On August 11, the Buffalo Bills shocked everyone by trading away young stars Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby in two separate deals that were announced only minutes apart. Coming back in these trades were cornerback E.J. Gaines (from the Rams), wide receiver Jordan Matthews (from the Eagles), and a second and third round pick in next year’s draft. Added to the fact that the Bills already have an extra first round pick next year (acquired in a draft day trade with the Chiefs who moved up to select quarterback Patrick Mahomes in this year’s draft), people are already expecting the Bills to pack it in for the 2017 season to better position themselves in next year’s draft. “A total rebuild” it is being called by many beat writers and podcast hosts. To many, the high volume of valuable draft capital the Bills have acquired resembles the strategy exhibited by the Cleveland Browns the last couple of years. But is this a total rebuild by the Bills? Should their fans hunker down for a long 2017 season? ITP’s resident Bills fan, Ryan Dukarm, and resident Browns fan, Michael Nuttle, set out to explain just what it is the Bills are doing.
Is this a “total rebuild”?
Ryan: No, but it’s understandably discouraging for many Bills fans. To me, it’s certainly not a total rebuild, as there are plenty of pieces in place that provide Buffalo with the ability to win games this season (Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams). The new regime under general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott seems predicated on gaining more future picks (like the Browns), but still competing year to year. Matthews and Gaines are both downgrades from the players they replace, but both can still be capable NFL starters. I haven’t heard any serious reports about Buffalo trading McCoy and Taylor, only people who think it maybe should happen, which to me is a big difference. If one of those happens, I’m sold that it’s pretty much a tank. Until then I think the Bills can compete in most games, even if they do end up on the wrong side of many of them.
What I’ve struggled with through these trades is that they do appear to be a look toward the future rather than actively improving for this year. Which, as a general team building strategy, is fine. But this is the Buffalo Bills we’re talking about. They haven’t made the playoffs in 17 YEARS. I think I speak for many in the Bills community that the “next year” pill is a tough one to swallow. Every year I hype myself up that “this is the year” the Bills end the drought. I mean, I’m 20 years old. I’ve never in my lifetime seen the Bills in a playoff game. So sure, next year may be the more realistic time for the Bills to really compete, but there sure has been a lot of “next years.”
Michael: My initial reaction to these trades were the same as many people: “What the hell are the Bills doing?” I thought. But then I thought about the pieces Buffalo was actually trading away. Yes, Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby are popular names around the league and regarded as two young stars, but Sammy Watkins has had injury problems as of late, including a foot injury last year in which he was able to return for the last six games of the season to up-and-down production. Darby also took a step back last year, though probably not so much that I would say he was a bust or anything. Still, both players were able to net the team additional draft picks in the top half of the draft as well as a player at both of their respective positions. And on top of that, the team still has many good, veteran players on this roster including Tyrod Taylor (yes, I think Taylor is a good quarterback), LeSean McCoy, Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Micah Hyde. If the Bills were looking to do a total rebuild, I would think they would have been looking to get rid of many more players than just Watkins and Darby, especially older veterans. Even with the step back at wide receiver, going from Watkins to Matthews, and at cornerback, going from Darby to Gaines, this team is still good enough to compete for a Wild Card spot. They aren’t going to be winning the division this year after this trade, but, frankly, they weren’t going to be winning it this year even before these trades. But they can compete and they can try to luck their way into the playoffs, and at the same time still have the security of many high draft picks going forward that will allow them to have flexibility in next year’s draft and still be able to build toward the future.
How does what the Bills are doing now compare to what the Browns are doing?
Michael: The easiest similarity you can see between the two strategies is the focus on acquiring a large number of high draft picks. In the first year of the current Browns regime (the Sashi Brown/Hue Jackson era), they took the #2 overall pick and turned it into several high picks. Yes, they were interested in acquiring as much draft capital as they could, but what they were also willing to do was to push receiving picks into the future to ensure that they were higher picks. For instance, getting a second round pick from the Eagles in 2018 as part of that 2016 draft pick trade when the Eagles moved up to select Carson Wentz. The Bills are also interested in higher picks, trading away a sixth rounder in the Sammy Watkins trade likely to ensure that they received the second round pick back from the Rams.
