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Will ‘Trader Beane’ have the Bills on the move?

By nature, Brandon Beane loves any opportunity to make a deal.

“I think I’ve always had that in me,” the Buffalo Bills’ general manager said in a recent conversation with The Buffalo News.

How far back does this trait go? We’re not talking about someone who, as a kid, would work the cafeteria in search of someone who wanted to swap lunches. Beane will tell you he can’t remember doing that much, if at all. We’re also not talking about a kid who was into trading cards.

If you want the earliest example of classic “Trader Beane” in action, you have to go back to 1997, when he and his wife, Hayley, were on their honeymoon in Cancun. They were strolling through a street market when Beane, an avid chess player, spotted a “cool marble chess set” for sale.

Although Hayley despises the thought of negotiating – she won’t even set foot on a car dealership lot – Beane explained that local custom was that no one pays the asking price at a street market and refusing to bargain is actually insulting to the seller. So Hayley, who taught Spanish, translated while her husband tried to get the best deal possible.

“My wife was getting a little bit uneasy because she felt like I was hurting their feelings,” Beane said. “And I was like, ‘No, I have my price. This is what I’m doing.’ We walked away, and the guy came tapping my shoulder and said, ‘All right, I'll sell to you, I'll sell to you.’ I turned to my wife and said, ‘I told you.’ We laughed about that.”

What’s no laughing matter for Beane is his constant pursuit of deals he believes can make the Bills better. Since 2017, Beane’s first year as their GM, the Bills have made 13 trades that involve draft picks.

He wasted little time shaking things up with his first two transactions, both on Aug. 11, 2017. The biggest shocker was when he shipped wide receiver Sammy Watkins – who the team moved up to draft fourth overall in 2014 – and a 2018 sixth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for a second-round choice and cornerback E.J. Gaines. Beane also sent cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick last year that was used for defensive tackle Harrison Phillips.

Two moves the Bills and their fans are counting on to be among the more transformative in franchise history came on April 24, 2018, the first night of the NFL draft. That was when Beane moved up from each of two first-round picks that Bills entered the draft with to select quarterback Josh Allen and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.

Allen and Edmunds represent the crown jewels of the rebuilding Beane and coach Sean McDermott were hired to execute. The project is far from finished.

More critical pieces were added during free agency, mostly with an eye toward enhancing Allen’s production. The next phase comes Thursday night, with the start of a draft in which the Bills own the ninth overall pick and 10 choices total.

Beane says the Bills don’t have a “glaring need,” but important holes still need filling. They could use an offensive tackle, and some good ones figure to be there at No. 9. They could use a defensive tackle, and some good ones figure to be available at No. 9 as well. The same goes for tight end, edge rusher and wide receiver.

The question is, will Beane see the need to move – up or down – in the course of addressing those spots?

Given his reputation, he can legitimately be expected to make a trade. Or two. Or even three. He’s more than good with that. He acknowledges a suggestion that making deals is a substantial part of his DNA.

“You have to embrace what you are, right?” Beane said. “It comes back to being competitive. It’s not a, ‘Going into the draft, I’m making three trades come hell or high water.’ But I am looking, at all times, for anything that I think gives us an advantage.

“I am not one that is afraid to make mistakes. And let’s be honest: trades, especially this day and age, get ridiculed or critiqued, however you want to put it. So the best way to not get scrutinized is to not do one, right? If you don’t do one, then nobody can say anything.”

Beane showed no such apprehension in launching a search to find a franchise quarterback before last year’s draft. With the 12th and 22nd overall picks, he was convinced the Bills wouldn’t have a shot at Allen unless they moved up.

Beane found a partner five spots north in the Buccaneers.

“When Brandon reached out last year, the first question I asked myself was, ‘What would I be willing to offer up if I were in their position and trying to take a quarterback?’ ” Buccaneers GM Jason Licht told The News. “I assumed they were interested in a quarterback, and if that player becomes a pivotal part of your franchise for the next however many years, it doesn’t matter what you give up to get him.”

