This is the last in a series on 10 key questions facing the Bills entering training camp.
THE quarterback was always going to be drafted. Not A quarterback. THE quarterback.
"I think everybody knew, with all the draft capital we had and the quarterback-rich college market it was, that you had to assume somewhere we're drafting one, whether it's first round, second round," Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said during an offseason sit-down with reporters.
"Everybody" included AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman. Beane and coach Sean McDermott wanted total transparency with the two quarterbacks on the Bills' roster before last April's NFL Draft. They explained that "our guy's got to be there" for the Bills to draft him, wherever the team ended up selecting. And after trading their way to the seventh overall spot, the Bills were able to take their guy: Josh Allen.
There's no sugarcoating the situation for McCarron or Peterman. Allen is the one carrying all the Bills' hopes for long-term success at the most vital position, while they are, at the very most, placeholders.
The question, arguably the only one that interests the majority of those with a rooting interest in the Bills, is when Allen will be deemed ready to start. Will it be from the very first game of the season, the Sept. 9 opener at Baltimore? Will it be somewhere during the first quarter of the schedule? Midseason? Late season? Next year?
During offseason workouts, McDermott and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll utilized a quarterback rotation that mainly saw McCarron and Peterman alternate between the Nos. 1 and 2 spots before Allen, who had primarily been at No. 3, got some work as a starter in the final practices. The experimental nature of those sessions allows for a good deal of mixing and matching, which also took place on the offensive line and other positions.
However, training camp is a more competitive environment, so a better-defined pecking order is expected to take shape through practices that begin Thursday at St. John Fisher College and especially through the four preseason games.
Even while gunning for the top job, all three have said they have so far managed to remain friends.
"They’re two great dudes," McCarron said. "Nate’s like a walking angel. He’s one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Josh has been awesome to work with and I'm trying to help him in every way I can. We have a really good room; it’s fun to be a part of."
The following is a breakdown of each candidate's best chance to win the starting job for Week 1:
Case for McCarron
He has an obvious edge in experience, even if it's far from overwhelming. McCarron is entering his fifth NFL season after spending the past four years as Andy Dalton's understudy with the Cincinnati Bengals, who made McCarron a fifth-round draft pick from Alabama in 2014. McCarron has made four starts, one in a playoff loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Beane said the fact McCarron has spent significant time with another team and didn't join the Bills from the college ranks, as Peterman and Allen have, made it necessary to do research to determine if McCarron would be a good fit. There were conversations with Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson, who was the Bengals' offensive coordinator through McCarron's first two seasons in Cincinnati. And with Browns quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, who was the Bengals' quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator while McCarron was in Cincy. William Vlachos, an offensive assistant with the Bills who was McCarron's center at Alabama, weighed in, as did Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who was an assistant with the Carolina Panthers when Beane was in their front office.
"So a lot of connections that we made between us and Brian on who (McCarron) was and we just felt like he would be a good fit not only on the field, but off the field," Beane said. "When it came to AJ, (we) just felt like this was a guy who, in the limited opportunities he had on the field, had done some good stuff. Should have won a playoff game, barring a late fumble and penalty. I think you see he's got a swagger to him, he's got a confidence."
Jackson is so high on McCarron that he tried to acquire him at the trading deadline before a technical snafu prevented the deal.
"I'm excited about AJ and his opportunity in Buffalo," Jackson said. "I think Buffalo's getting a winner, a guy that will come early, stay late, work extremely hard, loves football, loves winning more than losing, can't stand to lose. He knows how to elevate his teammates. He has a way about him that I think you'll see early. He knows how to get players to buy into what they're trying to do. That's a gift."
Case for Peterman
Much has been made in the media about some impressive moments Peterman had in offseason workouts that were open to reporters. It doesn't change the fact the former University of Pittsburgh standout is a virtual rookie making a long climb from 2017 fifth-round draft pick. The journey is made even harder by those five first-half interceptions against the Los Angeles Chargers in his first NFL start last season that came after McDermott's bold move to bench Tyrod Taylor.
Few, if any, conclusions should be drawn from a quarterback performing well in the low-stress setting of non-contact practices in May and June. But what did stand out was that after looking as if he had no business on a football field in Los Angeles last year, Peterman carried himself with a high degree of confidence.
"I understand that happened (against the Chargers), I acknowledge that, but that doesn't define someone," McDermott said. "One game never defines someone, right? So the guy's a winner and that's probably the biggest thing that I could add. Yeah, you hope over the course of time that that'll come out, but his whole approach is what you want."
"I think he's a very confident young man and he's resilient," said Beane, who wasn't the Bills' GM when Peterman was drafted. "You saw a guy who got knocked down hard. Not all on him, either. But the greatest thing about what Nathan did was he never pointed a finger and that says a lot, because it's hard. He could have easily said, 'Well, this guy, this happened.' And his next opportunity was the snow game."
That was the Bills' 13-7 victory against Indianapolis in blizzard conditions on Dec. 10 at New Era Field. Starting in place of an injured Taylor, Peterman completed five of 10 passes for 57 yards and a touchdown throw to Kelvin Benjamin. He left the game in the third quarter with a concussion, setting the stage for Joe Webb's heroic finish during which he led the drive that ended with LeSean McCoy's 21-yard touchdown run in overtime.
Asked if he thought Peterman received enough credit for that win, Beane said, "No. Nobody talks about that. He made a great throw to Kelvin to get us the lead before half, which proved super important. ... But Nathan's come back in there, he's super smart. He's not going to tell you how good he is or how smart he is. He's steady Eddie every day and you love how he approaches the game. I know Sean's been (in quarterback meetings during the offseason) more than me, but even I've stopped in there a couple times when Daboll's had those guys in there and they're writing stuff on the board. He's playing Jeopardy with them. He's trying to just see what they know, and Nathan is really, really smart."
Case for Allen
This is more a matter of examining whether there's any case to make against his starting from the very first game. The obvious ones are his lack of experience and limited development while at Wyoming. Those factors could not only set Allen up for failure, but also hinder his ability to protect himself against blitzing that much harder to anticipate than anything he faced in college.
Otherwise, there is a stack of reasons that Allen could very well win the job in training camp.
First, there is the minimal patience, externally and internally, that invariably comes with waiting to see what a prized first-round quarterback can do. In Allen's case, it is intensified by the Bills using the highest pick in their history to select him. Then, there is the fact he is far more physically impressive than either of the other quarterbacks. Allen's size, strength and athleticism have no match on the team and pretty much set him apart from the four other QBs chosen in the first round.
His throwing motion is a thing of beauty, something that immediately caught the attention of Jim Kelly during rookie minicamp. He consistently delivers a tight spiral and his long passes leave his hand with a flick rather than a deliberate wind-up.
"The arm strength that you (reporters) have seen here, that stands out," Beane said. "A lot of times it’s hard to tell that true arm strength on tape, but you can tell. The next step was watching him through the year (in college), and then going to see him play live. The great thing about seeing a guy play live at quarterback is, yes, I can see all the stuff that I can watch on film, but I can see all the stuff in pregame. How’s he interacting with his guys?"
The easy conclusion for Beane and the rest of the Bills' decision-makers was that Allen had everything they could want in a franchise quarterback.
Now, it's a matter of determining the right time for him to begin playing in games that count.