Sullivan: Beane may not say it, but Bills all-in on 2020

Jerry Sullivan

Early this month, Bills general manager Brandon Beane rejected the notion that his team was the favorite in the AFC East with Tom Brady set to walk away from the Patriots after two decades.

“Until somebody beats them, they are the team to beat,” Beane said. “And as long as Bill Belichick's there, you're talking about probably the greatest head coach of all time that was paired with the greatest quarterback of all time.”

It’s understandable that Beane would want to keep the pressure on New England and minimize rising expectations in Buffalo and around the league. But I’m sorry, the Bills are the team to beat in the AFC East, and Beane has himself to blame for assembling the best roster in the division.

How can they not be favored? The Bills won 10 games last season and should have won 11; they played the Patriots close. Then New England lost Brady and four defensive starters in the offseason while the Bills were trading for Stefon Diggs and adding four significant players to one of the NFL’s best defenses.

The Bills strengthened their case over the weekend, as Beane orchestrated a draft that was widely praised around the country and could position his team for a division title and deep playoff run in the fourth year of the Beane-Sean McDermott era.

You never can tell about drafts, as history will confirm. Teams get high marks for taking players who fell through the draft. We often find there was a good reason teams avoided the player. Other teams are vilified for poor drafts, but their “reaches” turn out to be sleepers who defied the sheep mentality among the draft gurus.

Still, at first blush this looks like a good draft for Beane and his personnel guys. If you consider Diggs the equivalent of a No. 1 pick — as ESPN’s Mel Kiper did in evaluating Buffalo’s draft as the fourth-best in the league — it looks even more solid for a playoff team that didn’t have any glaring needs in its starting lineup.

The one thing the Bills hadn’t done in the Beane-McDermott era was use a high pick on an edge rusher. They had used a first-rounder on a young star at all three levels of the defense: Tre’Davious White at cornerback in 2017, Tremaine Edmunds at middle linebacker in 2018 and Ed Oliver at defensive tackle in 2019.

So it was no surprise when they used the 54th overall pick on Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa. Beane said the top player on his board was available for four of his seven picks. That likely included Epenesa, who was considered a top-15 pick early in the draft process and was still a first-rounder on a lot of boards.

Epenesa’s lack of explosiveness and raw speed caused teams to turn away. Still, he’s solid value at 54 overall. He’s reminiscent of Phil Hansen, a defensive end who was the 54th overall pick in 1991. Epenesa has excellent technique and could start right away, which is what a team wants when its playoff window is wide open.

For the second straight year, Beane used a third-round pick on a running back. Fans can only hope Zack Moss is as great a value as Devin Singletary. Moss, a “downhill” runner, is the ideal complement to Singletary. He’s being compared with Frank Gore and will be a certain upgrade from Gore, who faded badly in 2019.

Beane, desperate to get bigger at wide receiver, grabbed two big wideouts later in the draft: Gabriel Davis of Central Florida in the fourth round and Oregon State’s Isaiah Hodgins in the sixth. They used a fifth-rounder on quarterback Jake Fromm, who should battle Matt Barkley for the backup job and could one day challenge Josh Allen if he doesn’t evolve as an NFL passer.

“Competition, competition, competition,” Beane said. That’s what true contenders have — a deep roster with talented guys who challenge each other in training camp and during the season.

It also should be a highly competitive year in the AFC East. The Pats have won 11 straight division titles and have one of the best coaches of all time in Belichick. But if you’ll pardon an old baseball fan’s analogy, they could be like the 1965 Yankees, who were coming off five straight World Series appearances — and nine out of 10 — and tumbled to a sub-.500 record and sixth place.

Last week, I spoke with former Bills general manager Bill Polian. He sees this as a transition year and said he “could see this division becoming as competitive as any in the league.”

“Bill will probably go bonkers when he hears these words,” Polian said of Belichick. “He’ll be pissed at me forever. But this looks to me like a bridge year for them. It’s hard to make up for losing Brady, at least in the short run.

“In many ways, this is a bridge year, an anomalous year for everybody,” Polian said of the loss of offseason preparation due to the coronavirus. “It’ll be different. It’s almost like the strike year of ’87, the replacement players. It’s disjointed in a lot of ways, and that was exceedingly disjointed.”

That should benefit the Bills, who are in the fourth year of a regime and have most of their key guys returning. Continuity will be especially critical after a lockdown, and they have a core of experienced players in the fourth year of "The Process.”

At season’s end, McDermott will be the first man since Marv Levy to serve four full seasons as Bills head coach. This is their year to go for it. They have rising young stars in their first contracts; that’s when teams in the salary cap era tend to make a title run. Money changes everything.

“This season is going to be like that ’87 season,” Polian said. “So the most important thing is for Sean and Brandon stay with the plan. Let’s hope that Josh can make the next step.”

Yes, much depends on whether Allen continues to improve in his third year as franchise QB. He has the weapons now. It will no longer be acceptable for him to finish at the bottom of the league in completion percentage and throw for 200 yards a game.

There’s an assumption that Allen is now the top quarterback in the AFC East, but it might not be that way for long.

Soon enough, he might be no better than third. Miami took Tua Tagovailoa at fifth overall, despite his injury history. If the Dolphins are right, they’ll be a contender for years to come. Tagovailoa is an extraordinary talent and a top-echelon quarterback if he’s healthy.

The Dolphins had a very good draft, adding a couple of young offensive linemen and pieces for the defense. They traded for running back Matt Breida. That’s on top of a busy offseason in which they fortified the defense with Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson.

Miami will be better. So will the Jets, who had a solid draft and went 6-2 in the second half last year after Sam Darnold got healthy. Polian thinks Darnold will be a solid, winning quarterback. I agree. I’d still take Darnold, a superior passer, over Allen.

That’s the inconvenient reality for Bills fans. Other teams get better, too, and the cycle can be short if you don’t get the quarterback right. Two more potential superstar QBs came into the AFC over the weekend: Joe Burrow of the Bengals, a much-improved team, and Tua.

So the Bills need to strike while they can. Beane knows it. That’s why he went for Diggs, rather than take a chance on an unproven rookie wideout in a win-now scenario. He can play the diplomat and pretend the Pats are the favorites, but this is the year for the Bills.

He’s done a nice job raising the bar. Now it’s time for them to jump over it.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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