Bills

Bills begin rebuild, NFL power rankings and Ezekiel Elliott suspension

The Buffalo Bills are throwing in the towel on 2017, even if they won’t admit it. Is general manager Brandon Beane smart, crazy or both?

On Friday afternoon, all hell broke loose in the NFL. First, the Dallas Cowboys lost star running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games due to a violation of the personal conduct policy (more on that below). Then, while Twitter was in a collective fury over the length of Elliott’s ban, the Bills pulled off a pair of trades that shocked the football world.

First, former first-round selection Sammy Watkins was dealt to the Los Angeles Rams along with a 2018 sixth-round pick. In return, Buffalo received corner E.J. Gaines and a second-round selection next year.

In the second move, the Bills acquired receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round choice from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for cornerback Ronald Darby.

In essence, Buffalo moved Watkins, Darby and a sixth-round pick for Matthews, Gaines, a second-round pick and a third-round choice.

Ultimately, these moves tell us a few things. One, Buffalo won’t be reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1999 any time soon. Second, Beane is committed to building through the draft and going very young, all while acknowledging the current roster is nowhere near contender status.

While I believe Beane got too little from the Rams, and shouldn’t have dealt a promising young corner in Darby, I applaud him for the direction he is taking the franchise. Buffalo has long been stuck in neutral. The Bills have been too talented to earn a top pick, but not good enough — especially at quarterback — to win anything significant. In sports, hell is much better than purgatory, and Buffalo has been taking up prime real estate there for two decades.

The Bills have already said that these trades aren’t an indication that they have given up on 2017, but that’s a lie. Buffalo is thinking about 2018 and beyond, armed with multiple picks in the first and second rounds.

Matthews and Gaines are both free agents after this season, furthering the realization that Beane was only interested int the picks. With that in mind, he should be looking to trade LeSean McCoy to the highest bidder, while simultaneously dangling Tyrod Taylor in front of quarterback-needy teams. Taylor is 28 years old and has a $9.7 million cap hit this season before an $18 million hit in 2018. In today’s NFL, that’s a downright bargain.

Beane sees the writing on the wall. Until Tom Brady retires or erodes to average, the Bills have no chance of competing in the AFC East. The ceiling is a wild card berth and a pounding in the first round. For years, the Bills have foolishly acquired veterans in the hopes of being relevant. There was Mario Williams and Kyle Orton, Terrell Owens and Drew Bledsoe. None of it ever helped.

Now, the Bills plot a new course. It will be a painful one at first, with many losses and some empty seats at New Era Field come December. Still, it’s the right path to travel provided Beane can do something no general manager since Bill Polian has done in Buffalo: draft well and retain.

We’ll see if Beane and the Bills are up to the challenge.

Power rankings

Top 10 seasons by rookie QB since 1960

1. Dak Prescott, 2016 (3,667 yards, 23 TDs, 4 INTs, 13-3 rec.) – Dallas Cowboys
2. Ben Roethlisberger, 2004 (2,621 yards, 17 TDs, 15-0 rec.) – Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Joe Namath, 1965 (2,220 yards, 18 TDs, 9 starts) – New York Jets
4. Dan Marino, 1983 (2,210 yards, 20 TDs, 9 games) – Miami Dolphins
5. Russell Wilson, 2012 (3,118 yards, 26 TDs) – Seattle Seahawks
6. Peyton Manning, 1998 (3,739 yards, 26 TDs, 28 INTs) – Indianapolis Colts
7. Andrew Luck, 2012 (4,374 yards, 23 TDs) – Indianapolis Colts
8. Robert Griffin III, 2012 (3.200 yards, 20 TDs) – Washington Redskins
9. Cam Newton, 2011 (4,051 yards, 35 total TDs) – Carolina Panthers
10. Joe Flacco, 2008 (2,971 yards, 14 TDs, 2 playoff wins) – Baltimore Ravens

Quotable

“He said, ‘This is something I’ve done for 11 years — it’s not a form of anything other than me being myself,’ ” Del Rio said in a postgame news conference. “I said, ‘So you understand how I feel, I very strongly believe in standing for the national anthem, but I’m gonna respect you as a man. You do your thing, OK, and we’ll do ours.’ “

– Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio on Marshawn Lynch sitting during the anthem

On Saturday night, Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch wasn’t dressed to play, but remained on the sideline during their loss to the Arizona Cardinals. During the national anthem, Lynch decided to sit, something he has been doing intermittently for years. Of course, the gesture is gaining national attention due to both the country’s climate and Colin Kaepernick’s plight.

Lynch is getting blowback, but it’s tepid to this point. Despite being a 31-year-old back coming out of retirement (following an injury-riddled season), Lynch had no issue finding a job. Kaepernick, 29, threw 16 touchdowns against four picks and can’t land work.

I don’t believe Kaepernick is being blackballed, but his political stance is certainly factoring into his unemployment. It’s incredible to think a good team couldn’t use his services in either a starter or backup role. Wouldn’t the Denver Broncos immediately be a better team? Couldn’t the New York Giants, Los Angeles Chargers, Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons or Tennessee Titans use him as insurance?

Regardless, Lynch is continuing to be a rogue character, something the Raiders have always embraced.

Podcast

Why the Jets are doing the right thing, and whether the Dolphins are smart or foolish to sign Jay Cutler. Plus Peter Bukowski stops by to talk Ezekiel Elliott and Deshaun Watson, while Josh Hill gives us his keys for the Buccaneers to reach the postseason.

