How the Bills Turned Over Their Roster, and Other Conference Championship Teams Were Built

Our annual examination of the four conference championship rosters led to a surprising discovery about the Bills. And that led to a conversation with Brandon Beane about how he rebuilt them in four years. Plus, power rankings, Black coaching candidates and how women should impact the hiring process.
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Colorado Springs isn’t the easiest trip from Buffalo, and Bills GM Brandon Beane happened to be there with top lieutenant Joe Schoen for a night game on Veterans Day 2017, with their 5–3 team set for a 1 p.m. MT kickoff against the Saints the next day.

So if they were a little frustrated by what they were getting out of this particular trip, when the quarterback they came to see, Josh Allen, exited that Wyoming–Air Force game on the first series of the third quarter, that would be completely understandable. Long flight. Quick turnaround. Not the payoff they’d expected.

And it’s not like they didn’t get to take anything away. To this day, Beane still has the pictures he took from field level to body-type Allen on his iPhone. He and Schoen can also vividly recall warmups, and the way the rest of the Cowboys players gravitated to Allen, and how it was so clear that he was the team’s alpha. Moreover, before he got dinged up, he was a perfect 8-for-8 for 70 yards and a touchdown, and Wyoming was up 21–0.

But it’s fair to say they left wanting a little more. They eventually got it—they just had to wait another two months for dividends of the trek west to become clear.

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That January, at the Senior Bowl, Beane got his second live exposure to Allen and was able to actually talk to the likely first-rounder for the first time. When they sat down, Beane immediately rewound to that November night, recalling how Allen was injured on a funky-looking trick play, a jet-sweep throwback sort of flea-flicker. Air Force linebacker Jack Flor had sniffed out the throwback, reversed course and crashed into Allen’s throwing elbow.

“If I was your A.D., I’d have fired your coach for calling that play,” Beane cracked.

“Actually,” Allen responded, “I talked him into that.”

The quarterback then explained that he’d been all over his coaches to run the play and, at the end of the second quarter, with the three-touchdown lead, felt like Wyoming had Air Force set up for it. He, of course, was wrong—and he paid the price, with the hit eventually taking him out of the game and forcing his first incompletion of the night.

This is a small thing. But my feeling is that this shows an example of where the Bills have been winning.

Beane and his staff took a couple of things away from the encounter. First, Allen was country tough. He went back into the game in the second half and tried to give it a go, before his first throw on a sideline route came out flat and made clear he was done for the night. Second, and just as important, Allen was 100% accountable. He wasn’t going to let someone else take the blame, even in a job-interview setting when it might benefit him.

Long story short, in the end, the trip Beane and Schoen made was worth it. And it’s indicative of how the Bills are where they now are as a result of continuing to chip away at everything, even with stuff that might not seem like it’s worth it at first.

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It’s championship weekend! We’re here. And we’ve got a lot to get to in this week’s GamePlan column. Inside the column …

• Power rankings!

• A look at an issue in the minority coach hiring narrative.

• A question posed to me based on an MLB scandal.

But we’re starting with an annual tradition of mine—where we take a look at the NFL’s four semifinalists and how they were built ahead of the conference title games.

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So without further ado, here’s the chart that we roll out every year, explaining the construction of the four teams left standing …

BUFFALO BILLS

Homegrown on the 53: 22 (17 draftees/5 college free agents).

Outside free agents on the 53: 25.

Trades/waivers on the 53: 6.

Quarterback acquired: Drafted Josh Allen with the seventh pick in 2018.

Last five first-round picks: DT Ed Oliver (ninth, 2019), Allen (seventh, 2018), LB Tremaine Edmunds (16th, 2018), CB Tre’Davious White (27th, 2017), DE Shaq Lawson (19th, 2016).

Top five cap figures: WR Stefon Diggs $13.45 million, White $11.720 million, C Mitch Morse $11.625 million, DE Mario Addison $9.969 million, DE Trent Murphy $9.775 million.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Homegrown on the 53: 36 (29 draftees/7 college free agents).

Outside free agents on the 53: 16.

Trades/waivers on the 53: 1.

