ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The genesis of the Buffalo Bills' potentially epic 2018 draft can be traced back to 51 weeks before they actually selecting quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds both within the first 16 picks on that hectic Thursday night.
The concept of being in position to grab a quarterback at the top of that draft was something coach Sean McDermott began discussing with general manager Brandon Beane shortly after the GM was hired last May 9, with their veteran starter, Tyrod Taylor, perhaps destined to be a mere bridge guy in Buffalo and not the solution at quarterback. The exercise of weeding out which players were going to be here for the long haul and which were possibly extraneous began almost immediately, and led directly to what occurred this past May. The process was considered paramount for the organization, and by August there were already tangible signs of this new direction, with young (sometimes highly-impactful) starters Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby -- recent high picks by the doomed prior regime -- shipped out in training camp blockbuster trades, a precursor to a flurry of activity that would continue into the season, and after February's scouting combine and, ultimately, twice more on the draft's opening night.
Beane and McDermott knew they would have to be highly aggressive and proactive at times, and yet patient and restrained at others, with the rookie head coach and rookie general manager -- who worked so well together as assistants in Carolina -- trying to re-craft a franchise adrift for 20 years without a playoff spot into a perennial challenger despite the lingering presence of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the AFC East. The maneuvering and planning and jockeying for position in the 2018 draft continued even as the Bills somehow managed to reach the postseason, with the front office maintaining the longview and Taylor's fate sealed when he was benched for Nathan Peterman before Thanksgiving despite Buffalo being in the thick of the wild-card hunt (Peterman, as many recall, threw five picks in the first half and was promptly benched).
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It required no shortage of guts and guile for the Bills to part with so many prominent players and accrue the assets to allow Beane to eventually hold pick Nos. 7 and 16 in the first round. That included also trading former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus -- once the highest-paid player in franchise history -- and starting left tackle Cordy Glenn along the way, shocking even themselves in the process as Beane never considered a scenario where he ended the first round with both Allen and Edmunds, not in all of the thousands of hours put into scouting and preparations for what was always going to be a defining draft.
"It's a quarterback league; you've either got one or you don't," Beane told me during an extended sit-down chat. "And we were getting to know Tyrod and Tyrod brought a lot of good things for us, but we decided as the season moved on that we were probably going to go in a different direction, and at the same time we were still thinking, 'OK, if Tyrod is our guy we'll draft other things, and if not, we'll be ready to move forward.' And that planning really started in August with some of the moves we made, and to add the draft capital that we did."
Sorting through the QB maze
Beane knew by last summer that the 2018 draft could shape into a quarterback anomaly. Even then, before Baker Mayfield morphed from mid-range prospect to the first overall pick, the Bills figured a record-tying five passers might go in the first round, with the run on them starting early. And with the future of Hall of Famer Drew Brees uncertain, to say nothing of proven winners like Kirk Cousins and Alex Smith to veteran Band-Aids like Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, to possible future starters like Teddy Bridgewater and AJ McCarron (whom the Bills eventually signed as QB insurance in March), you could see a wild 2018 QB carousel forming even before the 2017 season began.
Which meant the Bills were going to have to be prepared for anything, and there was no time to waste. Early in training camp they were engaged with numerous teams in trade talks that would send Watkins, who previous GM Doug Whaley mortgaged the future to move up and draft fourth overall in 2014, to the Rams and Darby, a 2015 second-round pick, to the Eagles, and Cardale Jones, who had made his debut at quarterback for Buffalo the year before, to the Chargers. Those were not players the Bills were going to invest in with second contracts, and they could bring back pieces that could lead to a quarterback. And at the very same time Beane was also already well into his initial evaluations of the 2018 quarterback draft class.
"Last August we started flipping on the film of these guys from the previous season," Beane said. "Josh Allen at Wyoming and [Josh] Rosen from the previous year at UCLA and [Sam] Darnold and all of those guys, and getting to know Baker [Mayfield] and Mason Rudolph and Lamar [Jackson]. You're going, 'Man there are a lot of different flavors here.' It's going to be kind of, 'What do you want?'
"And it's funny how it turned out. People were still trying to predict [just before the draft] who was going one and who was going two, and if it was a different team other than the Browns [picking first overall], they probably had their own order as well. So that was the unique thing of this draft -- there was no, this is Andrew Luck, give him the jersey in February, and once he gets to the combine we know he's the number one pick. There wasn't that and that added some spice to it."
