Marquez Stevenson, cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, and offensive lineman Jack Anderson were all non-factors for the team. Wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins was released and picked up by former Bills offensive coordinator and current New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll and after seeing some success there, the wisdom of that transaction is being questioned.

There have been solid singles and doubles during this time period. Defensive end Gregory Rousseau was a much more effective player when edge rusher Von Miller was healthy opposite him, finishing the season 14th in pass-rush win rate. But after Miller went down, Rousseau was 43rd in the same metric during the time frame where the defense didn’t have the future Hall of Famer to game-plan against. As mentioned above, Dawson Knox has proven to be a reasonable starting tight end in the NFL, even if his contract is going to be a pain point moving forward if more production isn’t received by the team in return. Tyler Bass has proven to be a win, and a re-signable kicker for the team. And in this past year’s class, cornerback Kaiir Elam, running back James Cook, wide receiver Khalil Shakir and cornerback (and potentially future safety) Christian Benford all look like they could play meaningful snaps for the Bills in 2023 and moving forward.

But there are no home runs. Not a single one. No stars on rookie deals at impactful positions who can create that immense value between what they’re giving the team and what the team is paying them. In free agency, Beane absolutely nailed the signing of one-tech defensive tackle DaQuan Jones — who might be a top-two unrestricted free agent signing by Beane in terms of overall impact. Von Miller looked like he still had a lot of juice left before going down to a torn ACL. Punter Sam Martin is on my list of re-sign candidates. But the remaining free-agent signings have been a steady rotation of players who didn’t perform up to their contracts. Defensive tackle Tim Settle was a disappointment after coming over from Washington. Offensive lineman Rodger Saffold had a poor year overall and few are pushing to re-sign him to a meaningful deal as a starter. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was playing with his usual intensity before tearing his rotator cuff. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder suffered through another injury-plagued year on the sideline.

As we start looking at previous years, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders provided reasonable production in his final NFL season. Defensive end Mario Addison and linebacker A.J. Klein were overpaid for the prodution provided in their time with Buffalo. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler was ineffective. Defensive end Quinton Jefferson was cut after one year. After one very good year, offensive lineman Daryl Williams was moved to a new position after being re-signed and was then released in favor of the previously mentioned struggling Rodger Saffold.

The Bills’ 2019 free-agent class had meaningfully positive pieces. Wide receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown performed up to the contracts they signed and helped in the development of Josh Allen. Center Mitch Morse is in Beane’s top two along with DaQuan Jones when ranking the free-agent signings.

But the fact that we’ve gone back as many years as we have to find the acquisitions made by Beane who were even doubles, shows that there’s been a lull in terms of talent acquisition by the organization. The best year of talent infusion during head coach Sean McDermott tenure to this point was unquestionably 2017, when in addition to their stellar draft class, Buffalo brought in free-agent safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, both of whom would go on to re-sign with the Bills and earn All-Pro honors.

But all those 2017 acquisitions happened under the watchful eye of Sean McDermott, before Beane was hired as GM of the team.

Since 2018 when Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds, and Taron Johnson were drafted, the Bills have acquired four players, whether through the draft or free agency, who I would consider to be no-brainer re-signing candidates to market or close-to-market contracts: Mitch Morse, DaQuan Jones (who signed a two-year deal and is already coming into the last year on his contract), Sam Martin andTyler Bass. Of course Dawson Knox was re-signed but will need to be better utilized and more productive to shake any questions about the wisdom of that contract. Every single other acquisition is either a “no” or a “we’ll see.”

And when your team is getting more expensive and the quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, and edge rusher contracts start to put a squeeze on your salary cap, acquiring four players in four years who most would agree are players the team must retain due to their impact on the team isn’t going to allow the Bills to keep pace with the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs in a talent-stacked AFC.

We all knew what needed to happen to keep the window open for the Bills. It hasn’t happened to this point. But every offseason can be the offseason where an infusion of talent in the draft and free agency can breathe new life to a franchise.

The Seattle Seahawks had three draft classes from 2010-2012 that set the foundation for all their success early under head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider. Offensive tackle Russell Okung, safety Earl Thomas, wide receiver Golden Tate, safety Kam Chancellor, linebacker K.J. Wright, cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, edge rusher Bruce Irvin, linebacker Bobby Wagner, and quarterback Russell Wilson were all part of those three draft classes. After 2013, the Seahawks’ stretch of draft picks hits notably thinned out. Wide receiver Tyler Lockett is a star from the 2015 draft class. Running back Chris Carson was a seventh-round pick in 2017 who had a productive career before having it was cut short by a neck injury. Fellow backfield mate Rashaad Penny finally looked to be breaking out after an injury-plagued start to his career before suffering an injury this past year to give way to rookie sensation Kenneth Walker. Wide receiver DK Metcalf proved to be a star and has re-signed with the team to big money. But after 10 incredibly meaningful additions in three years in Seattle through the draft, the Seahawks have gone nine drafts with some hits here and there (including a basically blank 2021 draft) before having what many consider to be a tremendous 2022 draft.

It only takes one offseason to pull it out of a decline.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take the Bills nine years to replicate the talent infusion they saw in 2017 and 2018.