Two days after a decisive early playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the wound is still fresh in Buffalo.
Just ask Brandon Bean.
The Buffalo Bills general manager spoke to reporters Tuesday at his season-ending news conference following Buffalo’s 27-10 loss. He was asked if Buffalo should “adapt” to Cincinnati’s roster construction plan, which allows them to build a strong receiving corps. His response included a not-so-subtle shot at the franchise that just beat his:
“They have a good team,” Bean said. “Right now, they’re taking advantage of a rookie quarterback contract. They’ve had a couple of lean years without having to go too far into their build.
“I don’t want to be so bad that I have to take Ja’Marr Chase. He is a great talent. I would love to have it. But you have to go through lean years to do that.”
Bean’s point is clear, even if it is expressed with a heavy grain of salt. The Bengals built their roster with the distinct advantage of playing Joe Burrow on his rookie contract, which pays him $36.1 million over four years, before inevitably exercising a fifth-year option in 2024 or signing him to an extension that will increase his salary.
The Bengals have found the best winning formula in the NFL
The rush of a rookie quarterback who excels early in his career is the NFL’s ultimate rush. Having a Pro Bowl-level quarterback at a discount in a salary-constrained league allows for spending elsewhere and opens a prime window for success. The Seattle Seahawks won a Super Bowl with Russell Wilson on his rookie contract while using cap space to build a historically great defense. The Kansas City Chiefs similarly won a Super Bowl with Patrick Mahomes on his rookie contract before signing him to a 10-year, $450 million contract.
The Bills were in a similar position with Allen before he played on a $23.1 million option this season. He will begin the first year of a six-year, $258 million contract extension next season. The Bills’ window to build around Allen on the cheap is over. Beane obviously wants to clear that up as Buffalo’s roster structure has come under fire ahead of the cap-starved season.
The bills have glaring needs
The Bills were beaten on both sides of the line of scrimmage by the Bengals, and the limitations of their receiving talent outside of All-Pro Stefon Diggs were on full display as the Bills failed to score a touchdown through the air on Sunday. They could obviously use improvements in the trenches and at the skill positions, hence the question of Cincinnati’s superior receiving corps that includes Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.
And yes, it’s true that the Bengals had to “suck” to secure the draft picks that landed Burrow first overall in the 2020 draft and Chase at No. 5 a year later. Now, both players on rookie deals are fueling a franchise that is one win away from its second straight Super Bowl.
Can the Bills improve with a cap restriction, low draft picks?
The Bills, of course, had a similar window during Allen’s 2018-21 rookie contract. They have had success, but not to the same level as the Bengals, who have now surpassed them in the AFC standings ahead of schedule. The Bills won’t be picking first or fifth overall anytime soon, which means they’ll have to get creative to secure the roster upgrades they need.
Beane himself said as much while projecting Buffalo’s cap, as the roster is currently set at roughly $240 million for 2023. Next season’s NFL salary cap projects to be below that figure.
“There will be no Von Miller signature,” Beane said, according to the Buffalo News. ” … We’re going to be creative. We’re going to try to win. It’s up to me to figure it out. We’ve got to make draft picks, we’ve got to find cheap free agents who can find roles, whether it’s a key backup, a solid starter , whatever.”
So the Bills will have to play their cards right. While it helps to have a top pick, the talent to make a difference is found outside of the top 10 draft picks. The Minnesota Vikings took Justin Jefferson with the No. 22 pick in the 2020 draft — a pick they acquired from the Bills in the trade that sent Stefon Diggs to Buffalo. The Bengals selected Tee Higgins with the first pick of the second round of the same draft.
The Bills will select No. 27 overall in April, a pick that will come under heavy scrutiny. With the Bills’ window right now, they’ll be hard-pressed to find a player who can make an immediate impact, whether in the trenches or at receiver.
They will, as they look to keep pace with the Chiefs and Bengals, who don’t project to suck again anytime soon.