Brandon Beane knows he's faced with some tough decisions in the upcoming offseason.
Perhaps No. 1 on that list for the Buffalo Bills' general manager is what to do about linebacker Matt Milano, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March. Milano, 26, finished the 2020 season with 45 tackles, a career-best 3.5 sacks and three passes defensed in 10 games. He missed six games because of a combination of a concussion early in the season and then a partially torn pectoral muscle that led to a stint on injured reserve. The Bills went 12-1 in the games in which Milano played, with the only loss coming to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
"Matt is a very good player. What a great job he's done since he came in here to improve from 2017 to now," Beane said during his season-ending news conference Wednesday. "You know, his biggest thing is just being able to play 16 games. That will be the first thing he'll tell you is he had some nicks here and there. So it's just finding that balance, but you know, we'd love to be able to get Matt back. He knows that. I've shared that with him, I'm sure (head coach) Sean (McDermott) has as well."
Beane, however, then pointed out that the business side matters. The NFL has not set the 2021 salary cap for teams, but if it is in the neighborhood of $175 million, which has been widely speculated, the Bills are tight against that number, which could impact what they do with impending free agents Milano, right tackle Daryl Williams and guard Jon Feliciano, among others.
For his part, Milano said earlier this month he wasn't worried about his contract status.
"Whatever happens, happens," he said. "I know what I can do when I'm healthy and I think everybody else does as well."
Milano, a former fifth-round draft pick, has started 38 games and appeared in 54 in four seasons since joining the Bills. He has 273 tackles, six sacks, five interceptions, 21 passes defensed, five fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles in that time – developing into the type of every-down linebacker that every team in the NFL must have.
"He's earned the right to go to free agency and see what his market bears, but you know, we'll do our best to retain him and as many guys as we can," Beane said of Milano. "I don't even know the numbers yet and what it's going to be, but there's going to be some tough decisions, unfortunately, for us whether it's letting guys go on this roster or having to watch guys leave."
Beane was asked whether he would consider using the franchise tag on Milano, and while not ruling it out, he did not give the impression that was something that should be considered likely.
"We want to keep good players, but it'll come back to that cap – you know, what we can afford," the GM said. "If it's $175 (million), we're right at it right now, so definitely some tough moves to make. Listen, we want to keep good players. Matt's a good player, so we'd love to keep him here, but again, he's earned this right. We'll just have to see how it plays out."
Here are four more takeaways from Beane's season-ending press conference, which lasted more than an hour:
1. The Stefon Diggs trade was a win-win. The Bills were clearly happy with the season they got from Diggs, who set franchise records for both catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535) in a single season on the way to leading the NFL in both categories and being named a first-team All-Pro. The Vikings can also be happy with their return, however, as rookie receiver Justin Jefferson, drafted No. 22 overall, finished with 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns, numbers good enough to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl.
"I thought Minnesota did a nice job of filling that void that they lost with Stef. And I thought Stef came in here and I give him credit," Beane said. "He sat down with me and Sean. Obviously it took forever to get him in here because of the pandemic. But when camp started was the first face to face we had with him, and he had already had that trip with the Florida quarterbacks. He came in and he and I and Sean sat down for a good half hour. We talked about what went well in Minnesota, what didn’t go well, things that he learned and things we can learn about him. And he owned up. He didn’t come in here pointing fingers, it was all them. He came in here and we said 'You’re going to have a fresh start. This is what we expect.'
"He was just golden, from start to finish. He gelled with the guys. He wanted to be one of the guys. He didn’t try to be something different. He’s a magnetic personality. His work ethic on the field, he raised definitely the level of practice. Especially, you guys are at practice, you see those one on ones between him and Tre White and some of the other guys. Those guys were competing hard. That’s what makes you good. We’ll take as many Stef Diggs as we can get on this team."
2. Beane is conflicted about not losing members of his staff. While Assistant General Manager Joe Schoen and director of pro personnel Malik Boyd interviewed for GM jobs (Schoen with the Panthers and Falcons, Boyd with the Texans), neither were hired. That's good news for Beane, even if it left him not so happy about it.
"It’s a catch 22. You want guys to have opportunities. That means we’re having success," Beane said. "That’s the way the industry works. Selfishly, you want them to stay, but if it’s the right opportunity for them, you want to high-five them and say, ‘Great job man. You just hit a career goal,' whether it’s a GM or a head coach or whatever. We’re happy to have any of these guys back that didn’t land one of those jobs."
3. Beane explained why Trent Murphy fell out of the defensive line rotation. The Bills turned to second-year veteran Darryl Johnson Jr. and rookie A.J. Epenesa at defensive end behind Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison following the bye week. That meant Murphy, who had the fifth-highest salary cap hit on the team, was frequently a healthy inactive. That was not an easy conversation for the coaching staff and front office to have, Beane said.
"But I think you have to be honest and open, whether it's 'Hey, I think we need to give this guy behind you a shot to see what he can do. We feel like maybe he can give us more right now for whatever reason,' whether it's to limit reps in another game or whether it's practice.
"In Trent's case, there were some young guys there and special teams plays into it as well. Darryl is a big factor for (special teams coordinator) Heath (Farwell) in that group. We focus, probably more than some teams, on special teams here. So that factored as well. Trent probably still had more to give as a D-end, but Darryl was growing. And we wanted him to get those reps."
4. Beane will be happy to sit out this year's quarterback carousel. The 2021 offseason is shaping up to be a wild one at quarterback. Most recently, reports from Los Angeles suggested that the Rams could trade Jared Goff, and short of that, he would have to compete for the starting job. That's just the latest example of what promises to be significant change at the game's most important position. Philip Rivers has already retired from the Colts, Drew Brees is expected to do the same from the Saints and both Matthew Stafford and Deshaun Watson could be traded by the Lions and Texans, respectively.
“It has been interesting to see some of the turmoil around the league at that position and guys maybe moving," Beane said. "Hopefully they’re not moving to our division, the ones that we think are really good. But at the end of the day, we won’t be able to control that."
That uncertainty makes the Bills all the more happy to have Josh Allen under center.