Beane would spend no shortage of weekends watching these college quarterbacks with his own eyes. Sometimes it dovetailed with the Bills schedule -- with the team already in Southern California around the time when USC (Darnold) faced UCLA (Rosen). Often it did not, with his travels taking him across the country on a scouting mission. Beane ended up seeing Darnold play live more than anyone else, not so much by design but due to scheduling and weather, too. A visit to campus to see Allen was scuttled when the quarterback was injured and Beane planned on attending his bowl game but then changed gears when Allen announced he would be going to the Senior Bowl in January.
That's where they first began to chat with the prospect, who was already generating plenty of buzz as the potential first-overall pick. He had the size and the perfect NFL arm and plenty of moxie and leadership and toughness (clips of Allen laying out defenders with blocks were shared among scouting staffs around the league during his 2016 season). There would be concerns about accuracy and footwork, for sure, and initially at those Senior Bowl meetings the prospect came across as a little timid and unsure to the Bills, though that first impression would fade away the more they got to know him.
By the time Allen ran and threw at the combine -- showing rare athleticism and velocity -- jaws were dropping. And the Bills were adjusting their plans as well. They were holding the 21st and 22nd overall picks at the time (the second of those the result of a draft-day trade with the Chiefs the year before), and it was clear that four or five quarterbacks were going to go in the first 10 picks even before they began making private visits with NFL teams or any Pro Day throws.
"Here's the thing, we knew 21 and 22 wasn't going to get a guy that we really felt great about," Beane said, "but the thing was, and what I didn't know at the combine, was how many we liked. Did we like one? Did we like two? Because I liked more than one on film, but really, some of these guys, going into the combine, I hadn't spent any time with to get to know them. Sean and I are really big on culture and fit, and obviously at that position of all positions, the intangibles matter so much.
"So I was not willing to go up -- unless you are going to tell me I could go up to one -- to go up but so high until I knew how many we liked and where we needed to get to. If we liked three, unless you can get into the top three, you can't do it. If you like two, getting to three doesn't help you. So it wasn't really until we visited with all of these guys in March. And by the end of March I had a good feeling about how many we really liked."
A few weeks after the combine Beane and McDermott felt comfortable enough with the top of the draft class to make their next foray. Back at the trade deadline in midseason they spoke to numerous teams about Dareus and Glenn, landing good value from the Jags for the defensive tackle on an outsized contract, but holding on to Glenn. It was only a matter of time this offseason before they moved the left tackle, too -- the Bills' line performed well without the oft-injured Glenn in 2017 -- and on March 12 they sent him to the Bengals in a trade that got Buffalo to 12th overall, much closer to quarterback terrain.
Beane figured, accurately, that this would be a weak draft for left tackles, and expected the trade value for Glenn to be higher after than season than it was in November. The Bengals' line has been in disarray after some prominent free-agent defections (most notably left tackle Andrew Whitworth in 2017) and Beane knew he needed to get much closer to the top 10.
"When we made the trade with Bengals I still had not met all of these [quarterbacks] yet, because that was before we had done all the privates [visits]," Beane said. "But I knew that was a second-round value when we took a large jump up, and now we're in striking range. And the whole goal was to build up enough capital that we could move up and not forfeit a 2019 [first-round pick], or one of those high picks. And fortunately we didn't surrender any of them.
"I was open to a later 2019 [pick], but we really wanted to keep all of those top picks. So having the piece with Cordy to go to 12, that still saved all of those picks and got us in range. ... Then we kind of started figuring out where guys would fall, and where could we land to get a guy who fits what we want to do here."
The target comes into focus
By April the Bills had spent some time with the five quarterbacks who would eventually go in the first round; Beane and McDermott had whittled their wish list down to just a few. Beane still won't divulge exactly how many or precisely which passers beyond Allen they were prepared to leap into the top 10 to take, though from my pre-draft reporting, I do know they continued to do research and make calls to former coaches and those close to Rosen and Darnold in the days before the draft. They clearly preferred Allen to Rosen -- they had their pick of either at seventh overall and were undeterred by some old, racially insensitive Tweets by Allen that came to light just before the draft.
"I haven't given up exactly how many, but we definitely liked several guys," Beane said.