This week, I break down the week that was on the field, and what we should look for in Week 2. Plus, former NFL scout and scribe Matt Williamson stops by to talk rookie quarterbacks, what the Cowboys will look like without Ezekiel Elliott and which teams are poised to surprise.

Random stat

There have been nine 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history. Drew Brees has five of them, while Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Matthew Stafford each have one. All except Marino’s came in or after 2008. Marino accomplished the feat in 1984, a year when only two other quarterbacks eclipsed 4,000 yards (Neil Lomax and Phil Simms).

Info learned this week

1. How do the rookie quarterbacks look?

The very-early returns are in on the rookie quarterbacks, and all get high marks. DeShone Kizer was particularly impressive, throwing for 184 yards and two long touchdowns in a win over the New Orleans Saints. It wasn’t about the stats, though, but more his ability to move in the pocket before delivering accurately with a quick motion.

Mitchell Trubisky also shined in his debut, going 18-of-25 for 166 yards and a touchdown. Trubisky was generally given safe calls to execute, but he did so without fail. He won’t start over Mike Glennon to begin the season, but if Thursday was any indication, the wait won’t be long. Glennon finished the night with a pick-six and a 0.0 passer rating.

In Kansas City, the Chiefs are salivating over Patrick Mahomes. The 10th-overall pick was terrific against the San Francisco 49ers, showing excellent pocket presence and a strong arm. Mahomes was 7-of-9 for 49 yards and a score, along with a holding penalty that wiped away a 41-yard gain on a nice deep ball. On Sunday, Mahomes was elevated to second-string in Kansas City’s first practice following its game.

Finally, Deshaun Watson showed poise and a good understanding of the offense for the Houston Texans. Watson missed on some intermediate windows, but he showed plenty. All told, Watson ran for a touchdown and completed 15-of-25 for 179 yards.

All four youngsters have plenty to learn, but each have already looked better than any effort we’ve seen from Jared Goff or Paxton Lynch, two first-round quarterbacks a year ago.

2. Ezekiel Elliott finally gets suspended

After months of rumors, the NFL finally suspended Ezekiel Elliott for six games without pay, due to violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. The All-Pro has been accused of domestic violence along with yanking a woman’s shirt down at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. In a letter to Elliott explaining the ban, the NFL warned him that banishment would be on the table for his next misstep.

The suspension has many outraged. First, Elliott was never charged with a crime, and obviously never found guilty of one. Meanwhile, former New York Giants kicker Josh Brown received a one-game ban for domestic violence that he admitted to. The inconsistency here is fair to point out, but it doesn’t justify Elliott getting a light sentence if he’s guilty of abuse.

All that said, Elliott, Jerry Jones and their lawyers are coming full-force for Roger Goodell and the league. If the NFL made any mistakes, or handled this anywhere near as poorly as it did with the DeflateGate saga, things are going to get very ugly.

3. Ravens need a healthy Joe Flacco

If there was any doubt about this, there shouldn’t be after Thursday night. Baltimore beat the Washington Redskins 23-3, but quarterback Ryan Mallett was atrocious. Mallett, who started for Flacco due to the veteran being out with a back injury, was 9-of-18 for 58 yards. If you do the math, that’s 3.2 yards per attempt. Many balls were inaccurate and underthrown, being left up for grabs.

Mallett won’t win many games with the supporting cast around him in Baltimore if Flacco has a setback and misses regular-season time. The Ravens don’t seem concerned about the situation, but if Mallett sees any real game action, they will be sunk.

4. Sean Smith looks completely unplayable

The Oakland Raiders started their season on Saturday against the Cardinals, and things continued to be ugly for corner Sean Smith. Smith, who signed with Oakland last offseason to the tune of four years and $40 million, has already been banished to the second-string. Against the Cardinals, Smith took a pair of penalties and routinely got beat on a variety of routes.

The Raiders have all but admitted his signing was a major error. Smith won’t play ahead of Gareon Conley, David Amerson or T.J. Carrie, which isn’t exactly a star-studded group. Oakland also won’t cut him, considering he has a $9.25 million dead money hit with just $250,000 in savings. Luckily, the Raiders can cut Smith after this season and save $17.5 million over the next two seasons.

5. Best matchup of Week 2?

The Panthers and Titans squaring off on Saturday afternoon should be intriguing. How does Marcus Mariota, the shooting star for many this offseason, play against a loaded Carolina front seven? On the other side, can the Panthers continue to see electrifying plays out of Christian McCaffrey, who looked good in his preseason debut?

We’ll also look at the Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, with Paxton Lynch getting the start. Lynch was bad against Chicago on Thursday night, and this could be his last stand in the competition against Trevor Siemian. For the 49ers, does the young defense continue to evolve behind the duo of Reuben Foster and Solomon Thomas?

History lesson

The Minnesota Vikings are the only NFC team to reach at least three Super Bowls and lose all of them. Minnesota has been a participant four times on Super Sunday, only to come up empty on each occasion.

The only other teams league-wide to appear in multiple Super Bowls without a victory are the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles.

Parting shot

When you are watching preseason games, don’t get caught up in the final score. Need proof? The Jacksonville Jaguars beat the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium on Thursday night. With all due respect to Jacksonville, that isn’t happening when real money is on the line.

Instead, watch how your rookies are developing. Are the second and third-year players starting to show maturity in certain traits, whether it is route-running or going through progressions? If you have one of the aforementioned rookie quarterbacks, what does the footwork look like? Are they making the right decisions and avoiding traffic?

Preseason football is all about learning for young players, and not getting hurt for the older ones. If your team goes 0-4 but emerges without a serious injury, you hit the jackpot.

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