Quarterback acquired: Drafted Aaron Rodgers with the 24th pick in 2005.

Last five first-round picks: QB Jordan Love (26th, 2020), OLB Rashan Gary (12th, 2019), CB Jaire Alexander (18th, 2018), DL Kenny Clark (27th, 2016), S Damarious Randall (30th, 2015).

Top five cap figures: Rodgers $21.642 million, OLB Za’Darius Smith $17.25 million, WR Davante Adams $16.475 million, OT David Bakhtiari $16.159 million, OLB Preston Smith $13.5 million.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Homegrown on the 53: 30 (21 draftees/9 college free agents)

Outside free agents on the 53: 18

Trades/waivers on the 53: 5

Quarterback acquired: Drafted Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in 2017.

Last five first-round picks: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (32nd, 2020), Mahomes (10th, 2017), CB Marcus Peters (18th, 2015), DE Dee Ford (23rd, 2014), LT Eric Fisher (first, 2013).

Top five cap figures: DE Frank Clark $19.3 million, WR Tyreek Hill $17.74 million, S Tyrann Mathieu $16.333 million, DT Chris Jones $15.001 million. Fisher $15.138 million.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Homegrown on the 53: 27 (23 draftees/4 college free agents)

Outside free agents on the 53: 21

Trades/waivers on the 53: 5

Quarterback acquired: Signed Tom Brady as an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Last five first-round picks: OT Tristan Wirfs (13th, 2020), LB Devin White (fifth, 2019), DT Vita Vea (12th, 2018), TE O.J. Howard (19th, 2017), CB Vernon Hargreaves (11th, 2016).

Top five cap figures: Brady $25.008 million, DE Shaq Barrett $15.829 million, OT Donovan Smith $14.506 million, DE Jason Pierre-Paul $12.5 million, LB Lavonte David $10.755 million.

All four have their interesting quirks, but the Bills really stood out to me and I don’t think it’s hard to see why. In Buffalo, what Beane and coach Sean McDermott have authored has really been a from-the-ground-up project, and so to see how they had, by the far, the fewest homegrown players really caught me off-guard.

The problem, predictably, was me.

What I failed to see was illustrated perfectly in that story from four years ago in Colorado Springs, because what the whole crew in Buffalo has worked hard to do, even with an impressive young core in place, isn’t about pulling one lever to find talent. It’s about pulling all of them. How they found something after an unfortunate twist at Air Force reflects their constant working of the 53-man roster, which has become a sort of football Google Doc.

“We view it as 12-month roster building, and we stress that all the time,” Beane said late Tuesday night. “The guys have to know every team's practice squad and know anybody that's on that waiver wire. I mean, we got Jordan Phillips off the waiver wire [in 2018] and he was a big hit for us for a year and a half. You can't miss those, especially that year, when we were struggling and trying to get this thing back, going and dealing with it. …

“We wanna look at every avenue. … And we're going to be aggressive when it makes sense.”

The foundation for that was laid back in that first year, 2017.

It started with Beane, Schoen, and then director of player personnel Brian Gaine huddling and putting together a scouting manual—with department heads Terrence Gray (college) and Malik Boyd (pro) contributing too—that detailed exactly what the team would look for. That’s continued to grow over time, as director of player personnel Dan Morgan came in to replace Gaine, after Gaine went to Houston, and as Gaine returned. And the idea in having everyone involved is getting to where everyone knows it well enough to teach it to others.

The result has been this process that Beane’s very reluctant to take credit for—he thinks the group around him and the group around McDermott deserve that—but one that has generated a lot of stories like the Allen stories, where grinding the details and every avenue have paid off for the Bills.

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The 2017 team. In most cases, a new coach and GM coming into a broken situation will immediately reach for the “detonate” button, but that’s not what Beane and McDermott did. Instead, and in part because Beane wasn’t aboard until after the 2017 draft, the new Bills’ bosses decided to comb through the roster and assess for themselves, over an extended period, who was and wasn’t a fit.

In doing so, and by not tearing down, the Bills made the playoffs in Year 1, which helped establish McDermott’s program. And they found guys on the existing roster who’d be vital to it.