Allen helped his stock with a strong Pro Day and with how he handled himself during meetings with Bills ownership and management, both at Wyoming and in Buffalo. The more film they reviewed the more his best attributes stood out to them, with Beane still raving about Allen's gutty performance against Colorado State, a 16-13 Wyoming win under duress in November in which Allen completed just 10 of 20 passes for 138 yards and no scores, and accounted for just 198 total yards.
"It was a snow game," Beane said. "In the first half it rained and in second half it snowed, and he was not only their running game and throwing game, he was their whole offense and he willed that team to victory. His stats, if you look at his stats, they look terrible. But if you watch the tape, that's where you see a guy that carried his team to victory."
When Beane went to watch Allen play he paid almost as close attention to how he conducted himself on the sidelines -- keeping cool and rallying lesser teammates who routinely let him down with mistakes and dropped passes -- as he did to what was happening between the lines. His attitude and team-first ethos won the Bills over through the process. The subsequent time they spent with Allen leading up to the draft -- after that shaky interaction at the Senior Bowl -- backed up everything he had seen on film or from the binoculars in the press box.
"We met Josh for the first time at the Senior Bowl and spent about a half hour with him, and it was tough," Beane said. "He was super nervous and I thought he was trying too hard, as some of the other ones were. He was just really wanting to impress.
"When we flew to Laramie his flight was late and he was flying from L.A. to Denver and I think he felt bad that he was late for dinner and he showed up and I was like, 'Man, we've got our owners here, he's going to feel really [nervous].' And he was relaxed and calm and confident. It was like he was a different kid than we saw two months earlier. It just felt natural with him.
"And we brought him here to Buffalo too. You know we saw him in his surroundings in Laramie, so let's bring him to our surroundings, and he just seemed like one of our type of guys. And you saw that leadership and the things I saw on the sidelines when I saw him play live. Even at the Senior Bowl he was high-fiving linemen, patting guys on the butt, clapping all the time. He's into it every play. It wasn't about him, it was about the team, the we, and that's what I think is really important."
Beane emerged from the final organization meetings, setting the board and ranking all of the prospects, and then lived on his phone for the week or so leading up to the draft. He was canvassing for trade options, focused on particular hotspots within the first seven picks. By then it was clear the Browns were taking Mayfield or Darnold, most assumed the Giants were out of the QB market with the second pick and the Jets would take whichever passer the Browns didn't take (Mayfield or Darnold) with the third-overall pick.
Then things got much murkier. Cleveland was exploring trade options moving down from fourth overall and Denver, at five, was always Beane's most logical trade partner, as most teams did not anticipate the Broncos taking a quarterback that high after giving Keenum legit guaranteed money through the 2020 season and, like the Giants, still more in win-now mode despite an awful 2017 campaign.
"I talked to all of the teams from the Giants to Cleveland at four, and obviously there was no sense talking to Jets since they had traded up and were drafting the same position as us," Beane said. "And I talked to Denver. Those were the main teams that I talked to leading up to the draft. Those were the spots I was eying if we want to get a guy.
"And really, some of it was poker. ... Sometimes you're talking to teams trying to figure out what they're going to do, and whether they are willing to move or not willing to move. And I'm sure they were doing the same with us that we were doing. It was no secret."
By the afternoon of draft day, Beane had what he believed was a fairly firm handle on how that night would unfold. Turns out he knew which quarterback he was going to end up with, but not much else.
"If you had bet me an hour before the draft started I would have told you were going to move up to five," Beane said.
The draft finally begins
Beane had a deal in place with the Broncos right as the draft began that would have cost him both picks 12 and 22 in the package, and was contingent upon one factor: Bradley Chubb, the consensus best defensive player in the draft and far-and-away the best pass rushing prospects among a limited field, being off the board when the Broncos selected. Seemed like something of a given, but when the Browns threw the first real curveball of the night and selected corner Denzel Ward fourth overall, Beane was back on the hunt. Not that he ever took the Denver deal for granted, as he continued probing his counterparts to have contingencies in place with the either the Colts (sixth), Bucs (seventh) or 49ers (ninth).
"On draft day we did have some conversations with teams [picking] six through 10 just to say, 'Hey, if things don't go our way we may be trying to move up with you.' But nothing deep until Chubb went, and then we really started getting on the phone with Indy again and Tampa and San Francisco and so on."
