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Analyzing Bills’ use of rookies in McDermott-Beane era

Is this regime properly utilizing its draft picks?

NFL: APR 26 2018 NFL Draft Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Brandon Beane was named general manager of the Buffalo Bills in 2017, just one month after the NFL Draft in which Buffalo drafted key players such as cornerback Tre’Davious White, left tackle Dion Dawkins, and linebacker Matt Milano. It feels like Beane gets a ton of credit for his aggressiveness during the draft process, like trading up for quarterback Josh Allen in 2018 or trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs in 2020.

But, if allowed to be critical in this space, the vast majority of his other draft picks haven’t necessarily been the greatest. Yet, we constantly hear from Bills fans about how much of a “wizard” Beane is when it comes to all things draft.

If we consider the possibility that he might not be a wizard, is this an issue where Beane and his staff simply aren’t great at evaluating talent? Or, is head coach Sean McDermott’s philosophy of making rookies earn their opportunities hurting their development and in turn making Beane look bad for poor talent evaluation?

We saw it first hand this season with rookie cornerbacks Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford, and veteran Dane Jackson — all of whom split snaps each game. Towards the end of the season, when Benford was sidelined, that split was still near 50/50. That’s frustrating to see, because Elam was Buffalo’s first-round pick, and he flashed great ability in his limited opportunities. Listen, I’m all for making the locker room competitive, but Elam didn’t even register 50% of defensive snaps during the 2022 season (45.4%), while Jackson — a sixth-round pick in 2020 — registered 78.9%.

For fun, let’s take a look at those players drafted in the McDermott-Beane era (2018-present) who were given sufficient opportunities and snaps to develop properly in their rookie seasons.

Snaps played by 2018 Bills rookies

  • QB Josh Allen — 67.9%
  • LB Tremaine Edmunds — 91.3%
  • DT Harrison Phillips — 38.7%
  • CB Taron Johnson — 39.9%
  • S Siran Neal — 1.5%
  • OG Wyatt Teller — 44.9%
  • WR Ray-Ray McCloud — 11.4%
  • WR Austin Proehl — 0%

The Beane era started off strong, in that there is no doubt. He traded up for Allen, and Bills Mafia didn’t know how to react, because most were preparing for another typical Bills season. Allen did not start in Week 1, playing in relief of Nathan Peterman, and then appeared in 11 more games as the starter, missing four with a UCL sprain in his throwing elbow.

One of Beane’s biggest misses was trading away guard Wyatt Teller to the Cleveland Browns for late picks. Teller is now an All-Pro guard, while Bills fans just watched Allen face pressure on over 35% of his dropbacks against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

All told, however, 2018 was a solid draft from Beane in his first year. On defense, he grabbed linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and cornerback Taron Johnson with the second first-round pick and in the fourth round, respectively, with defensive tackle Harrison Phillips coming in between. Edmunds immediately stepped into an every-down role, but Johnson wasn’t utilized nearly as much as he is now, while serving as Buffalo’s fourth. Phillips rotated in behind Kyle Williams to learn, but never received a higher snap total the rest of his time with Buffalo.

Snaps played by 2019 Bills rookies

  • DT Ed Oliver — 53.7%
  • OL Cody Ford — 69.1%
  • RB Devin Singletary — 49.6%
  • TE Dawson Knox — 60.4%
  • LB Vosean Joseph — 0%
  • S Jaquan Johnson — 5.1%
  • DE Darryl Johnson — 21.7%
  • TE Tommy Sweeney — 12.1%

Defensive tackle Ed Oliver was the team’s first-round pick in April 2019, a much-needed position for the defense. Oliver totaled five sacks as a rookie, the highest total of his career in any season thus far. Oliver is a fan-favorite and brings juice to the defense, but he hasn’t lived up to much of the hype that comes with his top-ten selection.

This was the draft where Beane wanted to get Allen some dependable options, so he grabbed running back Devin Singletary and tight end Dawson Knox in back-to-back rounds. Not only did he give Allen weapons and a run game, but also protection, by drafting tackle Cody Ford. Singletary and Knox stepped into significant offensive roles immediately, and while Ford did too, Ford was simply a big swing-and-a-miss by Beane. Bills fans gave him the benefit of the doubt for a while, but he just wasn’t a good day-two pick, and was traded last summer.