“Kyle Williams, Lorenzo Alexander, Eric Wood,” Beane said. “Eric was done after [2017], and then Kyle became the leader in ’18 and Zo in ’19, and that gave us three years to groom these new players that we're drafting or signing from other places, showing what we want it to look like. And those are three players, no matter what you think of their skill set, who had what we were looking for, what could be a Buffalo Bill.”

In turn, rookies that first year like Tre’Davious White, Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano got to see the program work. “These young players saw a group that wasn't the most talented group,” said Beane, “but what I thought was great about that year was rarely did we beat ourselves, if we got beat.”

The Allen process. The key here, as they allowed the 2017 playoff run to happen instead of tearing down, is that Beane focused on building up the capital the Bills needed (and part included the return from trading the pick that became Patrick Mahomes during the 2017 draft) so that they could move up as needed to get a guy, and not mortgage future drafts to do it. Trades of Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby during summer 2017 helped them get there, as did an offseason pick swap involving Cordy Glenn.

That way they could ignore the calls for tanking, which got to the point where McDermott told the team in camp, explicitly, Guys, we’re trying to win every game here.

And that team wound up winning more than it lost, while Beane & Co. went to work on the 2018 quarterbacks. The summer before, Beane, Schoen and Gaine broke down every 2016 throw of each draftable prospect, and Beane mapped out his fall to personally get live exposure to Allen, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, Mason Rudolph and Luke Falk. Which, of course, is where the trip to Colorado Springs came in.

Then, in the spring, the process of moving up was well thought-out, with Allen the target. The first move came early, with Glenn going to Cincinnati to move the Bills up from 21 to 12, and that’s when digging into where Allen would go came into play.

The Bills had gathered info that the Dolphins were prepared to take Allen or Mayfield at 11, and that the Cardinals had Allen as their No. 1 overall player and could move up for him. Beane and Schoen tried the Giants at No. 2, the Browns at No. 4, and then had a deal in place with the Broncos at No. 5, with John Elway telling them it would only be off if a certain player fell to that spot. Turns out, that player (Bradley Chubb) did and Indy was set on Quenton Nelson at No. 6.

That left the Bucs at No. 7. Schoen talked to them before the draft, but Tampa was confident a certain player would be there for them and didn’t want to risk losing him. After the Denver deal fell through, the Bills called the Bucs back. Tampa asked for a lot. The Bills got them to come down a little. And a deal was done—the Bills would send their one, their two, and a two they got in the Watkins deal for the seventh pick and a seventh-rounder—to make Allen a Bill.

Middle-class moves. The fallout of the Watkins deal and departure of Robert Woods just before that was a glaring weakness at receiver in 2018. The problem? There wasn’t great supply at the position in the 2019 free-agent market—Golden Tate, Jamison Crowder and Tyrell Williams headlined the class. So instead of swinging on one, the Bills took fliers on two, inking ex-Cardinal John Brown and ex-Cowboy Cole Beasley.

It makes sense, too, in that the Bills took a similar approach on the defensive line, bringing in Star Lotulelei, Trent Murphy and Mario Addison, rather than breaking the bank. They did the same early on at safety, in landing cornerstones Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. Some finds were good old-fashioned hard work from Boyd’s pro-scouting staff. Others, like Addison and Lotulelei were aided by the team having background with the players.

And this sort of turning-over-of-rocks spilled over to special teams too, where adds like Taiwan Jones, Tyler Matakevich and Andre Roberts have position Buffalo to rank top 10 in the four core special teams categories (punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return).

Targeted aggression. Two cases stick out here, one out of necessity, the other opportunity.

The former came in the aftermath of Eric Wood’s sudden retirement, spurred by a neck issue that no one foresaw. Coming out of a year without Wood, the Bills decided they needed to go in on a center to help Allen—and that the market was relatively reasonable at the position—which is how they landed on Kansas City’s Mitch Morse.

