It promises to be a long weekend for Brandon Beane and Joe Schoen.
The Buffalo Bills’ general manager and assistant GM are readying themselves for what will be one of the most chaotic periods on the NFL calendar: Cutdown day.
That’s in part due to a new league rule instituted this year. Previously, NFL teams cut from 90 to 75 players after the third preseason game, then made another round of cuts to get down to their 53-man rosters. This year, however, that first cut has been eliminated, which means teams will need to cut 37 players each (assuming they are carrying the maximum of 90) by 4 p.m. Saturday.
“Saturday’s going to be a long night,” Beane said.
The change, which was long pushed for by the Washington Redskins, is “a positive,” Beane said.
“We like it. … It allows teams one more week to evaluate guys,” he said. “Even guys that you know maybe are not good enough for the 53, but maybe I want this linebacker on the practice squad or this linebacker. It’s another week to see those guys. We all know the starters play very limited in the fourth game.”
For the Bills, they’ll play even less Thursday night against the Lions in the preseason finale because coach Sean McDermott will have more players available to use. For a team with two quarterbacks currently out because of concussions, that’s no small consideration.
The biggest impact, though, could come Saturday. In what could be a free for all, up to 1,184 players will become free agents at the same time.
Schoen has spent weeks overseeing the personnel department’s preparations for the day.
“We started narrowing down our focus and kind of have an idea in terms of projecting who's going to get cut, who's not going to get cut,” he said. “We've got a good feel of that.”
Part of that process involves building a board similar to the one a team would use for the draft, ranking players.
“It’s all hands on deck for this process,” Schoen said. “It's a massive amount of players to be cut at one time. … The guys that we project will get cut, the guys we'd be interested in claiming, the guys that are maybe priority practice squad guys. Maybe they're better than guys that we may potentially put on the practice squad. So we're working through that process.”
Also heavily involved for the Bills are Brian Gaine, the vice president of player personnel, and Malik Boyd, the director of pro personnel. Even college scouts have assisted in the process.
“Everybody has a piece and they're helping us set this board based on grades they give guys, because it would be impossible for one or two guys to go through everything,” Schoen said. “You're looking at a lot of the young guys because this is the first time you're seeing NFL film on some of the guys that were college free agents.”
Players with four or more years of NFL experience are not subject to waivers. That means they immediately become unrestricted free agents when released and can sign with any team. Players with three or less years are subject to waivers, which means any of the other 31 teams can claim them and inherit their contract.
The Bills are 10th on the waiver order.
“That’s a little bit of a bummer,” Beane admitted. “If a really stud player is out there on waivers you're not going to get him at 10.”
Few would be surprised if the Bills were especially active over the weekend. The new front office headed by Beane has made significant strides in acquiring players who fit what coach Sean McDermott wants to do, but the roster turnover isn’t done yet.
Once the Bills know the players who have been released, they will compare them against their own and decide if they would be an upgrade.
“You're trying to weigh this guy” against that guy, Beane said. “You don't necessarily know him – especially if he was a young guy that was undrafted. You have your data that you had in the spring on him but how has he assimilated to that team? Maybe he can't pick it up. Maybe we see some athletic traits. But maybe there's something going on that you don't see.
“You gotta try to do your own recon – why are they cutting this guy? What's going on? Because when you claim a guy, now you've got to do a corresponding move. You've got to make sure this guy is a good fit for all the reasons – culture, smart, can pick it up. Because if you're putting him on your 53, he's got to be ready to play. Even if he's inactive a game or two, injuries happen. He can quickly be on that 46” who dress for games.
Let’s say the Bills put in five waiver claims. That could mean five new players. It’s also possible they don’t wind up with any if all of those players are claimed by teams with a higher priority on the waiver wire.
Teams that put in claims find out at noon Sunday if they are awarded the player(s). A corresponding roster move is due within one hour.
“So then there’s another group of players who are available,” Schoen said, meaning the process starts anew.
At the same time, players who clear waivers are eligible to sign to the 10-man practice squad, so teams will scramble to fill those spots, as well.
Another impact of the new rule is an uptick in trades, including the Bills’ decision to deal linebacker Reggie Ragland to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I think what a lot of teams have figured out now is they get it out there that they're going to release ‘player X.’ And they know he's going to be a hot name – maybe people have asked about him, but they didn’t get enough compensation for him,” Beane said, speaking before Monday’s trade and not referring to Ragland in particular. “I think that'll happen. … Teams may call, because they know they're like us, down the pecking order a little bit, odds are we're not going to get him in claims, so what's it worth to give up? Or maybe we can do a player swap.”
As a first-time GM, Beane has surrounded himself with a staff he can trust, starting with Schoen. The two worked together in Carolina from 2001-07.
“Joe is overseer of overseers of everything going on back there,” Beane said of Schoen’s role in the personnel department. “So he's giving the young guys what they need to be doing, he's talking to the college scouts and (director of college scouting) Terrance Gray, what they need to be doing. … He's kind of the flight coordinator back there.”
After the Bills make it through this weekend’s roster shuffling, Schoen and the rest of the personnel department will rank each team’s practice squad. Those rankings, which will include any remaining free agents, will serve as the Bills’ “emergency” list that they will turn to in the case of an injury during the regular season.
“After that I’ll start hitting the college circuit,” Schoen said. “I’ll actually be at two games the Friday and Saturday before we play the Jets. … Most of my focus will turn to college starting in mid-September.”
Schoen was Beane’s first hire after he took over as GM in May, which was no accident.
“We know how to talk,” Beane said. “We know how to communicate. He knows what I'm looking for. He's another me. I look at him as a clone. I know he's got our best interests, and that's awesome to have.”
The unusual timing of the firing of former GM Doug Whaley led to a pretty hectic last few months for the team’s new personnel department, but once training camp arrived, things have stabilizied.
“It's back to football. That's the best part,” Schoen said. “It's not moving, doing moving trucks, hooking up cable. Now I'm back to what I'm passionate about.”
During the team’s mandatory minicamp in June, Beane had the whole personnel department, both college and pro scouts, get together. The goal was to make sure that the entire group was unified.
“I've seen it where college staffs and pro staffs aren't gelled for various reasons – sometimes there's fingers pointing of, ‘you know, you pay these free agents or you guys aren't drafting well’ – things like that. We've had them cross looking at things. We'll involve our pro guys after free agency in the draft process just like we included the college guys in this part. I think it's important so that everybody sees everybody's work and understands everybody's pitching in.”
That continued during training camp at St. John Fisher College, where the personnel department had a room to just “hang out, talk, B.S. about life,” Beane said. “We played hoops together. People saw the competitive side of guys. There were some moments when it got a little heated. But that's cool because everybody says 'man, if this guy wants it here, he's going to want it out there on the road. He wants to win. He'll do anything.' I really felt a great bond and the feedback we got back from the college guys as they left was super excited. So I feel great where we're at.”