(WKBW) — Smack dab in the middle of all the offseason planning and execution of strategies to add to rosters, and the NFL Annual Meeting becomes the hotbed of the league in late March every year. And as all the key decision makers around the league descended upon Phoenix, the initial day provided Bills fans with insight from the general manager of the roster.
Brandon Beane spoke to the local media for a little over 15 minutes, and while he didn't come right out and give the keys to his roster or his draft plans, there is still much to be gleaned from the GM. The main takeaways?
Five things I learned from Brandon Beane about the 2019 Bills:
1) Stacking the first-round board with weighted positions?
- It's always a tricky thing for general managers. Without question, every year, the best chip they have to add significant talent to their team is through the first round of the draft. Teams can either choose to trade that asset away for established talent or they can invest in a young player that they hope will be an impact player for them. Getting that pick right is what will often make or break a general manager's career, which is why stacking the board correctly is so important. And from what Beane said, stacking the board first has to adhere to the value of the player, but the premium positions that teams value most are factored into the initial rundown of the board as well.
"To me, you draft the best player available. If the so-called premium positions are gone, or if you don't have a guy that is up there at a premium position, you shouldn't take him just because its a non. You should 100-percent of the time take the best player on your board. But, you're considering that where you value him on the board, whether it's a high-first round, mid-first round, or low-first round."
I think it's important to know that there are weighted positions when it comes to what teams value highly -- and the Bills aren't any different. Now, when you put it together with things that Beane has said in the past, the 'premium' positions he's alluded to before have been at quarterback, finding ways to affect the quarterback, and players to protect the quarterback. I think it will be important to remember that quote, in context with past quotes, when the first round comes along in late April.
2) Pegging values of a draft are of utmost importance
- Building off that, there's a bit more of a complexity when it comes to utilizing your first-round selection. It would be unwise for a team to ignore the depth of positions -- making it an outright necessity for a team to have the values of players correct in their draft preparations. If they see fool's gold at a position more buried in the draft, they'll be more inclined to wait and not draft a player that could help their team right away. The same goes for the opposite side of the spectrum, if they don't correctly see the depth of a position in the draft and take one with a premium selection early on, that brings on criticism for not understanding the correct values of players. Think of the year Doug Whaley traded up to get Sammy Watkins, while all of that talent at wide receiver went later on in the draft. To this day, that was one of the weaknesses of the Whaley era in Buffalo. From Beane on Monday:
"If there's truly depth at any position then that allows you push that need down the draft."
As we continue to try and figure out the draft puzzle with the Bills, trying to identify positions with depth in the second, third, and fourth rounds could dissuade them from using a first-round selection on them.
3) Is a tight end in the first round worth it?
- When it comes to premium positions, one that isn't usually a go-to for decisions makers in the NFL is tight end. Since 2011, teams have only used a first-round selection on a tight end six times -- and the results of those players becoming the high-impact ones they were billed to be have been mostly mixed. The list: Tyler Eifert, Eric Ebron, OJ Howard, Evan Engram, David Njoku, and Hayden Hurst. A few of those have plenty of potential and Eifert's injuries have defined his career, but none of them have become the star the teams had been hoping for yet. Meanwhile, other teams have found those types of high impact tight ends later on in the draft that has outperformed the higher-billed players. It's likely why many teams stay away, even though having a great tight end can have a dramatic impact for a team. The position is one that the Bills could conceivably select with the first-round pick -- even as early as ninth overall -- in the hopes that he can become Brian Daboll's Rob Gronkowski in Buffalo. However, would Beane shy away from it because tight end has been historically weak? Not necessarily. Beane said, "if you value them in the first, then you should take them in the first." He even went on to reference the wide receiver position that has had some pretty big busts, but that the historical data wouldn't replace the individual and positional grades the team has. Nothing that I heard from Beane dissuaded me from thinking that adding a tight end in the first round is out of the realm of possibilities. The depth chart still lacks a big-time threat, and while Tyler Kroft has potential and signed to a substantial amount for his first year, I don't think it would preclude them from taking one if they felt strongly enough.
4) Bills like Levi Wallace, but aren't going to put all their hopes on him
- The annual meeting opened up with the news that the Bills signed cornerback EJ Gaines, a player that started plenty of games for the team in 2017 and proved to be a more-than-useful player. Gaines, who has struggled with injuries over the last two seasons, saw a clear opportunity with the Bills to regain a starting role in a system that he knows he can flourish. The trouble is, the Bills saw the young Levi Wallace step up in a big way over the last half of the season, and is a definite candidate to take the job over for the long term if he continues to show the same. The Bills also signed Kevin Johnson to compete for the starting job, which means this is going to be a true-to-form three-person competition for the starting job. Beane said the Bills aren't in the business of "handing out jobs," and while they like what Wallace did in 2018, he isn't going to enter into the starting lineup for the upcoming campaign automatically. The Bills did similar things last offseason and into training camp with one of their notable young players -- Matt Milano -- to make him realize that he has to earn the right to start. After a brief hiccup in camp, he did and hadn't looked back. The Bills will hope that Wallace makes those strides in training camp and preseason as Milano did in 2018 because they have him under contract control for the next three seasons, but they aren't willing to bet on it just yet. I wouldn't view the Johnson and Gaines additions as a slight to Wallace, only as insurance if he has a sophomore slump.
5) Pegulas providing Beane with freedom and without micromanaging
- I'm always fascinated to learn about the dynamics within a football organization as to how decisions get made and the level of empowerment the front office has to make the, at times, difficult decisions. And with the Bills, we've seen Beane be aggressive at a lot of different turns -- whether it be through trades or in their signings. However, none of that would be possible if he didn't feel comfortable enough to make the moves, which is why this quote stood out to me from Monday:
"I've made mistakes along the way. I'm probably going to make more. And I appreciate Terry and Kim [Pegula] that they... that's one of the things that Terry said. He said, 'I can live with honest mistakes, they're going to happen.' It's freeing to know that you don't have to feel like you're being judged every time you make a move and it doesn't work out exactly the way you thought. And that's why I'm going to continue at times to be aggressive when it needs to be aggressive."
Now, don't get me wrong, micromanaging environments can be useful in some workplaces. However, there is a certain degree of ownership that an employee charged in making big decisions has to feel on his overall job. And if that employee feels empowered to take risks without the risk of failure, that's when you see growth, creativity, and learning. Stifling that creativity with fear is rarely conducive, and even as high a pressurized environment as the NFL is, having the trust from the organization to take risks without the ultimate repercussion in the front of mind is usually a great situation. However with the Bills, they are right at the start of where the team has to show a bit of an upswing to their rebuild, so it's easy to afford that freedom to Beane and head coach Sean McDermott. The true test will be how Terry and Kim Pegula handle the adversity if the rebuild doesn't go exactly according to plan. At this point, they likely feel as though they have the right people in charge that are building the roster in a way they wanted it to be, and there isn't any reason to think otherwise right now. For a rebuild such as this one, they must practice patience -- and they've done an excellent job of that facet so far if the GM of the team is saying those types of things in a press conference setting. The longer the Pegulas can foster that environment -- as long as Beane shows results along the way as the team has the last two years in delivering on their promises -- the better it's likely to be for the long-term.