The latter is far more high-profile. The Bills had done a lot of research into trading for Stefon Diggs before the deadline in 2019, with Gray (who was working for the Vikings when Diggs was drafted) being an important piece of the fact-finding, as was Maryland coach Mike Locksley. Ultimately, all that background seemed to be for naught—Minnesota never put Diggs on the market that October. But it would pay off.

A cryptic tweet from Diggs led Beane to inquire with the Vikings again in March, and this time they were more receptive. By the end of the day, a deal making Diggs a Bill was in place, and with three factors in play. One, his contract was palatable by star receiver standards ($49.725 million over four years left on his deal). Two, the roster had been built to the point where flipping draft capital was easier to swallow. Three, the recon work was done.

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And that brings us back to our jumping-off point here—which was that the Bills actually have fewer home-grown players than the other conference finalists. That’ll change, Beane assures, because it has to.

Buffalo’s going to try to sign Allen long-term this offseason, and he’s not the only young star on that roster with big money on the horizon. In time, it’ll mean shifting the Bills’ model—only two of the team’s 14 biggest cap numbers for 2020 belong to homegrown guys, and those are to the first two draft picks of the Beane-McDermott Era, White and Dawkins, to sign big second contracts.

As more re-up, the margin for error shrinks, and Beane knows it. Which eventually will lead to the Bills’ chart look more like the Chiefs’, Packers’ and Bucs’.

“It's sustainable as long as we continue to draft well,” he said. “That's the key, because that's the better model long-term. You're not going to be able to pay everybody, especially with this cap, and what it's about to do. So the onus will be on us to make sure we draft players and have those guys that are on those lower contracts making plays for us.”

The good news there is these are great problems to have.

And that’s even though I couldn’t quite get Beane to concede that he and his staff have the Bills in a pretty good spot going forward.

“Albert—I never feel good, buddy,” he said, laughing. “I don't know that you're ever going to get me to say that.”

That’s O.K. Others will say it for him.

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POWER RANKINGS

1) Green Bay Packers (14-3): It felt like they beat the Rams with Aaron Rodgers in third gear, and that makes me think they got out of that game with a lot left in their bag. Which is why I’m moving them up from third to first.

2) Kansas City Chiefs (15-2): So their last eight wins have come by a total of 32 points, and the widest margin in the bunch was six points. Will it mean something? Maybe it won’t, and to be fair Patrick Mahomes has won 24 of his last 25 starts. But it’s at least interesting that it’s been that long since the Chiefs really put it on someone.

3) Buffalo Bills (15-3): The Bills have won a lot of games the last two months on offense. And while they’ve improved on defense after a rocky start, they really hadn’t won a game on that side of the ball—until Saturday night. Leslie Frazier’s unit crushed it, holding the Ravens to three points, producing a game-shifting pick-six and carrying the team on a 220-yard night for the offense. So this team is proving to be well-rounded too.

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5): They may have been the most impressive of the four to advance last weekend. Four takeaways on defense, 127 yards rushing and Tom Brady only had to throw for 199 to win. I’m just not sure it’ll work when Aaron Rodgers is the other team’s quarterback.

5) Cleveland Browns (12-6): Call this a sign of respect for the year they had, and an acknowledgement that they came closest to pulling off an upset in the divisional round. Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski have got something going in Cleveland.

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Eric Bieniemy

THE BIG QUESTION

How can we fix the minority hiring issue?

After seeing how the last couple weeks have come and gone—one thing that stuck out to me was how this hiring cycle, and how the fact that (for now) just one minority candidate has gotten a job, all became about one guy.

I really like Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy, and I don’t think he’s out of the running in Houston either. He’s definitely earned the opportunity to be where he’s been the last two years, on the doorstep of head coaching jobs, and I’d really like to see what he’d do if he got one. But he’s hardly the first and won’t be the last guy to knock on the door for a while without it being answered with a job.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was that guy. Colts/Bucs legend Tony Dungy was that guy. Ex-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis was once that guy. Saints coach Sean Payton was too, and actually saw his stock crash before he rebuilt it in Dallas and got the New Orleans job three years later. Denver’s Vic Fangio was absolutely that guy. There are others in that spot now too: Baltimore’s Wink Martindale and Greg Roman, and New Orleans’s Pete Carmichael are, and Buffalo’s Brian Daboll is creeping into that territory.

