Many NFL general managers would argue it is prudent to fill most holes in the roster before the NFL draft, using trades and free-agent signings to prevent having to find a rookie to fill a pressing need.
That strategy is harder to execute when it comes to quarterbacks because of the high cost involved.
Trades by the Buffalo Bills last year, giving them extra first- and second-round picks, have put the team in position to take a swing at drafting a potential franchise quarterback.
With an ample supply of likely top 10 picks at quarterback — Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen — and several potential trade partners with settled quarterback situations, there is justified buzz about Buffalo making a big move from its current positions at Nos. 21 and 22. Any trade would would likely require both of the Bills’ first-round picks and more.
But unless the Bills can execute a rare (if not unprecedented) trade up into one of the draft’s top five selections before free agency starts in March, they must make important and probably expensive decisions at quarterback in the coming weeks before the draft unfolds.
Plugging a hole at quarterback through free agency could cost tens of millions, and making a trade for a quarterback would mean giving up valuable draft capital. In either case, it could be a waste of resources if the Bills eventually do a deal to draft a big-name quarterback prospect.
It is a difficult situation for Bills general manager Brandon Beane to navigate in his first full offseason on the job, complicated by the contractual situation of incumbent starter Tyrod Taylor as well as an overall uncertain quarterback market that will largely be dictated by big-ticket free agent Kirk Cousins.
Beane has not been subtle about the Bills’ need for a franchise quarterback since being hired last May. He has avoided labeling Taylor, the Bills’ starter since 2015, as that player. Beane’s history in the front office of the Carolina Panthers, who drafted Cam Newton first overall in 2011, is one sign he might look to acquire a quarterback high in the draft this spring.
The problem is the Bills will be hard pressed to execute a trade into the top five picks until late April, and even if they do, there is no guarantee the quarterback they covet — if one emerges during the pre-draft process — will be available.
It is not the first time in recent NFL history general managers have had to fly blindly in March before knowing in April if they could execute a plan to acquire a blue-chip quarterback.
There have been two distinct strategies employed by teams during the past 10 offseasons that have either held original picks from Nos. 2 through 5 and used it on a quarterback, or have eventually traded into those slots to take a quarterback. Teams holding the first overall pick, such as the Panthers in 2011, are in a different category because they fully controlled which quarterback they could select in the draft.
The first approach has been to spend in free agency at quarterback and create a layer of insurance. The Philadelphia Eagles did that in 2016, when they re-signed Sam Bradford to a two-year, $36 million deal with $26 million guaranteed and signed Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 millions deal with $7 million guaranteed. The next month, general manager Howie Roseman traded up to No. 2 to select Carson Wentz. Last year, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace signed Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million deal with $19 million guaranteed before selecting Mitchell Trubisky second overall.
Other teams sat tight in March. After Brett Favre’s retirement, the New York Jets were content in 2009 with Kellen Clemens before trading up for Mark Sanchez in the draft. The Redskins sat on Rex Grossman and John Beck in 2012 before moving up for Robert Griffin III, and the Los Angeles Rams stuck with Nick Foles, Sean Mannion and Case Keenum in 2016 before swinging a deal for Jared Goff at the top of the draft.
Teams that owned original picks between Nos. 2 and 5 also had quiet months of March. The Falcons kept Joey Harrington and Chris Redmond before taking Matt Ryan third overall in 2008; the Jacksonville Jaguars traded Blaine Gabbert and held onto Chad Henne before selecting Blake Bortles third overall in 2014, and the Tennessee Titans did not upgrade from Zach Mettenberger or Charlie Whitehurst before snagging Marcus Mariota with the second pick in 2015.
The Bills don’t have the luxury of holding a top-five selection, and keeping Taylor on their roster until at least the draft would be costly.
Taylor is due a $6 million roster bonus on the third day of the 2018 league year, which begins at 4 p.m. ET March 14. That means if Taylor is on the roster at midnight on March 16, he is due the bonus. That amount would count against the Bills’ salary cap in 2018 even if Taylor was later released or traded.
That gives Buffalo a 32-hour window to either release Taylor or trade him in order to avoid having the $6 million charge against their salary cap. That extra cost would be another blow to the Bills’ finances after Eric Wood’s career-ending neck injury could cost Buffalo about $10 million against the 2018 cap if he officially retires or released. Without salary-cap flexibility, the Bills would have a more difficult time filling holes on a roster that has needs almost across the board.
Trading Taylor could mean finding a team that is willing to add $16 million (his $10 million base salary and the $6 million bonus) to its 2018 salary cap, or renegotiate his deal. In either case, Taylor’s most likely landing spot would be a team in need of a starting quarterback, but that club could be waiting on Cousins to make a decision on where to sign after free agency opens March 14. The Bills would not have the luxury of waiting for Cousins’ choice if they want to trade Taylor before March 16.
If the Bills are able to trade Taylor, or if they cannot find a partner and release him, then Nathan Peterman will be the only quarterback on their roster. That puts Buffalo in a more desperate situation than even teams noted above that kept the status quo at quarterback before adding one in the draft. Peterman was a fifth-round pick in 2017 who compiled a 38.4 passer rating in four appearances.
With Taylor gone and only Peterman on the roster, the Bills would probably have to turn to the free-agent and trade market. Cousins’ astronomical price — in the range of $30 million per season — would make it unlikely that the Bills would spend significant draft resources on a quarterback.
AJ McCarron, ruled last week to be an unrestricted free agent, is another option but will also not come cheap. Nor would Keenum if he is not retained by the Minnesota Vikings. In either case, the resources required for Buffalo to sign McCarron or Keenum might make it impractical to also devote draft capital to moving up for a quarterback.
The same logic holds true for Foles, whom the Bills would probably need to sign to a lucrative extension in order to justify his cost on the trade market. In any trade involving Foles, the Eagles would negotiate from a position of strength because of his low cost next season and his performance in the Super Bowl.
It is possible Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater, if neither are retained by the Vikings, present more cost-effective options as free agents for Buffalo because of their injury histories. The Bills could also dip deeper into the free-agent pool for a career backup such as Derek Anderson if they want to add a layer of security at quarterback while saving financial resources for other parts of the roster and draft capital to move up and select a quarterback.
Of course, there are no guarantees in the draft. Missing on a top quarterback could leave Buffalo with Peterman, a bargain-bin veteran and a mid-round rookie entering 2018 at quarterback — probably a losing combination.
Like last offseason, the Bills’ safest play would be to keep Taylor and his $18 million cap number in 2018. He would give Buffalo a level of certainty at quarterback entering April’s draft without the cost and long-term commitment of signing another veteran to replace him.