NFL

Bills’ Super Bowl moment, Joe Burrow defends Baker Mayfield and more

For years, the Buffalo Bills have come close to a title. Now, they enter the season as Super Bowl favorites. It’s time to reach their potential, or face a harsh reality.

Every once in a great while, an excellent team faces a crossroads. Be great, or be forgotten.

Meet your 2022 Buffalo Bills.

Let’s start with an obvious statement: the Bills are going to be very good as long as Josh Allen wears their uniform.

Let’s start with a second, obvious statement: there’s a damn good chance Buffalo is not this loaded around Allen for a long time to come.

In Buffalo, a star-crossed franchise backed by its table-breaking fans must take the next step.

In 2020, there was huge progress. The Bills won their first AFC East title since 1995 and earned a pair of playoff victories — also a first since ’95 — before being smacked down by a better, more experienced Kansas City Chiefs team at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC title game.

In 2021, Buffalo looked unbeatable early, struggled around midseason and poured it on late. Allen was otherworldly in the postseason, throwing nine touchdowns against zero interception in two games. However, 13 famous seconds denied Buffalo once more, and once again at Arrowhead Stadium against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.

Now, it’s time to take the next step. If the offseason is an indictor, the Bills have separated.

Buffalo spent lavishly in free agency on edge rusher Von Miller, stunning some in the league with. six-year, $120 million deal. For years, the Bills have struggled to get pressure. Miller figures to solve the issue after posting 13.5 sacks last year between the regular and postseason.

The Bills also watched Kansas City trade away star receiver Tyreek Hill and lose All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency. However, the Chiefs reloaded with 10 draft picks while having double-digit selections in 2023, meaning a potentially young, deep team around Mahomes in the future.

But for this season, the Chiefs might be hard-pressed to beat a savvy, veteran Bills team.

And for Buffalo, this is the moment.

The Bills are the Super Bowl favorites in Vegas, and have an advantageous slate. Unlike the gauntlet faced by teams in the AFC North and West, the East is relatively easy, with the New England Patriots in limbo, the New York Jets still building and the Miami Dolphins improved, but with a huge question at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa.

This season, Buffalo’s contracts for receiver Stefon Diggs, linebacker Matt Milano, safety Micah Hyde, Miller and Allen total $43.6 million against the cap. Next year, that combined figure skyrockets to $102.4 million.

Even with the expected cap increase, the Bills are likely to be out of free agency while losing some combination of tight end Dawson Knox, safety Jordan Poyer, running back Devin Singletary and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, all scheduled for unrestricted free agency.

Additionally, the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers will both still have their star quarterbacks on rookie deals, even if extensions for Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are signed. As aforementioned, Kansas City will be loaded up with cheap rookie deals surrounding its stars. So on and so forth.

If Buffalo doesn’t win the Super Bowl this season, the questions will begin. Can Allen win the Super Bowl? Are the Bills ever going to get over the proverbial hump? Is Sean McDermott the right man for the job?

For Buffalo, this is the season its deserving fans have been waiting for. Nobody is better than the Bills.

But now comes the part of turning expectations into reality, with a combination of luck and skill.

If not now for the Bills … when?

Power rankings

Top 10 quarterbacks under most pressure for 2022 season

1. Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns — Nobody will be under the microscope more.
2. Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins — Better weapons, need to win. Team has two firsts in 2023.
3. Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals — Injuries, collapses. Want that money? Have a career year.
4. Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos — Huge investment in him at 34 years old. Still elite?
5. Carson Wentz, Washington Commanders — This is last-chance saloon time for Wentz.
6. Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles — Great roster. Must improve. PHI has multiple firsts in ’23.
7. Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers — The numbers and talent are great. Now win.
8. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills — It’s Super Bowl or bust for one of the game’s best.
9. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars — With Urban Meyer gone, it’s time to get going.
10. Zach Wilson, New York Jets — The Jets are much-improved. Wilson must be as well.

Quotable

“That’s a tough situation. He was hurt all last year. Every time we play him, he balls. First time we played him — Thursday night during Week 2 of my rookie year — we lost like 34-30. The next time we played them, I throw for 400 yards. He goes like 25-for-28 with five touchdowns. He went on a two-minute drive, touchdown, they won the game.”

– Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow on Baker Mayfield’s potential moving forward via the Full Send Podcast

Burrow is being complimentary, but also honest. While Mayfield’s stock is down because he played poorly through a shoulder injury in 2021, he’s had a few excellent campaigns. As a rookie, the former No. 1 overall pick threw for 27 touchdowns despite having two head coaches. In ’20, Mayfield led the Browns to their first playoff victory since 1994, tossing 26 touchdowns against eight interceptions.

While Mayfield’s maturity has fairly been called into question, his upside is that of a top-half quarterback in a league with many teams desperate for such a player. It may be uncomfortable for all parties, but the Browns should wait to deal Mayfield until they get decent value.

Podcast

Random stat

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a streak of 18 consecutive non-losing seasons. Only the Dallas Cowboys’ (1965-85) and New England Patriots (2001-20) had longer ones across NFL history.

Info learned this week

1. Eagles land Bradberry in what continues to be dream offseason

Nobody has had a better month than the Philadelphia Eagles.

Over the past 30 days, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has fortified an already-promising roster with corner James Bradberry, defensive tackle Jordan Davis, linebacker Nakobi Dean and receiver A.J. Brown.

While the Eagles still have questions regarding quarterback Jalen Hurts and his long-term upside,  the supporting cast is bordering on elite. Philadelphia has two excellent corners (Darius Slay, Bradberry) to accompany a terrific front seven, anchored inside by Davis, Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox.

Offensively, Hurts is throwing to second-year receiver Devonta Smith and Brown, and tight end Dallas Goedert. He’s also behind one of the best lines in football.

If you’re looking for a darkhorse to contend in the NFC, don’t sleep on Philadelphia.

2. Belichick continues doing things his own way, and it’ll be costly

The Patriots should enjoy however many years Bill Belichick has left. Once he’s gone, it’s going to get ugly.

Belichick is the only remaining head coach who essentially runs the offensive and defensive schemes, along with handling personnel decisions. He’s a one-stop shop, and while that’s impressive, it’s also a looming problem as the 70-year-old nears retirement.

Under Belichick, his autonomy has worked fabulously — when paired with Tom Brady, but we digress. But we’ve seen one assistant after the other leave New England and fail as head coaches in other organizations. It’s fair to believe part of the issue is Belichick not preparing his guys for the role because he’s taking on so much responsibility.

Once Belichick exits Foxboro, the Patriots will need to essentially rebuild the entire infrastructure of their franchise. It’s a pending disaster, and while that’s worth the price of six Super Bowl wins, it’s also going to be a dark period for New England and its fans.

3. Clowney returns to Browns, still attempting to increase value

On Sunday, the final domino of free agency fell when the Browns re-signed edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year deal worth up to $11 million.

Clowney, 29, has endured an odd career to this point. After being the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, the former South Carolina standout played five solid seasons with the Houston Texans before being dealt to the Seattle Seahawks. He posted three sacks in 11 games there before going to the Tennessee Titans, where he notched zero sacks in eight contests. Then, in Cleveland last year, Clowney went for nine sacks, just a half-sack off his career-high.

Paired with Myles Garrett, Clowney is in a good spot. He’ll never see a double-team and can hurt a pair of somewhat immobile quarterbacks in the AFC North with Mitchell Trubisky and Joe Burrow. Additionally, Clowney knows the system and thrived in it one year ago.

That said, Clowney must be somewhat disappointed. Money flew around this offseason for edge rushers, and Clowney ended up on another one-year deal. Despite hitting the market repeatedly the last few years, he’s never been able to find security.

This being his final year before age 30, Clowney is likely looking at his last chance to earn such a contract.

4. Cowboys giving high honor to rookie tight end with No. 48

The Dallas Cowboys have a slew of households names in their Ring of Honor, oddly enough with none of their jerseys retired officially. Darryl Johnston is one of them.

