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The stakes are raised: Bills chasing a face of the franchise in 2018 NFL Draft

It won’t be hard to find the Buffalo Bills on TV this fall.

Tune in at 1 p.m. Sunday from September through December, and there they’ll be for 15 of their 16 games. Outside of one appearance on Monday Night Football, the Bills are scheduled during the early games every other weekend – of which five of the first seven are on the road. It’s the type of schedule that’s reflective of the Bills’ status in the NFL.

In terms of national recognition, there isn’t a more nondescript team. Think about it: Other than running back LeSean McCoy, how many Bills could the casual NFL fan in other cities name? Any?

That could change Thursday night in the first round of the NFL Draft. By now, even those casual fans know the names Darnold, Rosen, Mayfield and Allen. They are the top-ranked quarterbacks in the 2018 class, and if the Bills are able to land one of them, he will immediately become the face of the franchise.

In advance of the possibility, ESPN and NFL Network have reporters with the team this week. That doesn't happen every draft.

Only time will tell if any of the perceived top quarterbacks are worthy of such lofty status. Adding a “name” that is nationally known isn’t the end goal. The Cleveland Browns drafted a college star in Johnny Manziel. So did the Denver Broncos with Tim Tebow. Those are just two examples of the numerous colossal failures in the first round.

But that doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t try. The best way for the Bills to regain relevance is to build a consistent winner. While last year’s surprising 9-7 finish helped the team end an embarrassing 17-year playoff drought, nobody would suggest the Bills are “back.”

Jerry Sullivan: It's time, Brandon – be bold and go get the quarterback

For that to truly be the case, a plan that has been a year in the making needs its centerpiece. Thus, the challenge is twofold for General Manager Brandon Beane. First, he has to get into a position to draft a quarterback, which could mean trading the team’s two first-round picks, scheduled at No. 12 and No. 22 overall. Second, he has to be right on the prospect.

Beane and the Bills won't be alone in trying to get a quarterback, meaning the Denver Broncos at No. 5, the Indianapolis Colts at No. 6, the Chicago Bears at No. 8 and possibly the New York Giants at No. 2 could have a lot of suitors.

“I think it's the right time, I really do,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Wednesday. “I think it's the perfect storm of having the depth in this class as well as their need being pretty obvious. So the challenge is going to be, how do they do that without selling off the whole farm?"

In addition to having two first-round picks, the Bills also have two picks in the second round (Nos. 53 and No. 56) and third round (Nos. 65 and No. 96) among nine overall.

“I do think they'll end up having to part with next year's (first-round pick). I know that's something they probably hoped they wouldn't have to do,” Jeremiah said. “But I think there's probably more likelihood that they preserve that second (first-round pick this year), and have to part with a first-rounder next year.

“It feels like they're pot committed. It really does. It feels like they're all in on getting a quarterback. I don't see how they sit there at 12 and wait and hope and wish that one of them falls down there. I just don't think that's going to work out.”

The Bills have only taken three quarterbacks in the first round since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 – EJ Manuel at 16th overall in 2013, J.P. Losman at 22nd in 2004 and Jim Kelly at 14th in 1983. Manuel was the only one of them chosen with the team’s first pick.

He was a bust, which set the Bills back.

“If you don't try, it sets you back, too,” NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci said. “I don't know if the divorce rate for first-round quarterbacks is 50 percent over time, or whatever that number is, but I do know this – you've got a better chance of having one of those guys become your quarterback of the future rather than wait.”

Perhaps now more than ever, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Five of the last six quarterbacks taken in the first round over the past two years were acquired by teams trading up to get them.

“You’ve got to have a franchise quarterback,” Beane said last week. "That’s one of the main jobs of a GM is to find a franchise quarterback. It’s a quarterback league, I’ll say it every single time. You have to have one.”

Brandon Beane: Bills not locked into taking QB with first pick

The two quarterbacks on Buffalo’s roster – Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron – have combined for just five starts in the regular season. Tyrod Taylor was traded to Cleveland this offseason, the last of 17 starters who have lined up under center since Kelly retired in 1996. That cleared the way for a rookie, which explains the massive amount of interest for this draft. It’s likely five quarterbacks and possibly six will be chosen Thursday. That would tie the record of Kelly’s famed 1983 class.

Do the Bills have their eyes on Southern California’s Sam Darnold? Wyoming’s Josh Allen? UCLA’s Josh Rosen? Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield? Louisville’s Lamar Jackson? Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph?

That’s a question Beane and coach Sean McDermott have been unable to escape.

“That’s why you love this fan base is the passion,” Beane said. “I get it. I respect it. Some of the conversations, some of the comments, they’re not even necessarily asking for my opinion, they’re just giving me theirs. I know Sean gets it.

“Everybody gets it, and I like that. People care. That’s all you can ask for. I get the question; it’s fair and until we can stand here and say it’s somebody that we currently have on our roster … we’re going to get that question.”

Beane hasn’t tipped his hand in regards to how he ranks those six quarterbacks. He joked – we think – last week that he hasn’t even told his wife, saying “It doesn’t leave this building.”

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“We keep it pretty close to the vest what we’re doing,” he said.

The 24/7, 365-day nature of draft coverage has turned first-round prospects into household names. If the Bills are unable to come away with one of the top quarterback prospects, a significant portion of the goodwill built up by the current front office and coaching staff will be erased.

The team’s choice will define the direction of the franchise – for better or worse.

No pressure, Brandon.

[BN] Blitz newsletter: Brandon Beane says Bills are 'very happy at 12'

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