As Patrick Mahomes gears up for his first Super Bowl, it’s time to look back at why the Buffalo Bills passed on him and if they were justified in doing so.
The 2017 NFL Draft will live in infamy for the Buffalo Bills and all other quarterback-needy franchises that passed on now-Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. While many were not in a position to draft the quarterback out of Texas Tech, the Bills had the need and opportunity to select him at No. 10 overall.
Instead, they traded their pick to the Chiefs. The Bills received the No. 27 overall pick, a 2017 third-round pick and a 2018 first-round pick in exchange for their selection. The Chiefs selected their face of the franchise and the rest is history.
It’s easy to say that the Bills made a mistake in passing on Mahomes. In fact, nearly every franchise regrets not trading up to draft the reigning MVP. The Bills, however, had a sound reasoning in mind that I believe disqualifies them from the ridicule of missing out on Mahomes.
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The State of the Roster
The Buffalo Bills were in a state of disarray and dysfunction prior to the end of the 2016 season. Despite going 7-9, the Bills drastically underachieved with head coach Rex Ryan and general Doug Whaley. Upon his arrival, Ryan dismantled what was a top-five defense, hired his brother Rob Ryan to compound his mistakes and coached one of the least disciplined teams in the NFL. He was relieved of his duties before the end of his second season.
The Bills were attempting to turn over a new leaf in 2017, bringing in former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to change the culture in Buffalo. McDermott did just that, clearing out much of the underperforming talent on Buffalo’s roster. He began to strip the roster down to the studs and build from the ground up. He had the support of ownership and remaining players to implement a long-term rebuild.
The Bills were in no state to build around a young quarterback. They had one of the highest dead cap numbers in the league, little draft capital and an aging roster. Since Mahomes was described as a “project” by most evaluators, the Bills could not afford to thrust him into a lineup depraved of high-end talent. They would have set him up to fail.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, were in an ideal position to groom an inexperienced quarterback. At the time, they had just lost a nail-biter to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional Round and fielded a roster with talented offensive weapons. Alex Smith was the perfect bridge quarterback to teach Mahomes while being competitive in the interim.
With Andy Reid functioning as a quarterback guru and experienced offensive mastermind, the Chiefs were prepared to take on a project in Mahomes. McDermott, in his first year of coaching a dysfunctional franchise, already shouldered too much responsibility; his Bills were not ready to put all of their chips in on one player.
The State of the Front Office
The Bills front office was also not set in stone. Bills owner Terry Pegula elected to hire his head coach before selecting a general manager, choosing Sean McDermott to run the operation with GM Doug Whaley as a figurehead. Not wanting to rush the GM decision or lose all of the valuable scouting Whaley’s staff had done leading up to the draft, the Bills chose to keep Whaley as an interim general manager until after the draft.
That mistake proved costly, as the Bills became apprehensive to make big decisions without the guidance of a long-term general manager. While they gave out several large contracts in free agency, most notably to safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, they did not want to decide on the future of the franchise without the front office intact.
Under this circumstance, the Bills made a wise decision. They traded back to collect assets and push the ultimate quarterback decision down the road. Not only could they use these selections to rebuild a weak roster in the short-term, but they could utilize these future picks as ammunition to trade up in what was projected to be a historic 2018 quarterback class.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, had a stable front office led by long-time general manager John Dorsey. With multiple draft selections, a talented roster and years of experience and good grace among ownership, they understood they could take a shot on the quarterback of the future. They had the luxury of organizational stability to take the risk.
With the front office unsettled and Whaley on his way out, the Bills elected to give the future GM a full cupboard of draft picks when he arrived. Doing so obviously cost them a shot at the MVP, but electing not to hamstring the new GM with a project he could not hand-pick was sound reasoning. Instead, the Bills could reshape their front office with more cap space and draft picks than previous iterations had at their disposal.
The State of the Quarterback
Depending on the direction of the franchise, having an average quarterback can be more of a detriment than having no quarterback at all. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Bills understood they needed some level of stability at the quarterback position to get through the 2017 season. Tyrod Taylor had been relatively safe throughout his tenure in Buffalo, so McDermott was comfortable in the belief that Taylor could keep the team competitive even without top-tier talent.
If the Bills had chosen not to re-sign Taylor in the offseason and were left with no viable option in the quarterback room, they may have taken a chance of Mahomes in lieu of having nothing at all. McDermott certainly couldn’t preach competing in the short-term and long-term to his team with either Joe Webb or Nathan Peterman under center. The Bills would have been hamstrung to draft Mahomes without Taylor in the fold.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, had spent three years with Alex Smith and reached their ceiling. They consistently had winning seasons and playoff berths, but they could not get past the divisional round. They understood that they couldn’t rely on a bridge quarterback as their face of the franchise, so they elected to groom a high-upside prospect.
With Tyrod Taylor as their competent placeholder, the Bills believed they had the opportunity to wait until the organization was ready to make a huge investment in the quarterback position and stall a year until the roster was sufficiently competitive. Ironically, relative stability at the quarterback position, something the Bills had sought for years, led Buffalo away from Mahomes.
The State of the Franchise
Even though the Bills did not draft the reigning MVP and quarterback representing the AFC in Super Bowl LIV, their process did not fail. The Bills turned their selections from Kansas City into All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White and Pro-Bowl linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. They had the ammunition to draft their franchise quarterback Josh Allen in 2018, who has been the best quarterback to wear a Bills uniform since Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly.
The Bills were able to hire general manager Brandon Beane, who has done wonders with the roster. He drafted and signed young talent across multiple positions, accumulated future assets, and fixed the disastrous cap situation. He and McDermott created a culture of accountability and responsibility in the Bills organization, something that had been lacking for far too long.
Buffalo even showed improvement in their record, as McDermott broke the 18-year playoff drought in 2017, going 9-7 with Tyrod Taylor at the helm and fielding a ball-hawking defense. He made history yet again this season, leading Buffalo to their first 10-win campaign since the 1990s and locking up a playoff berth before Week 16.
It’s indisputable that the Chiefs won the trade and that the Bills, in hindsight, should’ve drafted Patrick Mahomes. Yet, the Bills made the only call they could, given all of the factors going against them. For once, the Bills stuck to a reasonable process and in doing so ended their history of mediocrity.
The fact that the Bills have a bright future despite passing on a future Hall of Fame quarterback is a testament to their process and organizational stability. Many may watch this upcoming SuperBowl and lament what could’ve been. While that feeling will always be present, at least Bills fans see the future is brighter than it has ever been.