Roster succession issues rarely pop up unexpected for teams. A player might have their talent erode faster than anticipated. They may suffer an injury that accelerates their retirement. But overall, you can see positional issues brewing usually before they happen simply by looking at roster numbers and contracts. As an example, the Buffalo Bills currently have two wide receivers under contract for 2024: Stefon Diggs and Khalil Shakir.
But what is it that causes these succession issues to occur? It’s not usually the failure to acquire free agents at a position. Players acquired via that method frequently have the potential to be on that NFL roster for fewer years than drafted players due to age only, not even considering the nature of free-agency contracts. There are plenty of one-, two-, and three-year deals signed in free agency. But the shortest contract for a drafted player is a four-year deal, and even though plenty of the players drafted by a team don’t make it to the end of their fourth year, plenty of free agents don’t complete four years either.
Drafting young players on cost-controlled contracts is the best way to make sure your numbers in a position room don’t falter significantly and require you to sign free agents to fill roster spots. Free-agent players are always going to trend towards being more expensive from a salary cap standpoint versus drafted players, and filling holes with cheaper players proactively is going to lend itself towards more roster flexibility later versus filling holes with more expensive players reactively.
So how has Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane done in managing his roster succession? As mentioned above, the wide receiver room desperately needs one or two young assets on cost-controlled contracts given the lack of bodies present in that room in 2024. But where has Beane been spending his young and cost-controlled assets?
For this project, I used the Rich Hill draft chart to outline the points that Beane has spent in the draft since 2018. I looked at the positions he spent draft capital on through the lens of the concept of “investment”. A sixth-round pick is not the same level of investment as a second-round pick and teams intrinsically know this when they’re utilizing those draft picks for trade. But we tend to lose sight of that concept once the draft pick has been spent to acquire the rights to a young player. That sixth-round pick has a lower likelihood of being on your roster for the entire length of his rookie deal versus a second-round pick and, as such, has a lower probability of contributing to a team’s roster succession planning in a meaningful way.
The areas that a team spends the most on is likely to be the area where the roster succession planning is the most stable (barring unforeseen events as were mentioned at the beginning of this piece).
Let’s take a look at Brandon Beane’s draft capital expenditure on young, cost-controlled players since 2018:
- Josh Allen, QB – pick 7 – 426 points
- Tremaine Edmunds, LB – pick 16 – 305 points
- Harrison Phillips, DT – pick 96 – 39 points
- Taron Johnson, CB – pick 121 – 23 points
- Siran Neal, CB – pick 154 – 11 points
- Wyatt Teller, G – pick 166 – 8 points
- Ray Ray McCloud, WR – pick 187 – 5 points
- Austin Proehl, WR – pick 255 – 1 point
818 points in total
- Ed Oliver, DT – pick 9 – 387 points
- Cody Ford, OT – pick 38 – 157 points
- Devin Singletary, RB – pick 74 – 64 points
- Dawson Knox, TE – pick 96 – 39 points
- Vosean Joseph, LB – pick 147 – 13 points
- Jaquan Johnson, S – pick 181 – 6 points
- Darryl Johnson, DE – pick 225 – 2 points
- Tommy Sweeney, TE – pick 228 – 2 points
670 points in total
- AJ Epenesa, DE – pick 54 – 104 points
- Zack Moss, RB – pick 86 – 49 points
- Gabriel Davis, WR – pick 128 – 19 points
- Jake Fromm, QB – pick 167 – 8 points
- Tyler Bass, K – pick 188 – 5 points
- Isaiah Hodgins, WR – pick 207 – 3 points
- Dane Jackson, CB – pick 239 – 2 points
190 points in total
- Gregory Rousseau, DE – pick 30 – 196 points
- Boogie Basham, DE – pick 61 – 86 points
- Spencer Brown, OT – pick 93 – 42 points
- Tommy Doyle, OT – pick 161 – 9 points
- Marquez Stevenson, WR – pick 203 – 4 points
- Damar Hamlin, S – pick 212 – 3 points
- Rachad Wildgoose, CB – pick 213 – 3 points
- Jack Anderson, OG – pick 236 – 2 points
345 points in total
- Kaiir Elam, CB – pick 23 – 245 points
- James Cook, RB – pick 63 – 82 points
- Terrel Bernard, LB – pick 89 – 46 points
- Khalil Shakir, WR – pick 148 – 12 points
- Matt Araiza, P – pick 180 – 6 points
- Christian Benford, CB – pick 185 – 5 points
- Luke Tenuta, OG – pick 209 – 3 points
- Baylon Spector, LB – pick 231 – 2 points
401 points in total
Total point expenditure since 2018 – 2424 points
Point expenditure by position:
- QB – 434 points (17.9%)
- RB – 195 points (8.0%)
- WR – 44 points (1.8%)
- TE – 41 points (1.7%)
- OL – 221 points (9.1%)
- DL – 814 points (33.6%)
- LB – 366 points (15.1%)
- DB – 298 points (12.3%)
- Specialists – 11 points (0.5%)
Point expenditure by side of ball:
- Offense – 935 (38.5%)
- Defense – 1478 (61%)
- Specialists – 11 points (0.5%)
It becomes less of a surprise that the Bills could potentially face numbers issues at the wide receiver position when you note that they’ve spend 1.8% of their draft capital (in total points) on the position since 2018.
The Bills may need to select a tight end at some point in 2023. They’ve spent 1.7% of their capital on the position since 2018.
To nobody’s surprise, the defensive line tops the list in terms of draft capital utilized to actually draft a player. And the Bills don’t have nearly the “bodies” issue there that they have elsewhere. Basham and Rousseau are still under contract for at least two more years. If they make an addition in that space, it’s due to a talent problem and efficacy issue, not because they didn’t plan the right amount of bodies.
The running back position being as high as it is at 8% remains an inefficient usage of assets given how easy running back production is to find in the NFL, and a selection of a running back high in this year’s draft (as some have mocked) would slant the asset expenditure heavily towards that position relative to others.
The question was “where has Brandon Beane invested his young, cost-controlled capital?” That’s why the Stefon Diggs trade and the Kelvin Benjamin trade weren’t calculated. This is not a reflection of the priorities of the team as a whole; it’s a reflection of where the potential issues with talent and bodies have arisen and will arise due to specifically the draft assets used to acquire young players on deals that could potentially have significant surplus value at each position.
Roster succession issues are a result of both not spending assets on particular positions and not having the players you draft pan out on your roster. This exercise attempts to isolate one of those factors while recognizing the other.
So go draft a wide receiver of two. Please.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!