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Inside the Bills: Tracking those who have traveled the Carolina-to-Buffalo pipeline

It’s become a running joke on social media.

The Buffalo-Carolina connections are so numerous, the first question asked whenever the Bills acquire a new player is “when did he play for the Panthers?”

Ever since Sean McDermott took over as the Bills’ head coach on Jan. 11, 2017, there has been a direct pipeline from Charlotte to Orchard Park.

It’s not unusual for a new coach to surround himself with those he’s familiar with, but the way in which McDermott did that did not follow the typical script. The only coach to join McDermott in Buffalo who worked with him in Carolina was Jim Salgado, who was an intern with the Panthers and just recently was promoted to the Bills’ nickel coach.

When free agency opened in March 2017, the Bills signed former Panthers running back Mike Tolbert, cornerback Leonard Johnson and wide receiver Philly Brown – a sign of things to come.

When General Manager Brandon Beane was hired by the Bills in May 2017, the assumption was a plan must have been in place for him to follow McDermott to Buffalo. Interestingly enough, however, Beane disputed that in a recent conversation with former Bills center Eric Wood on his What’s Next podcast.

“Honestly, Sean and I never talked about this,” Beane told Wood. “We had many conversations from a personnel standpoint of his defense. You know, at the end of the year sometimes I would go in his office and we would look at what it looks like up front, what it looks like at the linebacker and then the secondary. ‘All right, these are the guys that are free agents,’ and he would try and get my gauge on, ‘is this a guy we should let walk?' ”

Those conversations were valuable, because Beane learned more about the coach-player dynamic. They did not portend a future pairing, though.

“Never, that I can remember, did we say, ‘hey, if I get a GM job, am I going to bring you or if you get a head coaching job are you going to try to sway them to do that?' ” Beane said.

By chance, Beane and McDermott were together in New York after interviewing separately for the GM and head coach job with the San Francisco 49ers early in 2017. On the way back to the airport for their flight to Charlotte, the Bills called McDermott to set up a second interview.

“I just gave him some background of the people that I knew in Buffalo, Jim Overdorf, to some of the scouts and what I knew. I didn’t know a lot of people,” Beane said.

McDermott ultimately got the job, and Beane congratulated him the next day at the Panthers’ facility. The two wouldn’t cross paths again until the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

By chance, the Bills and Panthers had suites next to each other inside Lucas Oil Stadium. At that point, Doug Whaley was still working as the Bills’ general manager. Beane and McDermott spent some time catching up, but again, there was no indication a reunion was imminent.

“He didn’t give any clue that they may be making any changes,” Beane said. “I honestly didn’t think he knew that they would.”

After the 2017 draft had finished, Beane was in line at a Wendy’s drive-thru when he found a change at GM was coming in Buffalo – and that he might be a candidate. A few days later, he got a call from former Bills President Russ Brandon to set up an interview with team owners Terry and Kim Pegula. McDermott was not a part of that process.

Beane, who spent 19 years with the Panthers, including the last two as assistant general manager, ultimately got the job and the Carolina connection was officially established. Here is a look at how that has played out, from the front office to the coaching staff to players.

Players

Mike Tolbert: It’s no surprise McDermott made acquiring Tolbert one of his very first priorities.

“"I think you'll get a feel pretty early what he's all about," McDermott said after Tolbert was signed. "First of all, he's a family man, a good person, and in order to be a great leader, you've got to lead by example and you see that on a daily basis with a man of Mike's caliber off the field. What he does in the community is phenomenal as well. He's just got that 'it' that people gravitate towards."

Tolbert likewise had a great deal of respect for McDermott.

"He's obviously one of the sole influential reasons why I decided to come here," he said. "I know his mentality. I know his mindset. I know the type of coach he is, the type of man he is. And I like being around positive things."

On the field, the results were mediocre. Tolbert carried 66 times for 247 yards and one touchdown in his only season with the Bills. He’s been out of the NFL since.

Philly Brown: The veteran receiver was released before the start of the 2017 regular season. He joined the 53-man roster for four days in October of that year, but never appeared in a game and was released again because of a numbers crunch at another position. Brown has been out of the NFL since.

Leonard Johnson: The veteran spent the 2017 season as Buffalo’s nickel cornerback. He played in 15 games and finished the year with 52 tackles and seven passes defensed.

“The thing that I love about Leonard is how tough he is,” McDermott said. “He’s like a little (Mike) Tyson in terms of just the way he approaches the game. He gives us an edge on defense, which is important.

