ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The genesis of the Buffalo Bills' potentially epic 2018 draft can be traced back to 51 weeks before they actually selecting quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds both within the first 16 picks on that hectic Thursday night.
The concept of being in position to grab a quarterback at the top of that draft was something coach Sean McDermott began discussing with general manager Brandon Beane shortly after the GM was hired last May 9, with their veteran starter, Tyrod Taylor, perhaps destined to be a mere bridge guy in Buffalo and not the solution at quarterback. The exercise of weeding out which players were going to be here for the long haul and which were possibly extraneous began almost immediately, and led directly to what occurred this past May. The process was considered paramount for the organization, and by August there were already tangible signs of this new direction, with young (sometimes highly-impactful) starters Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby -- recent high picks by the doomed prior regime -- shipped out in training camp blockbuster trades, a precursor to a flurry of activity that would continue into the season, and after February's scouting combine and, ultimately, twice more on the draft's opening night.Bills and Eagles lead list of five teams that could take a step back, miss NFL playoffs
Beane and McDermott knew they would have to be highly aggressive and proactive at times, and yet patient and restrained at others, with the rookie head coach and rookie general manager -- who worked so well together as assistants in Carolina -- trying to re-craft a franchise adrift for 20 years without a playoff spot into a perennial challenger despite the lingering presence of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the AFC East. The maneuvering and planning and jockeying for position in the 2018 draft continued even as the Bills somehow managed to reach the postseason
, with the front office maintaining the longview and Taylor's fate sealed when he was benched for Nathan Peterman before Thanksgiving despite Buffalo being in the thick of the wild-card hunt (Peterman, as many recall, threw five picks in the first half and was promptly benched).
Desperately wish you had a 30-minutes-or-so, daily NFL podcast in your podcast app every morning by 6 a.m.? Put some Pick Six Podcast in your life and join Will Brinson as he breaks down the latest news and notes from around the league, as well as the win totals on a team-by-team schedule. It's a daily dose of football to get you right for that commute or gym trip.
It required no shortage of guts and guile for the Bills to part with so many prominent players and accrue the assets to allow Beane to eventually hold pick Nos. 7 and 16 in the first round. That included also trading former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus -- once the highest-paid player in franchise history -- and starting left tackle Cordy Glenn along the way, shocking even themselves in the process as Beane never considered a scenario where he ended the first round with both Allen and Edmunds, not in all of the thousands of hours put into scouting and preparations for what was always going to be a defining draft.
"It's a quarterback league; you've either got one or you don't," Beane told me during an extended sit-down chat. "And we were getting to know Tyrod and Tyrod brought a lot of good things for us, but we decided as the season moved on that we were probably going to go in a different direction, and at the same time we were still thinking, 'OK, if Tyrod is our guy we'll draft other things, and if not, we'll be ready to move forward.' And that planning really started in August with some of the moves we made, and to add the draft capital that we did."
Sorting through the QB maze
Beane knew by last summer that the 2018 draft could shape into a quarterback anomaly. Even then, before Baker Mayfield morphed from mid-range prospect to the first overall pick, the Bills figured a record-tying five passers might go in the first round, with the run on them starting early. And with the future of Hall of Famer Drew Brees uncertain, to say nothing of proven winners like Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith to veteran Band-Aids like Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, to possible future starters like Teddy Bridgewater and AJ McCarron (whom the Bills eventually signed as QB insurance in March), you could see a wild 2018 QB carousel forming even before the 2017 season began.
Which meant the Bills were going to have to be prepared for anything, and there was no time to waste. Early in training camp they were engaged with numerous teams in trade talks that would send Watkins, who previous GM Doug Whaley mortgaged the future to move up and draft fourth overall in 2014, to the Rams and Darby, a 2015 second-round pick, to the Eagles, and Cardale Jones, who had made his debut at quarterback for Buffalo the year before, to the Chargers. Those were not players the Bills were going to invest in with second contracts, and they could bring back pieces that could lead to a quarterback. And at the very same time Beane was also already well into his initial evaluations of the 2018 quarterback draft class.
"Last August we started flipping on the film of these guys from the previous season," Beane said. "Josh Allen at Wyoming and [Josh] Rosen from the previous year at UCLA and [Sam] Darnold and all of those guys, and getting to know Baker [Mayfield] and Mason Rudolph and Lamar [Jackson]. You're going, 'Man there are a lot of different flavors here.' It's going to be kind of, 'What do you want?'
"And it's funny how it turned out. People were still trying to predict [just before the draft] who was going one and who was going two, and if it was a different team other than the Browns [picking first overall], they probably had their own order as well. So that was the unique thing of this draft -- there was no, this is Andrew Luck, give him the jersey in February, and once he gets to the combine we know he's the number one pick. There wasn't that and that added some spice to it."
Beane would spend no shortage of weekends watching these college quarterbacks with his own eyes. Sometimes it dovetailed with the Bills schedule -- with the team already in Southern California around the time when USC (Darnold) faced UCLA (Rosen). Often it did not, with his travels taking him across the country on a scouting mission. Beane ended up seeing Darnold play live more than anyone else, not so much by design but due to scheduling and weather, too. A visit to campus to see Allen was scuttled when the quarterback was injured and Beane planned on attending his bowl game but then changed gears when Allen announced he would be going to the Senior Bowl in January.
That's where they first began to chat with the prospect, who was already generating plenty of buzz as the potential first-overall pick. He had the size and the perfect NFL arm and plenty of moxie and leadership and toughness (clips of Allen laying out defenders with blocks were shared among scouting staffs around the league during his 2016 season). There would be concerns about accuracy and footwork, for sure, and initially at those Senior Bowl meetings the prospect came across as a little timid and unsure to the Bills, though that first impression would fade away the more they got to know him.
By the time Allen ran and threw at the combine -- showing rare athleticism and velocity -- jaws were dropping. And the Bills were adjusting their plans as well. They were holding the 21st and 22nd overall picks at the time (the second of those the result of a draft-day trade with the Chiefs the year before), and it was clear that four or five quarterbacks were going to go in the first 10 picks even before they began making private visits with NFL teams or any Pro Day throws.