Year One of the Brandon Beane-Sean McDermott pairing in Buffalo was a leap in the right direction.
The Buffalo Bills ended an embarrassing 17-year playoff drought under the leadership of their general manager and head coach. If nothing else, that bought them a longer rope among the team’s passionate fan base.
Their work is far from done, though. The end goal, of course, is not an appearance in a wild-card game, but rather a Super Bowl championship.
“We made a lot of progress in a short amount of time, made some big-time gains in that first year,” McDermott said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “It was a team effort, really. The biggest thing for us is making sure we hit the reset button. We're not maybe as far along as some people think we are. We've got a lot of work to do, at the same time remaining true to who we are as an organization and our core values.”
That work is already underway, but it will really pick up Wednesday, with the start of the new league year. That’s when Beane and McDermott can continue the drastic overhaul of the roster that started last year.
The Bills head toward free agency with 18 players scheduled to hit the open market. With 54 players under contract, that means 36 more will join the team prior to the start of training camp.
Beane swung a trade Friday night with the Cleveland Browns, receiving a third-round pick in exchange for quarterback Tyrod Taylor. That trade will be made official when the new league year starts.
In my second annual “GM for a Day” column, I’ll offer my suggestions on how else Beane should proceed in what will be a critical offseason for the Bills, both for the short- and long-term futures.
Let’s get started:
The plan at QB
The situation with Taylor had three avenues for resolution:
A. Doing nothing. Taylor has one year left on his contract and was scheduled to count $18.08 million against the salary cap. That ranks 15th among quarterbacks, according to contracts website spotrac.com.
B. Cutting him. If the Bills did so before Friday, the third day of the league year, they would incur a “dead money” cap hit of $8.64 million, but save $9.44 million in cap space. Friday is when a $6 million roster bonus is due.
C. Trading him. By doing so before Friday, the Bills will have $7.6 million in dead money added on to their cap, but see a savings of $10.44 million in space.
It’s shocking that Beane was able to pull off option C, especially without having to pay the $6 million roster bonus. That he got back the first pick of the third round is highway robbery for a player the Bills might have cut in just a few days.
Taylor and his agent surveyed the potential market at the NFL Scouting Combine last year and clearly didn’t find anything to their liking, which is why they agreed to a $10 million pay cut.
A year later, the market changed dramatically, even though Taylor’s numbers regressed in 2017. He finished with 2,799 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and 427 rushing yards – all the lowest of his three seasons in Buffalo. Part of that dip in production can be traced to losing receivers Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, but at this point I’m satisfied I know what Taylor is as a quarterback.
That’s someone who can win games when he is complemented by a strong running game and defense. I’m comfortable saying he’s not the quarterback who can carry his team to a victory by himself. The most glaring example of that came in the Bills’ wild-card loss to the Jaguars – a game that was there for the taking, just begging for a big play to be made. That never came.
The Bills showed in 2017 that they can be a playoff team with Taylor, but that looks like the ceiling. My goal as GM is to build a team that views making the playoffs as the floor.
I’m just not convinced he’s a franchise quarterback, and that’s what I’m after, so for that reason I’m on board with the decision to move on.
Without Taylor, the only quarterback under contract for 2018 is Nathan Peterman. Clearly, reinforcements are needed.
The good news is, the free-agent market is loaded with an unusually high number of intriguing options at the position. I’m not getting into a bidding war for the cream of that crop, Washington’s Kirk Cousins, but I am confident I’ll be able to sign someone I’m comfortable can run the offense.
My top target for that is Josh McCown. Yes, he turns 39 on the Fourth of July, but McCown had the best season of his career in 2017 for the New York Jets. He completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,926 yards and 18 touchdowns, along with nine interceptions. A broken non-throwing hand in December ended his season after 13 games, but McCown is healthy now and wants to continue playing.
The Jets are expected to make a play for Cousins, which gives me time to make an offer to McCown. After earning more than $6.5 million last year, he’s in line for a raise. A one-year deal with worth $8 million would be my offer.