“His familiarity with the system certainly helps in terms of his comfort level, and then also helping teach the players around him at times when coaches aren’t around – or on the field, to correct within a drive, that’s important, that ability to do that.”

Johnson played six games with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 before retiring as a player. He spent last offseason as a minority coaching intern during spring practices and into training camp with the Bills.

Joe Webb: The quarterback/special-teams standout played a pivotal role in a game that will go down as one of the most memorable in Bills’ history. A wicked snowstorm started about an hour before kickoff in December 2017 in what was a must-win game for the Bills at home against the Colts. Starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor was out because of a knee injury, and rookie backup Nathan Peterman left the game with a concussion. That brought Webb, who at that point in the season had thrown just one pass, into the game. His final line in the blizzard – 2-of-6 passing for 35 yards and 27 rushing yards on five attempts – may not look like much, but one of those completions was crucial. On a third-and-6 play in overtime, Webb connected on a 34-yard pass with Deonte Thompson, putting the Bills in position for a win that proved critical in ending the team’s lengthy playoff drought.

“We’re down to our third quarterback and what a gutsy performance,” McDermott said after the game. “Had some key first-down conversions with his feet and then had a couple with his arm as well. Big-time performance.”

Webb spent the 2018 season with Houston, and was on injured reserve for the Texans last year. He’s currently a free agent.

Star Lotulelei: He became the first major free-agent addition from the Panthers, signing a five-year contract worth up to $50 million in 2018. A former first-round pick of the Panthers in 2013, Lotulelei’s addition was meant to help shore up Buffalo’s run defense. In 2017, the Bills ranked 29th in the league against the run. They’ve finished 16th and 10th in that category the past two years. Lotulelei doesn’t record big statistics – he has 36 tackles, two sacks and one interception in 32 games with the Bills – but Beane and McDermott have consistently said his impact on the defense has to be measured by more than box-score numbers.

“Star has been a great player for us and done a great job,” Beane said last month. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. I’m probably his biggest defender out there and I’ll continue to be, from the sense, if you ask our D-line and ask our linebackers – you go ask Luke Kuechly in Carolina, I know how much he loved him and told me he missed him when he left. This guy eats blockers. He helps our run game. One of the biggest things we struggled with in 2017 was our run defense. If you don’t stop the run, you can’t get to third and long to let the pass rushers free. That’s what Star does.”

Derek Anderson: The veteran quarterback joined the Bills midway through the 2018 season, serving as a valuable mentor for rookie quarterback Josh Allen.

“Derek was invaluable to what he brought,” Beane said after the 2018 season. “Another set of eyes and ears that’s lived that position. There’s many coaches in this league that never played at this level between the white lines. There’s no replacement for a guy who has done it, seen it, and not only has Derek been great for Josh and for Matt (Barkley), but he’s also been great for (offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll.”

Anderson signed a one-year contract after the 2018 season, but decided to retire just a few months later.

Dean Marlowe: The Bills re-signed Marlowe to a one-year contract Friday. He originally came to the team in December 2017 as a member of the practice squad after spending the previous two seasons with Carolina. Last season, Marlowe appeared in nine games and was credited with 11 tackles and one pass defensed. He’ll compete in training camp for a backup safety role.

Kurt Coleman: Signed last offseason after the retirement of Rafael Bush, Coleman spent two seasons with Beane and McDermott in Carolina. He played in 14 games for the Bills in 2019, making three tackles. His primary role was on special teams, where he played 50% of the snaps. Coleman is currently a free agent.

Captain Munnerlyn: Signed during training camp in 2019 after an injury to E.J. Gaines, Munnerlyn didn’t make the Bills’ 53-man roster. He’s been out of the NFL since.

Josh Norman: The veteran cornerback’s one-year deal with the Bills was made official this week. Norman was a first-team All-Pro playing under McDermott with the Panthers in 2015. He’ll look to recapture some of that form after a disappointing end to his time with the Redskins last year.

Mario Addison: The Bills have reportedly agreed to a three-year contract with the veteran defensive end who played under McDermott from 2012-16 in Carolina. Addison has 39 sacks over the past four seasons and will be counted on to be a big part of the Bills’ pass rush.

Vernon Butler: A former first-round pick of the Panthers in 2016 – McDermott’s last as Carolina’s defensive coordinator -- the defensive tackle has reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with the Bills. He’s coming off a six-sack season, easily the best of his career.

