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Jay Skurski's Bills Mailbag: Is Buffalo going to Carolina's well too often?

This week's Mailbag leads with an attempt at answering a popular question among Bills fans: How many ex-Panthers are too many? It also touches on free agency, the potential throw-off between Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes and the idea of pursuing Kareem Hunt. Let's get to it ...

Valar Morghulis asks: Do you think it’s a concern that the Bills go after so many Panthers players/coaches? I get that this is the norm for regimes to bring in their own and even Bill Parcells had “his guys,” but two of the players (Kelvin Benjamin and Mike Tolbert) were horrible and Ken Dorsey was out of the NFL last year.

Jay: Fairly or unfairly, the Bills are always going to be accused of being biased toward those with Carolina ties. As the question points out, though, that’s not uncommon when a new front office and coaching staff takes over. Simply put, general managers and coaches want “their guys,” and given the time Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott spent with the Panthers, they developed some of those.

It’s become a joke that whenever a Panthers player is released, he should immediately expect a 716 area code to show up on his phone shortly thereafter. That perception isn’t going away.

Rather than generalizing it to say, “The Bills go after too many former Panthers,” I’d rather look at the additions on a case-by-case basis. In 2017, before Beane came here, the Bills brought in running back Mike Tolbert, quarterback Joe Webb and cornerback Leonard Johnson in free agency, then traded for wide receiver Kaelin Clay. None of those players had a huge impact in Buffalo – although it’s worth pointing out that the Bills don’t beat the Colts, and thus make the playoffs, without Webb’s contributions – and all were gone within a year. I had no real problem with any of them being here, and particularly with Johnson, I thought it made sense because he could help his teammates in Buffalo with any questions they might have had on McDermott’s defense.

Obviously, the trade for Benjamin didn’t work out. He got hurt almost immediately, and generally looked nothing like the 1,000-yard receiver he was as a rookie in 2015. For what it’s worth, he also made a big play against the Colts, but that alone isn’t worth the cost to acquire him.

The acquisition of Star Lotulelei in free agency played out exactly as most expected. He helped improve the run defense, but didn’t really make any splash plays. He’s probably overpaid, but that’s what happens in free agency. If I had to grade that acquisition, I’d give it a "C."

As far as the coaching hires, it’s wait and see at this point. It’s true Dorsey was out of the NFL last year, but the optimistic side of the coin is he was Cam Newton’s position coach for the quarterback’s MVP season. Dorsey was a logical candidate for the job. His results with Josh Allen will be closely scrutinized.

As for Heath Farwell on special teams, it would be tough for him to do worse than Danny Crossman last season. Farwell also was only in Carolina for one year, so the Beane-McDermott connection isn’t even there.

So my long answer to a short question is I’m not overly concerned about the number of players or coaches with ties to Carolina.

TNFP69 asks: Will the Bills be active in the first few hours when most (all) teams overpay for a player? Do you think they have an age limit in mind when looking at a free agent (short or long term)?

Jay: I absolutely expect them to be active early in free agency. Beane knows the team must show improvement next season, and there is no reason for him not to be active. The team has the fourth-most salary-cap space available in the league, and plenty of holes to fill. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the Bills reaching an agreement with more than one free agent during the three-day “legal tampering” period that precedes the start of the league year. Will they overpay? Probably, but that’s the nature of doing business in the NFL. The key is to structure the contract in a way that makes it not an anchor on the salary cap years down the line.

As for an age limit, let’s look at the age of players at the start of the season in last year’s class, which was the first under Beane. Lotulelei was 28, Trent Murphy was 27, Chris Ivory was 30 and Vontae Davis was 30. Lotulelei signed for five years, Murphy for three, Ivory for two and Davis for one. The team also re-signed 35-year-old Kyle Williams. This offseason, the team has already re-signed Lorenzo Alexander, who will be 36 at the start of the 2019 season. I can’t speak for Beane on this, but my best guess would be that age factors into any negotiation with a free agent, but those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis rather than a firm rule.

Of course, it makes sense to go after players in the mid-20s if you see them being a part of the team for years to come, but that shouldn’t rule out older players on shorter contracts who can still be meaningful contributors.

Dave Universal asks: Was it the worst move in franchise history to trade out of No. 10 last year when they could have drafted a quarterback who was named league MVP his first year as an NFL starter? Why isn’t this being talked about more? They traded out of picking maybe the best player of the next decade!