In addition to being a bridge starter, McCown will serve as a valuable mentor to Peterman and … someone else. More on that later.
Getting my house in order
Now that I have the quarterback situation straightened out (for now), my attention turns to the rest of free agency. That starts with getting my house in order.
Of the 18 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, I’m saying goodbye to 12 of them: WR Jordan Matthews, CB Shareece Wright, WR Brandon Tate, RB Mike Tolbert, LB Ramon Humber, S Colt Anderson, QB Joe Webb, RB Taiwan Jones, S Shamarko Thomas, WR Jeremy Butler, CB EJ Gaines and OT Seantrel Henderson.
By signing Vontae Davis before free agency started, I’ve found my replacement for Gaines, while Chris Ivory will replace Tolbert as my backup running back.
Of the remaining six, I’d be interested in keeping running back Travaris Cadet, wide receiver Deonte Thompson and defensive tackle Cedric Thornton as veteran depth. None of them should cost much.
That leaves me with the following three players – linebacker Preston Brown, defensive tackle Kyle Williams and cornerback Leonard Johnson. All played big roles for my defense in 2017.
Brown led the league in tackles last year, but the significance of that stat is debatable. He’s been durable, not missing a game in four years, but didn’t produce many big plays in 2017 (no sacks, interceptions or forced fumbles).
Spotrac estimates he’ll get a contract in excess of $8 million per season on the open market, and if that’s the case, I’m letting him walk. I’d be interested in re-signing Brown, but at a significantly lower price than that.
The same is true of Williams, who earned $7 million last season. Even though he’ll be 35 next season, he can still be a valuable part of a defensive line rotation – particularly because of my lack of depth there – but should no longer be paid like a Pro Bowler player. If he’s interested in another one-year deal for roughly half of what he made in 2017, I’ll bring him back.
Johnson played last season on a veteran-minimum contract, but deserves a raise after holding down the slot cornerback job all year. Doubling his salary to $2 million a year would be a nice reward.
Making some room
Trading Taylor brings my cap space up from $22.8 million to $33.2 million. That might sound like a lot, but it will go fast.
Signing McCown and re-signing the above six players would eat up close to $20 million in space. Considering I’ll need about $9 million for my draft picks, I’m rapidly running out of money.
That means it’s time for some tough decisions.
Cutting veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander would save $2.75 million in cap space.
Parting ways with right tackle Jordan Mills and guard John Miller would save a little less than $4 million.
The Bills kept offensive tackle Conor McDermott on the active roster all last season, so clearly the coaching staff likes him. He steps in for Mills.
Taking into account my above moves, here is how my list of needs now reads: Defensive tackle, wide receiver, pass rusher, safety, guard, linebacker.
Since I don’t have the money to get into a bidding war, that means I have to look for value free agents.
Even with Williams back, there is a big hole next to him at defensive tackle. While there will be plenty of speculation I’ll go after Carolina’s Star Lotulelei, his first-round pedigree has me convinced he’ll get a rich offer elsewhere.
Instead, my top target is Tennessee’s DaQuan Jones. A 6-foot-4, 322-pounder, Jones had 31 tackles and a career-high 3.5 sacks in 2017 before a bicep injury kept him out of the final four games. He’s only 26 and has his best football in front of him. His addition would be a big help for my leaky run defense. A contract with an average annual value of $4 million or so would put Jones close to the top 25 in the NFL among defensive tackles.
My next priority is wide receiver. Again, my lack of cap space is going to eliminate me from possibly signing of the top available players like Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins, so I’ll once again be looking at the bargain bin.
Atlanta’s Taylor Gabriel had a down year in 2017 with 33 catches for 378 yards and one touchdown, but he’s got the type of game-changing speed my offense sorely lacks. Gabriel would look good in three-receiver sets with Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones.
Next up is pass rusher. New Orleans’ Alex Okafor started 10 games for the Saints in 2017, finishing with 4.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits and two forced fumbles before a torn Achilles tendon in November ended his season.
