Before the 2017 season began, the Buffalo Bills traded away starters Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby with a clear emphasis on building for the future through the NFL Draft.
Then the Bills started winning.
The team started its 2017 season 5-2, and seemed to double down on the early success in October when it traded to acquire Kelvin Benjamin to be the new No. 1 receiver. The season ended with Buffalo’s first trip to the postseason since 1999.
Did the Bills’ surprising trip to the playoffs change their priorities from the future to the now? Or did they never have a firm grasp on that vision in the first place?
Months after the season ended, it’s still tough to tell if the Bills have a direction in mind. Buffalo’s moves in the 2018 offseason paint a picture of a franchise that can’t decide if it wants to build for the long term or try to get back to the playoffs right away.
“[Bills GM Brandon] Beane said that in his mind, this is still a team that is rebuilding,” NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala said days prior to the 2018 NFL Draft. “The way he phrased it was, ‘We have not yet arrived.’”
The Bills entered the draft with five picks in the top 65 but packaged them to land just two prospects: quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Both are raw players with huge potential that may take time to fully reach.
Edmunds turned 20 at the beginning of May, making him one of the youngest picks in NFL Draft history. His measurables — a 6’5, 253-pound frame with 4.54 speed — mean he could be a star if he grows into his physical ability.
The same could be said for Allen, who was the most controversial prospect of 2018. He can throw a ball more than 80 yards, but he has never completed more than 60 percent of his passes in a season. He also became a lightning rod of controversy in the 24 hours before draft night when racist tweets from the quarterback’s high school days surfaced.
Packaging five early selections to get those two players is a move that contenders make. So which is it?
The Bills are rebuilding
Edmunds will undoubtedly be expected to contribute right away for a team that needed linebacker help. But Allen was the first-round pick who was furthest from being ready to play in the NFL.
The only reason the Wyoming product has a chance at starting as a rookie is that the other options on the roster are 2017 fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman and former Cincinnati Bengals backup AJ McCarron.
If the Bills wanted to recreate their unlikely path to the playoffs in 2017, then why would they have traded away Tyrod Taylor to the Cleveland Browns shortly after the season ended? That move — as well as the deals to ship away defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and left tackle Cordy Glenn — clearly indicate Buffalo is prioritizing the future ahead of the now.
So do the actual selections. If the Bills wanted a quarterback more capable of immediately starting, UCLA’s Josh Rosen likely would’ve been the better choice. Rosen went three picks after Allen and probably would have been a player Buffalo needed to trade up for too, although it could’ve been at a lower price.
Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph was another option at quarterback, and he was available until the middle of the third round.
Instead, the Bills moved up to No. 7 to take Allen, the highest the franchise has ever taken a quarterback. Nine picks later, they moved up again to take Edmunds at No. 16.
Buffalo could’ve stayed in the back half of the first round to take Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, a more plug-and-play capable linebacker. With Edmunds, they have a 20-year-old ball of clay who has the chance to be much better than Evans, but probably not in 2018.
Overall, the Bills drafted eight players. The next pick didn’t come until No. 96 when the team took Harrison Phillips, a defensive tackle who may be able to contribute early in his NFL career.
But for the most part, Buffalo’s draft class was boiled down to two prospects. With Allen and Edmunds, Bills aimed for potential and ceiling. That could easily prove to be a wise decision — if it’s part of their plan.
The Bills want to win right now
Allen and Edmunds are the kind of players that teams pick with patience in mind. Instead, the Bills entered the 2018 NFL Draft with plenty of needs to address and gave up picks No. 53, 56 and 65 to get them. That’s not the draft strategy typical of a team slowly accruing talent.
Trading up for a quarterback makes sense for a team without a franchise player in place, but moving up for a defensive player is usually a plan for contenders.
In the five NFL Drafts prior, there are eight examples of a team trading up to take a defensive player:
- 2017: The Falcons gave up third- and seventh-round picks to get Takkarist McKinley
- 2017: The 49ers gave up a fourth-round pick to get Reuben Foster
- 2016: The Bears gave up a fourth-round pick to get Leonard Floyd
- 2015: The Broncos gave up a fifth-round pick, Manny Ramirez and a 2016 sixth-round pick to get Shane Ray
- 2014: The Browns gave up a fifth-round pick to get Justin Gilbert
- 2013: The Dolphins gave up a second-round pick to get Dion Jordan
- 2013: The 49ers gave up a third-round pick to get Eric Reid
- 2013: The Falcons gave up third- and sixth-round picks to get Desmond Trufant
Few, if any, lived up to the investment.
Only four of those deals — McKinley, Jordan, Reid and Trufant — involved top 100 picks like the Bills’ move for Edmunds. And half of the trades were made by teams very much in the hunt for a Super Bowl at the time.
It wasn’t just the Bills this year. The Saints and Packers were the other two teams to trade up for defensive talent in the first round — for Marcus Davenport and Jaire Alexander, respectively. Those are two perennial NFC contenders, though, and much closer to battling for a Super Bowl than the Bills.
With so many holes for Buffalo to plug, it’s a little odd that the Bills would turn a huge amount of draft capital into just two players.
Every team tries to strike a balance between wins now and a foundation for the future. It’s just a little unclear if the Bills know what they want that juggling act to look like.
Few expect Buffalo to compete for a postseason spot in 2018 with Vegas currently setting their win total at 6.5. But the Bills weren’t supposed to win last year either.
If the wins start coming right away, does Buffalo have a plan? Because it sure doesn’t seem like it.