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Inside the Bills: Trade deadline looms for a franchise that needs to define its direction

Jay Skurski

We’ll know more about the Buffalo Bills’ long-term outlook in 48 hours.

The NFL’s trade deadline arrives Tuesday, and there has already been a flurry of activity around the league. Receiver Amari Cooper was dealt from Oakland to Dallas for a first-round draft pick. The Giants have gone into full rebuild mode, sending defensive tackle Damon Harrison to Detroit and cornerback Eli Apple to the Saints for mid-round draft picks. The Jaguars added running back Carlos Hyde in a deal with the Browns.

So tumbleweeds are no longer blowing through on trade deadline day. With a surplus of cap space around the league, teams are more willing to make moves in season than they have been in years past. Bills General Manager Brandon Beane has shown since taking over 18 months ago that he’s not afraid to make deals, including two last year near the deadline. Will he get in on the action Tuesday? How he answers that question will give us a look at Beane’s philosophy in building a team.

“You're not making moves to try to give yourself a kickstart this year and all of a sudden make some type of miraculous run because that's a pipe dream,” said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick. “That's not what's happening here.”

The Bills are 2-5, staring at the likelihood of dropping to 2-6 after Monday night’s game against the New England Patriots. They have tradeable assets, but have to weigh keeping talented players around to support rookie quarterback Josh Allen against adding draft capital that can be used in future moves.

“I’m not into making predictions,” coach Sean McDermott said during the week when asked if the team had any players considered to be untouchable. “Brandon handles most all of fielding those calls and right now, I’m focused on the Patriots.”

It’s possible the Bills might not fall squarely into the “seller” or “buyer” category, but rather a blend of the two.

“If you can acquire a player who's in the middle of his career and is in a situation contractually where either you know you can get him re-signed or … he's going to be on your football team for a couple years, yeah you look to acquire those kinds of players,” Riddick said. “If there's nobody there then you don't force it. You don't try to do something just to say you're doing something. They did plenty of that already. They've made a ton of transactions already that aren't really doing anything.”

Selling off players for draft picks would be a sign that the Bills have entered a full rebuild – something Beane and coach Sean McDermott have been loathe to admit.

“The trade deadline obviously gets a lot of buzz because it's about teams who are either trying to put all of their good players on sale because they screwed up their team construction in the offseason and they're going to start over anyway,” Riddick said. “Or it's centered around teams that think they need a piece here or there to make a run this year like the Eagles or the Saints. But that doesn't mean that those are the only people that can be players.

“You need quality player acquisitions right now to really No. 1, make sure that you have it set up for this quarterback in 2019, and No. 2, strengthen the rest of what will be the final 53 because … as much as there was a feel-good type of atmosphere surrounding that place coming off of 2017, it doesn't feel like there's any buzz or anything like that this year.”

Tuesday’s deadline is the last chance for Beane to build that buzz before the offseason. Here’s a look at six of the players the Bills face decisions on by Tuesday:

WR Kelvin Benjamin: Last year’s deadline acquisition has been a bust. Benjamin has 30 catches for 434 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games with the team.

“Kelvin is the picture of inconsistency and it's something that's dogged him his entire career,” Riddick said. “This is a guy who's a tremendous physical specimen with his size and his catch radius and his natural strength and the things he can do in 50/50 catch situations, but he's not a No. 1 that can carry a team. … He's not the guy who's going to be that big-game performer that every defensive coordinator each week is saying ‘we need to stop 13 first.’ He's not that guy. He just isn't.”

Benjamin’s effort has been questioned by fans at points this season. Even McDermott, who almost never has anything negative to say about one of his players, admitted earlier this month that he hasn’t always seen Benjamin “heading in the right direction.”

Benjamin will have nearly $4.5 million remaining on his contract after Week 8, so he’d be a costly rental for any team. That might also hurt his value.