That injury may have an impact on his market value, giving me a chance to get a bargain who would replace Alexander as a designated pass rusher.
Attacking the draft
Free agency is just the appetizer of my offseason. The draft will serve as the main course.
That’s because it’s time to make my move for a franchise quarterback. With six picks in the first three rounds, including five of the first 65, I’ve got all the ammunition I need to make a trade. Yes, the price to move into the top five of the draft – which is what I’m targeting – will be steep, but it’s worth paying.
According to the trade value chart put together by Jimmy Johnson, which can still serve as a baseline, the value of the picks 21, 22, 53 and 65 is 2,215 points. The No. 2 pick in the draft is worth 2,600 points, while the No. 3 pick is worth 2,200.
The Giants at No. 2 and Colts at No. 3 are both trade-down candidates. Given that Indianapolis has a quarterback in place with Andrew Luck, I’m targeting them for a trade. My initial offer is picks 21, 22, 53 and 65, but I’m also willing to move a second-round pick in 2019 or left tackle Cordy Glenn to get a deal done.
If the Colts prefer the 2019 pick, I’m still shopping Glenn. More on that in a bit. With the third overall pick acquired from Indianapolis, my choice as the quarterback of the future is UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
Ignore the usual character assassination that goes on this time of year. When it comes to Rosen, that involves him being “too smart” for his own good, and/or not being driven to succeed because he comes from an affluent background and has interests outside of football.
That’s all garbage. As the future face of my franchise, I’d be proud to have a quarterback stand up for what he believes. Rosen’s interests outside of football aren’t going to scare me away. He’s got the accuracy, footwork and mechanics to make plays from the pocket.
By signing McCown, I don’t need to rush Rosen into the lineup. He can spend time learning and adding strength to what is a slight frame.
Thanks in part to the trade with Cleveland, I can also have a traditional draft, with picks in the first five rounds. That allows me to fill other roster holes, which include building depth along both lines. A pair of Ohio State defensive players – edge rusher Sam Hubbard or linebacker Jerome Baker – are logical Round Two targets.
In the third round, a safety like Texas’ DeShon Elliott or a wide receiver like Notre Dame’s Equanimeous St. Brown are possibilities at No. 96.
In the fourth or fifth round, Western Michigan’s Darius Phillips will be one of my top targets. Phillips, a cornerback, doubles as one of the draft’s best returners, which would fill another need.
After free agency and the draft, here is what the starting lineup looks like
Offense: QB-McCown, RB-McCoy, FB-DiMarco, WR-Benjamin, WR-Jones, TE-Clay, LT-Dawkins, LG-Incognito, C-Groy, RG-Ducasse, RT-McDermott.
Defense: DE-Hughes, DT-Kyle Williams, DT-Jones DE-Lawson, MLB-Preston Brown, WLB-Milano, SLB-Vallejo, S-Poyer, S-Hyde, CB-White, CB-Davis.
Special teams: K-Hauschka, P-Schmidt, LS-Sanborn, Returner-Phillips.
My last order of business is finding a trade partner for Glenn, the former franchise left tackle who has been passed on the depth chart by Dion Dawkins.
Trading Glenn at the draft after paying him a $2 million roster bonus on March 18 would result in only $2.85 million of savings, but it would continue clearing up my cap situation for 2019.
If Glenn is traded, the Bills would have a projected $90 million in cap space for 2019. They would also still have their first-round draft pick, along with a franchise quarterback to build around.
Just like that, my work as GM for a Day is done.
Story topics: Brandon Beane/ Cedric Thornton/ Cordy Glenn/ Dion Dawkins/ GM for a Day/ John Miller/ Jordan Mills/ Josh Rosen/ Kelvin Benjamin/ Kyle Williams/ Leonard Johnson/ Lorenzo Alexander/ Nathan Peterman/ Preston Brown/ Sean McDermott/ Tyrod Taylor/ Zay Jones