All those guys are really good coaches. Head coaching jobs are hard to get. The criteria is different from year to year and team to team.

Bieniemy, unfortunately, is in that spot now. I think his time will come. But no one’s guaranteed one of these jobs. And I actually think the overemphasis on his particular case has probably both made owners wonder why he’s still available and also taken away some attention from the fact that there’s a good number of rising young stars who deserve shots too (and a few of them have gotten promotions during this cycle). Among the guys you might be less aware of …

Colts quarterbacks coach Marcus Brady: Brady may be Indy’s OC by the time you read this—my expectation is he’ll be promoted to replace Nick Sirriani at some point soon. Brady’s very sharp, played quarterback in the CFL and is still just 41 years old.

Buccaneers outside linebackers coach Larry Foote: He played 13 years in the league, has six seasons coaching under his belt, and is just 40. Foote’s bright, and has extensive experience with accomplished head coaches like Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians.

Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn: He interviewed with the Jets this year, and is now headed for Detroit to be Dan Campbell’s DC, he played 15 years in the NFL for guys like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, and worked the last five for Payton.

Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo: He interviewed with the Eagles, and is widely seen inside the New England organization as a future head coach, Mayo’s only been on the sidelines for two years. But his time is coming.

Rams DBs coaches Ejiro Evero and Aubrey Pleasant: Both are under 40, both are energetic and both very solid communicators capable of commanding a room, Pleasant’s dealt with a revolving door of big personalities (Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Jalen Ramsey) at corner, while Evero has developed young guys like Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller and John Johnson at safety.

49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans: I remember Chip Kelly telling me at one point that Ryans had the ability to be a head coach in the NFL if he wanted to take that path—and that was when Ryan was still playing. Ryans, 36, just got promoted to replace Robert Saleh.

Ex-Texans defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver: Obviously, the 40-year-old hit a speed bump in his career this year, with everything that happened in Houston. But Bill O’Brien went out of his way to promote Weaver a year ago, similar to how he had Mike Vrabel in 2017, for a reason.

And after those guys, you have a few who certainly could warrant a second chance—guys like Raheem Morris, Leslie Frazier (very much still in play for the Texans) and Todd Bowles—soon.

The point is there are a ton of good names, and the pool of Black coaches who will be top-level candidates for head coaching positions has grown. As I see it, getting more of them in front of owners, in whatever way possible, would create more progress than bemoaning a single case, unfair as it may be.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

How women can and should fit into the hiring process.

I’m sure plenty of football fans saw the story about Mets GM Jared Porter getting fired this week after a report came out about him sending unsolicited explicit text messages to a reporter.

One of The MMQB’s editors, Mitch Goldich, sent me this tweet from Yahoo baseball writer Hannah Keyser.

Mitch suggested I find out if NFL teams ask women about people they’re looking at hiring. So I asked around on Thursday and found that the answer is … not always. One reason I was given (which I know many people will find unsatisfactory) is that there aren’t often a ton of women that coaches and scouts work with. But there were a couple of teams I found that have made a real effort here.

One team that was hiring during this cycle actually brought on a very-connected woman who works in football to help with their search, and use her network to ask women who were co-workers with prospective candidates about their character. This woman, they figured, would have a better chance of getting to the truth than they would cold-calling employees of other teams.

Another team confirmed that they’ve actively sought information from women in the business when hiring as well, but said they wouldn’t necessarily expect information like the type uncovered in the Mets’ case to surface in such an investigation. And the exec I was speaking to about this said he felt like the Mets handled the aftermath well, acting immediately rather than trying to make excuses or buy time.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting question to ask. And thanks to Mitch for asking it of me.

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THE FINAL WORD

Next week is an ultra-important one in the NFL—with the Senior Bowl’s relevance heightened by the cancellation of the combine, and skepticism over teams having much, if any, allowable face-to-face time with prospects this spring.

As such, we’re planning on covering that pretty extensively in the coming days, starting with Monday morning’s column. As always, stay tuned!