(WKBW) — With the start of the 2019 Senior Bowl, the annual offseason tour has begun for the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the NFL. In between the first two practice sessions of the week, Bills general manager Brandon Beane spoke with reporters about many topics.
With so many offseason assets lined up over the next few months, this is a critical time for the organization in how they build their roster.
Among them, five takeaways and how to look into them from Beane's time at the Senior Bowl:
1) Beane keeping an eye on the future rather than just the here and now for the offseason
- Of all the little nuggets of information that came from Beane's ten minutes from reporters, I think this one wound up being the most useful in his brand of roster building theory. It was brief, but oh so important, and occurred when discussing the topic of weighing offense versus defense in the draft -- but asked specifically about adding defense. The quote:
"Yeah, and I don’t know that there will ever be a year where I can sit here and say one side of the ball we don’t need. Free agency and injuries and things like that, you can almost always upgrade your talent on either side, and that’s why I think it’s always important. You know, you say, ‘Well, you didn’t need this position.’ Well, you’re one injury away, or this guy’s got one year left on a contract, and you want to draft a good player so that you can let that guy walk and not have to pay him $10, $15 million or whatever it is."
The last part of the quote is where you can read into it a bit. It's a smart strategy in roster building in not having a shortsighted, firefighter style, because having an eye on future situations helps yield more assets down the line whether it's in the form of cap space that you can use elsewhere, or in compensatory picks if some of your own unrestricted free agents sign for significant amounts elsewhere. Specifically, seeing who has an expiring deal in the future offseason -- and while I don't believe Beane was referring to anything specific, it's not a stretch to connect some dots here. The question was about defense and adding to that side of the ball, and the Bills just so happen to have two of their own defensive ends due to become unrestricted free agents in 2020 with Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson. And if we're talking about asset management, teams will overpay for pass rushers because that position is at a premium in free agency. So with those factors, and with a lot of top ten level talent off the edge likely available to them, I don't think any fan should be surprised to see an edge rusher selected at ninth overall. It's early yet, and the Bills still have to meet with all these players and figure out who fits schematically and from a personality standpoint. But with Beane's penchant for building toward tomorrow and taking advantage of every little thing he can, the Bills going pass rusher at nine -- you would think based on his quote -- provides sound logic in the eyes of the GM. If nothing else, those that want to rule out pass rusher just because of the presence of Hughes, Lawson, and Murphy should think again.
2) The balance between using free agency and the draft
- The NFL is a bit unique from any other league in America in how their offseason gets shaped. With hockey and baseball being more about free agency, the draft has less of a 'help now' feel to it. You can't equate those leagues to the NFL in that sense. The only comparable here is the NBA because you can find yourself in a need versus value situation. The trouble is, the NBA Draft comes before the start of their free agency so teams know how to attack the more immediate help in free agency and the NFL is the direct opposite of that. So Beane and other GMs around the league find themselves in that conundrum which forces a different approach to free agency. Beane made mention of looking at positions in the draft where they have a need, but there is also a good depth which can ultimately help them land one at some point in the first four rounds. If that's the case, they'll hold off on free agency and having to pay a premium to put out a fire on their roster. Whereas if it's the opposite -- with a more shallow position in the draft that year, there would be more of a push to address it in free agency. As the next month-and-a-half goes along and the values in the draft begin to crystallize in late February and early March, lining up that ideology with the Bills' offseason needs is an excellent exercise.
3) Drafting for need vs. value explained further
- Just a day after the 2018 season ended for the Bills, Beane made a bit of a buzzworthy statement about not drafting for need, and that he refuses to do that as long as he's the GM of the team. However, it's a more nuanced discussion than it is cut and dry. So, with almost a month passed between then and the Senior Bowl, Beane opened up the conversation a bit. His justification is that -- especially in the first round -- drafting at a spot for need only and reaching for that player with other, more talented players at different positions available is how teams can get themselves into trouble. He then brought up the situation of last year and had they stayed at 21 and taken a quarterback, it would have been them reaching to fill a need -- but because they moved up to get Josh Allen at seventh overall, they had the need and the value meet eye-to-eye. I think there's even more to the equation than Beane mentioned while he was keeping it more general, in the sense of positional weight and how much each spot should be valued by a team -- which ultimately factors into the full value of the prospect himself. All of that sounds great in theory, but having the gumption to pull it off in a pressurized situation is something Beane has to stand by. I asked him off to the side about that side of it, when he's on the clock and the potential of passing on someone that helps them right away for someone that's of higher value to them organizationally. His response:
"Well sometimes that’s not always the most popular decision and maybe not even in the building, and obviously with the fans, but you know, coaches, they want good players to help them execute and do their job better. But again, my job is to bring the best players that I can to the Buffalo Bills to give Sean and his staff. And if you start reaching, it may not hurt you immediately, but over time, you’re taking less talented players, your team is going to suffer a little bit."
As the first round goes, there isn't a real way to gauge what the Bills did in the first round in 2018 -- Beane's only draft in Buffalo -- because of the move up to get those two players at where they valued each player. We'll get a more definitive gauge of what the Bills do at ninth overall, and how it lines up with this draft theory.
4) Late-season youth making an impact in roster decisions?
- As the season went on for the Bills in 2018 and it became abundantly clear that they would be on the outside looking in on the playoffs midway through the season, that's right about when the Bills began to get a lot of time to their young players. The end goal was to see if any of those players, of the late round to undrafted variety, could help factor into the 2019 equation. It was notable that when asked about the topic, Beane brought up three names of most consequence -- which in itself means they're top of mind for him and his franchise. Those three names he mentioned, guard Wyatt Teller (fifth-round pick), wide receiver Robert Foster (undrafted), and cornerback Levi Wallace (undrafted). And while Beane didn't come right out and say that those three were guaranteed to be a starter in 2019, he was quick to say that their performances helped provide a bigger picture as to how they project. Beane said they'll still look to add competition to those spots, but it's clear the GM was impressed by what they could do and the potential for factoring into next season at least.
5) The offensive line laundry list
- Without question, one of the most significant need areas that exists for the Bills is along the offensive line. Given what Beane had to say about rookie guard Wyatt Teller, I think they're looking at him as an answer for 2019 which potentially lessens the need area by one. However, from there, the Bills have to decide how to attack the rest of it -- and for draft purposes, Beane seemed impressed by the crop of offensive linemen in Mobile for the Senior Bowl. Furthermore, the first thing that Beane pointed to with offensive linemen was with the prototypical measurements they look for at certain positions, whether it be height and weight, or with the overall length in arms and wingspan. On the whole, the Bills usually live by prototypical measurements based on the way they've drafted. Trying to pinpoint names at this point in the offseason is a bit fruitless, but the first thing to look at is the arm length on tackles. Generally, if you see 33 inches and up, it's an excellent place to start. The reason for that is about the length neutralizing either the power or speed of the opposing rusher and the longer the arm, the more likely it is for that player to get a hand on the edge player. Prototypes are prototypes for a reason, and that's why teams like the Bills try to follow them as closely as possible.