Snaps played by 2020 Bills rookies

  • DE A.J. Epenesa — 27.2%
  • RB Zack Moss — 37.0%
  • WR Gabe Davis — 73.3%
  • QB Jake Fromm — 0%
  • K Tyler Bass — 43.4%
  • WR Isaiah Hodgins — 0%
  • CB Dane Jackson — 18.0%

The key move Beane made ahead of the draft in 2020 will remain a conflicting one for NFL fans, because of the what-if scenarios. However, trading for wide receiver Stefon Diggs was and still is instrumental to the success of the team.

Following the trade, Buffalo didn’t have a first-round pick, obviously, but Beane managed to beef up on offense yet again. That came via the selection of wide receiver Gabe Davis, who went on to play a large role in his rookie season thanks in large part due to a John Brown injury. Davis has remained a key contributor, despite his noticeable struggles as a true starter this past season. But, in all, this was a great pick by Beane, especially in the fourth round.

There isn’t much to say about running back Zack Moss other than noting that he registered way too many snaps his rookie year (37.04%), snaps that could’ve gone to Singletary for more development and experience.

Both defensive end A.J. Epenesa and Dane Jackson were taken in this draft, but were barely utilized as rookies. Jackson’s role is bigger now, but Epenesa hasn’t surpassed 35.7% of snaps in any of his three seasons.

Snaps played by 2021 Bills rookies

  • DE Greg Rousseau — 49.3%
  • DE Boogie Basham — 18.7%
  • OT Spencer Brown — 60.6%
  • OT Tommy Doyle — 5.4%
  • WR Marquez Stevenson — 0.5%
  • S Damar Hamlin — 4.6%
  • CB Rachad Wildgoose — 0%
  • OG Jack Anderson — 0%

Beane and company were aggressive at addressing the trenches, taking two defensive linemen and two offensive linemen in the first four rounds of the 2021 draft. Tackle Spencer Brown looked very good in his rookie season after some line shuffling pressed him into action, but he took a step back this past season after missing offseason work due to injury. After an uninspiring 2022 season, we’ll have to wait and see what changes are made to the offensive line.

Despite using four picks on four linemen, Brown was the only one to register at least 50% of snaps as a rookie, though defensive end Greg Rousseau came very close in the defensive line rotation. Second-round pick Boogie Basham did not receive sufficient opportunities. We all love Groot, and it’s too early to tell if his later-season struggles will carry on into next season, but Basham has noticeably struggled every time he’s on the field when it comes to penalties. Overall, this draft class hasn’t been great.

Snaps played by 2022 Bills rookies

  • CB Kaiir Elam — 45.4%
  • RB James Cook — 24.8%
  • LB Terrel Bernard — 10.5%
  • WR Khalil Shakir — 25.4%
  • P Matt Araiza — 0%
  • CB Christian Benford — 34.5%
  • OT Luke Tenuta — 0%
  • LB Baylon Spector — 1.1%

For certain, I’ve complained a few times already, but the 2022 class was easily the worst when it came to McDermott dealing with rookies and playing time. I don’t know if it was a playbook issue where offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey simply didn’t know how to properly use rookies, but both running back James Cook and wide receiver Khalil Shakir were vastly underutilized. Buffalo stuck with their normal guys, and barely gave the rookies chances to develop until near the end of the season — when Cook began to slowly break out. Wide receivers dealt with drops all season, and the running game would have benefitted from a different look, yet Cook and Shakir saw such low snap totals. Why?

On defense, it was the same situation. The only two defenders who made impacts were Elam and Benford. But once Benford was sidelined, Elam was the only rookie on the defense — and he still didn’t start at boundary corner, despite several opportunities due to injuries at the position. I’ll admit the previous draft is still fresh, but this class looks like it’s full of special teams players, and two cornerbacks and a running back that McDermott can’t fully commit to using.

What do you think, Bills Mafia? Are the players Beane is drafting not good enough, or are McDermott and his coaching staff not giving them ample opportunities to develop?