Jay: I can’t say it was the worst move in franchise history. If we’re using that reasoning, the worst move in franchise history was passing on Tom Brady six times in the 2000 NFL Draft. Can trading out of that spot and passing on Patrick Mahomes be second-guessed? Absolutely. It should be. But we have to let things play out. Tre’Davious White has been everything the team could have hoped for when it picked him 27th overall after moving down with the Chiefs, and the extra 2018 first-rounder gave them some of the ammunition needed to acquire Allen. Clearly, he’s the key to all this.

If Allen ends up being the Bills’ franchise quarterback, it will drastically lessen the sting of passing on Mahomes. If Allen fails, the decision to pass on Mahomes will look even worse, and likely play into ownership’s reasoning for moving on from the current front office and coaching staff (don’t forget that Beane was not involved in that decision).

IDon’tTrustTheProcess asks: If you were to handicap the proposed Josh Allen-Patrick Mahomes throwdown, who has the advantage, and do you feel it would come down to hand size?

Jay: I like Allen in this. Online sportsbook MyBookie even put odds on it, with Allen the favorite at minus-140 (meaning you have to bet $140 to win $100) and Allen the underdog at plus-110 (meaning a $100 bet pays out $110). I’ve heard Allen say he thinks he can throw the ball 80 yards. If true, that’s going to be tough for Mahomes to beat.

In case you were wondering, Allen has 10 1/8-inch hands, while Mahomes is at 9 1/4. Now you know.

Dane Johnson asks: Will the Bills announce within the next two years their plans to either build a new stadium or renovate New Era Field with their lease with Erie County looming?

Jay: That seems like a reasonable timeline.

Here’s what Bruce Popko, Pegula Sports & Entertainment’s chief operating officer, said in November when it was announced that consulting firm CAA ICON would be studying the potential for a new stadium or an extensive renovation of New Era Field:

“We have some more time, but we are up against it. We are now to the phase where we have to begin to make some determinations because five years goes really in the blink of an eye.”

Obviously, a lot is yet to be decided, but if the Bills did plan to move into a new stadium when their lease expires at New Era Field in 2023, it’s time to get moving. I’m skeptical that happens, at least on that timeline. I’m not convinced the public money will be there for a new stadium, so what happens without it? I don’t expect PSE to foot the bill, which the NFL would surely frown on.

I expect that this topic will dominate the discussion surrounding our two professional sports franchises in the coming years.

Joe Zanghi asks: Forget about Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell – poor attitudes who quit on Pittsburgh. Why not look into Kareem Hunt? Other teams will. He’s in counseling I hear. You think? We have the money.

Jay: I can’t say for sure that the Bills haven’t looked into him. In fact, they probably have – they wouldn’t be doing their job otherwise. Here’s the thing about signing Hunt, or a player like him: It blows up the whole idea of character mattering to this front office and coaching staff. If the Bills were to sign a player who is shown on video kicking a woman, McDermott will look like a hypocrite if he tries to sell the “character matters” idea ever again.

Now, there is a portion of the fan base who thinks that’s probably a good thing. We shouldn’t derive our moral compass based on how NFL players behave.

I’ve always believed the importance of character just so happens to be tied closely to how good a player is. It’s easy to “make an example” by cutting the 53rd man on the roster if he gets in trouble with the law. It’s not so easy to do that with a star player.

If your bottom line is wins and losses, no matter what that involves, fine. Then the Bills should look at Hunt. But if character matters the way the Bills say it does, I find it hard to believe they’d go for him.

Rick McGuire asks: What are your thoughts on the hiring of Ken Dorsey as quarterbacks coach? Would it not have made sense to hire Derek Anderson for the position instead? Also, a big “Baba Booey” to Melissa – the newest Howard Stern Show star!

Jay: As I mentioned above, Dorsey makes sense as a candidate for the job. He played the position at a high level (particularly in college) and has experience working with a strong-armed, mobile quarterback with Newton in Carolina. I don’t have any issue with the hire.

As for my wife’s, ahem, “appearance” on the Stern show, that certainly was an unexpected development while I was in Atlanta for Super Bowl week. By the way, while I was there, I got to meet Gary Dell’Abate and Jon Hein, who were hosting the wrap-up show on Radio Row. Definitely a highlight of the week. A “Baba Booey” to you all, and thanks for all the questions this week!

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