The Colts, with Chubb gone, were fixated on landing the best offensive lineman in the draft, Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson, but Tampa was amenable to various ideas. The Bucs knew if they dropped from 7 to 12, at least two more quarterbacks would be selected plus a linebacker or two and probably a corner -- meaning a top safety or a defensive lineman Vita Vea would quite likely still be on the board (they ended up taking Vea). Beane knew the Cardinals -- who would eventually move up to take Rosen 10th overall -- were also talking to the same teams as Buffalo about trade-up scenarios, so there was some trepidation right up until the Bills officially landed the seventh overall pick in exchange for the 12th, 53rd and 56th picks.
"Until you have your name on the clock," Beane said, "and they have agreed and they've called the league office, and said this trade is official, you never know. And I even had in my head, with Tampa there -- [GM] Jason Licht came from Arizona and he and [Cardinals GM] Steve Keim are very close -- so even as we were making the trade with them I was worried until you know, hey, they've called the league office and we've called the league office and we've both said that these trade parameters are good and it's the Buffalo Bills' pick. ... Until they told us that I didn't take a deep breath and say, 'Okay, we've got our guy."
Somehow, Beane still had possession of the 22nd overall pick, and once the initial rush of adrenaline wore off and he got off the phone with Allen, he was preparing to strike again. Under several of his mock draft scenarios, had Buffalo been unable to move up to draft a QB, he had the team sticking at 12 and grabbing Edmunds. Problem was, more often than not his pre-draft recon had him skeptical the monster linebacker with unreal raw talent and still just age 19 would even make it outside the top 10, especially with San Francisco and Oakland both looking long and hard at linebackers.
New Orleans made one of the boldest moves of the draft, moving up from 27th to 14th overall to select Marcus Davenport (you can check out my sitdown with Sean Payton outlining that process here). The Raiders had been auctioning off the 10th overall pick for months, and ended up sitting at 15th overall after the Cardinals moved up to 10 to take Rosen. Beane was talking to the Raiders leading up to pick 15, and was also engaged in trade talks with Ravens Hall of Fame GM Ozzie Newsome, who was in his final draft and had made it known for weeks that he was very interested in trading down (he ended up doing so twice in the first round before moving up to take Jackson 32nd overall ending the historic run on quarterbacks). Beane was worried the Raiders were going to take his guy, Edmunds, leading to serval anxious minutes to learn if his agreed upon trade with Baltimore would end up expunged like his pact with the Broncos was (which, again, would have cost him pick 22 already had it gone through).
"We had tried to trade with Oakland ... and they were like, 'No, we're taking the pick,'" Beane said. "So I called Ozzie and we agreed to the terms while Oakland was still on the clock and he said, 'Let me know if your guy is still there.' So until I heard them say it was Kolton Miller you had to assume that they were taking Tremaine. And if they had we would have stayed pat at 22."
Finally, Beane could exhale. The first night of his first draft as a general manager was nearing its end. And he had accomplished far more than he could have ever expected. Beane had never fathomed, in countless hours of prep time, a single scenario in which Allen and Edmunds were both his.
"You know what's funny, I made a mistake in all in my mocks," Beane said, expressing a sentiment every draft fan knows firsthand, as well. "I did like five mocks and I did some where we stayed at 12 and picked who was there. And I did some where we traded up to 4 and 5. And I think one (trading up) to 6, but all of them cost us 22, and so we went all the way into the second round [with the mocks], because we had the two twos, to see where it went.
"I never kept 22 and traded up. So that was the one thing I made a mistake on. And you know, it hit me when we were there [drafting Edmunds] that I probably should have done a better job [with mock scenarios]. But I never saw Tremaine [at 16]. It's funny, in one of our mocks Tremaine was the guy we were hoping to get at 12, because we couldn't trade up and there wasn't a quarterback there we want. So we were thrilled to get him at 16."
The spoils of all of this labor won't be clear for years to come. The hulking quarterback and the hulking linebacker might become lynchpins of the organization, and the foundation for a return to glory. No one could have scripted all of the conversations and maneuvers that went into landing these two prospects over the course of a year, and now the future of the Buffalo Bills is in their hands.
"They've obviously put a lot of trust in me and what I can do and what I'm hopefully going to do," Allen said when asked about all of the trades and transactions the franchise made to reach the point to be able to draft him. "And in the meantime, I'm learning. I'm learning from AJ and Nate and just trying to be the best teammate possible and taking in everything and just trying to learn how to be a pro. Ultimately, we're looking at long-term success down the road, and that starts now."