Wednesday, May 22, 2024

After Stefon Diggs trade, Bills under pressure in NFL draft to answer for mounting losses

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Stefon Diggs is gone now, but with the clock ticking toward the NFL draft, his memory sure lingers over the Buffalo Bills.

Diggs caught 107 passes in 2023 and over the past four seasons teamed with Josh Allen to form one of the NFL’s most lethal passing combinations as Buffalo claimed four consecutive AFC East titles.

Go ahead, wonder whether it makes sense. Two weeks ago, the Bills stunned the NFL universe by trading the Pro Bowl receiver to the Houston Texans for the sum of a second-round pick – in next year’s draft, which automatically loses some value because of the wait time.

Weren’t the Bills supposed to be Super Bowl contenders again?

In dealing Diggs and bidding farewell to several other key veterans, the Bills suddenly look like a team in overhaul mode. Brandon Beane, of course, disputes the suggestion that they are throwing in the towel. The Bills GM insists that the idea of gunning for a championship in 2024 remains.

In any event, the heat is on as the Bills try to keep open the window of perhaps winning big with Allen. Last season, with Joe Brady around midseason taking over an offense that ranked fourth for total yards, Allen was supported by his most consistent running game yet, powered by James Cook. But like any quarterback, he still needed a money receiver, and that would be Diggs again. Now Beane is hard-pressed to replace Diggs’ production, which adds up to an NFL-high 445 catches, 5,372 yards and 37 TDs since he was obtained from the Minnesota Vikings in another stunning trade in 2020.

Even if Diggs wanted out, which is completely plausible, Beane was so accommodating that the Bills will eat $31 million against its salary cap this season rather than giving it another year. And he dealt him to a rising AFC contender, of all potential suitors, that Buffalo could see on the playoff trail. Not so typical.

Sure, the last time Diggs was traded for a high draft pick, the Minnesota Vikings parlayed that choice (18th overall) into Justin Jefferson, now among the league’s premier players. And wide receiver is arguably the deepest position in the upcoming draft. No fewer than four and perhaps as many as eight receivers will go off the board in Round 1, if the mock drafts are to be trusted.

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The Bills, currently situated with the 28th pick, likely won’t get a shot at one of the three receivers pegged to go in the top 10, but perhaps they can address their gaping hole near the end of the first round. Or they could trade up, which is what it might take to land, say, LSU’s Brian Thomas Jr..

Others likely on Buffalo’s radar: Adonai Mitchell (Texas), Keon Coleman (Florida State), Troy Franklin (Oregon), Ladd McConkey (Georgia).

We’ll see. Diggs is a proven commodity. Rookie receivers, while further along than they used to be when they hit the pros, are not always sure bets.

Undoubtedly, third-year pro Khalil Shakur, the only receiver still on the roster from 2023, will get a larger role. The big free agent pickup, Curtis Samuel, is a versatile player who has lined up in the backfield. And now he reunites with Brady from his Carolina days.

Yet it’s not just the Diggs departure that makes this draft so pivotal for the Bills, who currently hold 10 picks.  The other starting wideout, Gabe Davis, is also gone. So is longtime center Mitch Morse. The defense lost cornerback Tre’Davious White, safety Jordan Poyer, linebacker Leonard Floyd and safety Micah Hyde, too.

That’s a lot of manpower and leadership taken away from a group that just has had a stranglehold on the AFC East. And it underscores the enormous pressure facing Beane and Co. in this draft.

“It’s not September,” Beane said in the aftermath of the Diggs trade, “Every team is a new team. Every year is a new year. I don’t think it’s fair to assess what the 2024 Bills will look like…

“Let’s be patient and let us work through that.”

It’s not as though the cupboard that coach Sean McDermott is working with is bare. Beane has done impressive work in building the roster since arriving with McDermott in 2017. Their first draft netted White, Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano. The 2018 haul included Allen and Tremaine Edmunds, who last season joined the Chicago Bears on a four-year, $72 million contract.

Roster turnover is a given. It’s the NFL. The present challenge, though, is to keep the proverbial window open for a team that will be a lot younger this time around. And strapped with virtually no operating room under the salary cap, there are slim options. Beane needs to restock with a deep, banner draft class.

And hey, if it works out, they can dedicate the class to the memory of Mr. Diggs.

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