Where you start to see a divergence in similarities is the idea of the total rebuild. When the Brown/Jackson regime took over in Cleveland, they stripped that roster down to the studs. They let big-name free agents walk, they cleared a bunch of cap space by cutting veteran players with bad or high contracts to accelerate cap hits (the exception being Joe Thomas and Joe Haden), and they didn’t go out and sign any costly unrestricted free agents to protect their compensatory picks. The Browns basically started back at square one. The Bills are not doing that. Not even close. Yes, they traded away some key young pieces, but as we previously mentioned, there are still plenty of pieces to build around and bolster this roster going forward. This is not square one for the Bills by any means. Bills fans should rest easy knowing they shouldn’t be expecting a 1-15 season anytime soon.
Ryan: There are certainly some similarities here, namely in the aspect that both teams seem to recognize the value of draft picks, but I don’t see full parallels between the two teams. The Bills seem intent on trying to compete year to year, as they resigned/worked to retain veteran contributors like Lorenzo Alexander and Kyle Williams (who was considering retiring) and held onto some bigger contracts like those of Charles Clay, LeSean McCoy, and Marcell Dareus. To me, this move isn’t a full tank to ensure high draft picks like the Browns have done recently and the Jets appear to be doing now, merely sending players who didn’t quite fit in the current regime to new teams to acquire surplus draft value. Another difference between Cleveland and Buffalo is the quarterback position, as the Browns, since perhaps Bernie Kosar in the 1980s, really haven’t had anyone to even whisper the term “franchise quarterback.” The Bills, however, are better off than that, as Tyrod Taylor is locked in as the starter heading into 2017. Is he the franchise quarterback the Bills need him to be? Can he lead the Bills to the playoffs? And I mean lead, not merely stay out of the way on their path there. This season will likely be the deciding year for Taylor’s future in Buffalo.
What does this trade mean for the future of the Bills?
Ryan: Like Michael said above, I also think the Bills can at least compete for a Wild Card spot this season, but the focus for the team seems to have shifted to 2018. To me, this may signal the end of the Tyrod Taylor era in Buffalo. With two picks in each of the first three rounds in 2018, the Bills possess plenty of ammo to trade up for a quarterback to replace Taylor if they so desire. Personally, I think Taylor is a solid QB you can build around and win with, but not because of. A more exciting and run-oriented version of Andy Dalton seems like his projection moving forward. I like the idea of using all those picks to finally put a deep, young, and talented roster together around Taylor. They have young pieces to build around besides Taylor, including Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Cordy Glenn, John Miller, and Zay Jones. However they desperately need added depth and competition across the roster. I’m in the camp of keeping Taylor and really building the team around him, but I get the other side too. This is a team absolutely starved for decent quarterback play since Jim Kelly retired in 1996. Like the Cleveland Browns, it doesn’t really matter who’s on the roster if the right quarterback isn’t there as well.
Michael: The Bills are clearly planning for the future, that is for certain given their sudden fascination with collecting draft picks for next year’s draft, but like Ryan said, I think you see a good young core of talent in Buffalo that you can build around. I think you see them go out and compete then use those picks to continue to add more good young talent and depth to the roster. The notion that the Bills collected all these picks to make sure they have enough firepower to move up and get a QB in the 2018 draft doesn’t quite sit with me. Again, I am a person that thinks that Taylor is a good quarterback. As Ryan put it, a guy you can win with, but not because of. This roster, despite being good enough to compete for a playoff spot this year, is still far from complete. To collect all these picks just to bundle them all up to move up and get a QB seems counterintuitive because then you are getting a young rookie quarterback that you are putting on this team with the same talent level (only a year older) that you had around Taylor.
On top of that, I think we can all agree that the Jets are going to be holding the #1 pick next year and they want a QB. It would take both those first round picks (as they are likely to both be in the back half of the first round) and then some just to maybe convince the Jets to give up on getting their QB. Seems unlikely to me. So then plan B is to move up to #2 and just hope the Jets don’t take your guy? That doesn’t seem like the best blueprint for building your team. Waiting until next year is never anything a fan wants to hear, but I truly think that if the Bills do well with these picks, they can acquire good young talent that will allow them to compete for more than just one season, but three to-four years consistently.
Though they may root for different teams, Bills and Browns fans share a lot in common. Much of their recent memory of their teams has not given them much to be happy or excited about. But what these two franchises are doing is not easy to do. To have such a history of losing and to still do what they think is best for their team to ensure continued success into the future, even at the expense of possibly sacrificing a one-season run at the playoffs, takes commitment. It will come with national ridicule from the media and fans of other teams, but in the long run, the hope is that it will all be worth it. And in Cleveland and Buffalo, sometimes all you can do is hope.