Trades

Kaelin Clay/Kevon Seymour: The Bills traded Seymour, a second-year cornerback, to the Panthers shortly before the 53-man roster was to be set in September 2017. In exchange, they received Clay, a second-year receiver, and Carolina’s seventh-round draft pick. Clay played in four games with the Bills, making one catch for 28 yards. He was claimed off waivers by the Panthers after being released by the Bills and played in nine games for Carolina in 2017. The Bills signed Clay again during the 2018 offseason, but he was released during final roster cuts. He was claimed off waivers by the New York Giants, appearing in two games before going on injured reserved and subsequently being released. He’s been out of the NFL since.

Seymour played in all 16 games for the Panthers in 2017, making 22 tackles and four passes defensed. He spent 2018 on injured reserve and was released by the Panthers before the start of the 2019 season. He’s currently a free agent.

Kelvin Benjamin: Most fans would agree Benjamin’s acquisition is the biggest flop among former Panthers coming to Buffalo. Beane traded third- and seventh-round draft picks to Carolina in 2018 for the wide receiver, who was Carolina’s first-round draft pick in 2014. Benjamin suffered a knee injury in his second game with the Bills, missing two games, but never getting back to 100% for the rest of that season. He did have a touchdown catch from Peterman in that snow game against the Colts, but that’s his only memorable moment with the Bills.

Benjamin played in 12 games for the team in 2018, making 10 starts and catching 23 passes for 254 yards and one touchdown before being unceremoniously released. He played three more games for the Chiefs in 2018, finishing with two catches for 26 yards. He was out of football in 2019.

Marshall Newhouse: The Bills traded the veteran offensive tackle to the Panthers in September 2018 for a conditional, seventh-round draft choice in 2021. It’s unclear if the conditions for the trade were met. Newhouse played 11 offensive snaps for the Bills and was called for two penalties before being traded. He appeared in 11 games for the Panthers, making two starts, after the trade. Last year, Newhouse played in 15 games and made nine starts for the New England Patriots. He’s currently a free agent.

Coaches

Ken Dorsey: The Bills hired Dorsey as their quarterbacks coach during the 2019 offseason. He worked in the same capacity for the Panthers from 2013-17.

“I wanted to build our staff with smart, very capable candidates that we can grow and develop,” McDermott said last year. “In Dorsey’s case, he has a history of helping to develop a quarterback in Cam Newton in Carolina. Dorsey also played the position at a high level in college, and had a stint in the pros as well. The other added piece to Ken is the element of being able to evaluate and having spent some time in the scouting department in Carolina. That will aid Ken as he moves forward in his career.”

Under Dorsey, Josh Allen made a significant step forward in his second season.

Eric Washington: The Bills moved quickly to hire Washington as their defensive line coach after Bill Teerlinck departed the coaching staff in January. Washington served as the Panthers’ defensive line coach from 2011-17 before taking over as Carolina’s defensive coordinator the past two seasons.

Through Washington's seven seasons overseeing the Panthers' defensive line, the unit led the NFL with 244.5 sacks. The Panthers ranked in the top 10 in sacks in five of those seven seasons, leading the league in 2013 and finishing second and third in '16 and '17, respectively.

Matt Worswick: He’s been the Bills’ assistant to the head coach under McDermott after being with Carolina from 2014-16.

Front office

Joe Schoen: Beane’s assistant general manager is his right-hand man in the front office. The two first met when Schoen was an intern with the Panthers in 2000. He would go on to work for the team from 2001-07. One of Beane’s first moves as general manager was hiring Schoen away from the Miami Dolphins.

Schoen has previously said Beane is “like a brother” to him. And like brothers, they are highly competitive – especially on the golf course.

“It may be Sunday at 6 o'clock and I'll get a random text from him about something. We're just always communicating about football, our roster. It can be in-season, it can be offseason, but always asking the question: How can we get better?” Schoen told The Buffalo News last year. “We're just always spit-shooting ideas off each other, whether it's our roster, upcoming games. We're very good friends, we're close, and we’ve got a great professional relationship.”

Dan Morgan: The 11th overall draft pick in the first round of the 2001 draft by the Panthers, Morgan played in 59 games over seven seasons with Carolina before his career was cut short by injuries.

He got into scouting in 2010 with the Seattle Seahawks.

"When I talked to him when he first got going in scouting, I asked, ‘What do they have you doing?’ He was like, ‘Brandon, I was taking guys to the airport,’ ” Beane told The News after Morgan was hired as the Bills’ director of player personnel. “I was like, ‘How did that feel? You used to be the one getting picked up at the airport as a first-round draft pick. He's like, ‘Man, I'm good. I want to learn what everybody's done.’ ”

Both Schoen and Morgan have become key parts of the Bills’ front office. Both have been frequently mentioned as future GM candidates.

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