What the Bills gave up was the first-round choice, No. 12 overall, they had obtained from the Cincinnati Bengals for offensive tackle Cordy Glenn, and the 21st overall pick, along with two second-round picks (their own, at No. 53, and No. 56, which they acquired from the Rams for Watkins).

Later that night, the Bills traded a first-round pick (No. 22, acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2017 draft) and a third-rounder (No. 65, obtained from the Cleveland Browns for quarterback Tyrod Taylor) to the Baltimore Ravens for the 16th overall selection used for the other foundational piece they believe will help their chances for sustainable success: middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.

Beane estimates the deals he's made since he joined the Bills, after serving as assistant GM with the Carolina Panthers, are about five percent of all that have been attempted on his watch.

Some trade pursuits have ended before ever having a chance to begin because a particular player in whom the Bills were interested wasn’t available. Others have failed because they didn’t think the price was right.

Although the best deals are when both sides believe it was a win-win, Beane makes it clear that he has only one goal.

“It’s got to be a win for us,” he said. “You don’t want it to be like you fleeced them. But at the end of the day, my job is to do what’s best for the Buffalo Bills, so I can't worry. I can’t lose sleep (over how the other team views its end of the trade).”

The Bucs’ Licht said he views the deal he made with Beane to allow the Bills to get Allen was a win-win.

“I don’t think you can go into a trade only focused on who will be the perceived winner or loser,” Licht said. “You need to factor in what makes sense for the team you are dealing with as well in order to make a deal work. At the time, I didn’t perceive it as a trade we won. I took it as they were being very aggressive to move up to get the player that they wanted. We felt comfortable with what we received for the pick, and we wouldn’t have taken anything less.”

The Bucs used the No. 12 selection obtained from the Bills on defensive tackle Vita Vea from Washington and the No. 53 pick on North Carolina defensive back M.J. Stewart. They traded the other pick to New England to move down in the second round and added a fourth-round pick.

This year, things are different for the Bills.

They aren’t looking for one or two players who turn them into a contender. From their 10 draft picks, they’re hoping to augment their roster by filling a starting role, possibly two, and/or adding a significant contributor, possibly two.

In either case, trading up or down – or both – becomes a distinct possibility.

Beane laid out the following scenarios for moving in either direction from the ninth pick:

Going up: “Let’s say we have – I’m making up this number – three guys that we think are really elite. And then let’s say we got some that are towards the bottom end of the first round of our grades and we’re sitting at nine. Let’s say two of them are gone before we pick, so there’s one left and there’s more than one pick left (before No. 9). Maybe then you would go, ‘Well, let me give a little bit to get this rare player, based on my grade, versus sitting here at nine and choosing some guys down at the bottom that I'm going to be choosing that ninth pick from.’ ”

Going down: “Let’s say you have four players left that you would deem worthy of a first-round grade. Well, you’d better not trade more than four back because you might not get any of them. If you trade five back, there’s a chance you couldn’t get any of them. The more there are, the better the chances. But I think it’s just what your board is, what you’re comfortable with. Or you could try and get out of a round. If we’re going, ‘Man, it’s our pick and we don't really have a lot of high grades on the board here, but we have a lot of depth later that we think it's good, well, let’s try and take more swings and go down.’ The board tells you what you should do.”

So do Beane’s instincts.

They’re always telling him to keep his eyes wide open for an exceptional opportunity to upgrade his roster. It was what drove him to look into the possibility of trading for Antonio Brown before the Pittsburgh Steelers shipped the controversial receiver to the Oakland Raiders.

“If I think there’s something that gives us an advantage, then I’m going to seek to do it,” Beane said. “If I just sit there and I take picks nine and 40 and 74 and down the line, and never do anything, I could do that and pick good players. And that might be the way it goes.

“This is one thing I can tell you: It won’t go that way without me looking for ways to try to get an advantage somewhere. And if I feel like there’s a team that needs to do something and they’re looking to do something and that’s a spot for us to gain advantage, then I’m going to do it. I’m going to look.”

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