“A true No. 1 is the guy who goes to the quarterback when you're down by 6 or 7 and it's in the fourth quarter and he's saying ‘throw me the ball,’ ” Riddick said. “Not in a narcissistic, selfish way, but in a way that says ‘I'm the No. 1. I don't care who's on me, I'll get open. They don't have that guy and Josh needs that guy.”

Benjamin hasn’t shown he’s that guy, which makes the likelihood of the Bills re-signing him seem remote.

RB LeSean McCoy: Buffalo’s lone offensive star, McCoy is under contract for one more season at a base salary of $6.175 million. He’ll be 31 next season, and is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry this year. His numbers can be looked at as a product of the offense around him, though.

“Shady is still as dynamic as they come,” Riddick said.

Therein lies the problem. Trading McCoy simply opens another hole on a roster littered with them. The Bills want to surround Allen with talent, so at what point does the reasonable return expected for a 30-year-old running back become not worth it? What kind of message does it send to the locker room if a team captain is traded away, particularly if the return is a draft pick who won’t help until 2019 at the earliest?

The counter to that is the Bills currently have the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense with McCoy.

“If you have an opportunity to move him and get significant compensation for him, why wouldn't you at this point?” Riddick said. “Buffalo needs to rebuild. They need to restock. They need to have a very solid core of young, dynamic players brought in to this place.”

There is also the issue of health – McCoy is currently in the NFL’s concussion protocol, although he’s been able to practice on a limited basis. Any team acquiring him in a trade will want to make sure he’s healthy.

We know that the Eagles reached out to the Bills a couple weeks ago to check on McCoy’s availability, so there is interest in him. Beane, who declined an interview request this week, has to decide what kind of return he’d need to be willing to move McCoy.

McCoy did not speak to reporters this week because he's in the NFL's concussion protocol, but addressed the Eagles rumors earlier this month, saying "I kind of just stay focused on the job, the task at hand. I'll let that stuff work itself out. We'll see what happens."

DE Shaq Lawson: Rumored to be a trade candidate dating back to the summer, Lawson has ended up being a key part of the defensive line rotation. That included moving inside to defensive tackle for an entire game. The knee injury suffered by Trent Murphy that will hold him out Monday also factors in here. Lawson is in line to replace Murphy as the starter.

Lawson is just 24 and has a favorable contract (he’s signed through 2019 at less than $2 million), so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Beane got calls on him.

TE Charles Clay: He’s owed the remainder of his $4.5 million base salary this year and another $4.5 million in base salary next year. He’s on pace for his worst season since 2013, when he became a full-time starter with the Dolphins. Clay is one of the few remaining holdovers from the previous regime, but his salary and production this year don’t figure to provide a lot of trade value.

DE Jerry Hughes: Another holdover from the previous regime, Hughes has been Buffalo’s best pass rusher this season. The 30-year-old has one year remaining on his contract with a base salary of $6.35 million. Like with McCoy, if the Bills were to trade Hughes, they’d be creating a hole with no obvious replacement. Unless Beane gets absolutely blown away by an offer, it doesn’t seem like trading Hughes would make much sense.

OL Ryan Groy: Not the sexiest name on this list, but a player who could have interest around the league as a depth offensive lineman. Groy lost his starting center job to Russell Bodine and is a pending unrestricted free agent. He signed an offer sheet with the Los Angeles Rams in the 2017 offseason, so there was interest in him then. His ability to play both center and guard could be attractive to a team. The return wouldn’t be much, but the Bills have young players along the offensive line in Wyatt Teller and Ike Boettger who could take over Groy’s spot.

The Bills are not in a spot where they need to clear cap space in any trade. They’re projected to have more than $90 million in 2019, which would allow them to bring in a contract if there was a player they think fits the mold of what they’re looking for.

Whatever the Bills do Tuesday will be a sign of what their plan is moving forward.

“We'll know whether or not this is the tandem that people should feel confident in moving forward,” Riddick said. “I believe in Sean. I don't know about Brandon. But I am anxious to see what they do and how they prioritize things and who they go out and get, and who they keep and who they don't and who they move on from. It'll tell me a lot.”

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