It’s rare when a player with 2,980 scrimmage yards, 22 touchdowns and two Pro Bowl berths is considered franchise royalty, but Johnston qualifies. He paved the way for Emmitt Smith throughout much of his Hall of Fame career, leading to Smith becoming the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Johnston never got the personal glory, but he led Dallas — literally — to three Super Bowls in four years.

Now, rookie tight end Jake Ferguson is donning No. 48. Ferguson is well-aware of the significance in Dallas. The Cowboys have Dalton Schultz to be a high-end receiving option at the position, but need a hard-nosed blocker. Ferguson is clearly looking to live up to the billing with this move.

5. USFL should eventually partner with NFL, helping both leagues

It’s likely a long way off, but the USFL should consider working with the NFL as a feeder system.

For the fledging USFL, it’s been tough getting eyeballs on the league through its first six weeks. Rebranded as a reboot of the league which played three seasons in the mid-1980s before losing an antitrust suit to the NFL, the talent is minimal and the ratings are paltry. None of that is surprising, but it’s also tough to excite sponsors and fans.

If the USFL is wise, it’ll position itself as a potential partner instead of competition with regard to the NFL. Allow the bigger league to have a draft, taking 32 players — four per USFL team. While this would take the top talent away from the younger enterprise, it would also give NFL fans a significant reason to watch and be invested.

It would also make the USFL an intriguing option for top college free agents. Instead of sitting on the practice squad or being cut in training camp, those players would get top billing and a chance to showcase themselves.

Ultimately, it’s a win-win.

Two cents

It feels easy to predict the following five teams are in play for the No.1 overall pick in 2023, which likely means it’s going to be something else entirely.

The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are either rebuilding, tearing down or without a quarterback. While that can change before training camp (see: Mayfield, Baker), those organizations appear to be competing for little more than future evaluations.

However, of those teams, Carolina is the outlier.  The Panthers have been rebuilding for two years under head coach Matt Rhule and the team has gone nowhere. Carolina tried to get a quarterback this offseason but struck out. The same is true of the previous offseason, and the one before that.

Entering 2020, there was excitement over Rhule. In ’21, there was hope for Sam Darnold. Now?

There’s little more than resignation in Charlotte without a major change.

Inside the league

The NFL is making a smart move by holding the inaugural coach and front office accelerator program this coming week in Atlanta during the league’s Spring Meetings.

While the program doesn’t guarantee anything, it provides an opportunity. The criteria is each team needed to nominate one candidate for the program and once there, those men and women will meet with high-ranking personnel. The idea is familiarity will help foster relationships, and therefore provide a better chance for said candidates to land the positions they’re interviewing for.

For years, the league has had an issue getting new blood into positions of power, specifically for minorities. This past coaching cycle was especially lean in that regard, with eight new head coaches and only one who wasn’t white — Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins, who is biracial.

Whether this program ends up successful is anybody’s guess, but it’s a good idea.

History lesson

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the worst winning percentage in NFL history, sporting a .405 clip. However, they have one embarrassing fact over the Detroit Lions.

In their history, the Lions have won three NFC Central/North crowns. The Buccaneers have also won three, but played in the Central for 10 fewer seasons and never played in the North.

Parting shot

How tough is the AFC? Last year, the Tennessee Titans were the conference’s top seed. This year, Tennessee is considered by many to be on the postseason bubble.

While the Titans traded away star receiver A.J. Brown, he’s the only significant departure. Tennessee went 12-5 last season, beat the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, Colts and 49ers, and yet still, there’s a thought the Titans will struggle to recapture the AFC South, or even reach the playoffs at all.

So what gives? The quarterback situation. Ryan Tannehill isn’t bad, but nobody would argue he’s in the upper echelon either. The Titans were never respected by myriad analysts last season because many believed Tannehill would limit Tennessee in the playoffs. Then, in the AFC Divisional round, he threw three interceptions in a 19-16 loss to the Bengals.

Then in the offseason, the AFC added Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan, while the Browns got a clear on-field upgrade in Deshaun Watson. Although Tannehill is an average quarterback from a league-wide perspective, it’s hard to argue he’s top-nine at the position within the AFC.

If Tennessee proves the doubters wrong, it’ll largely be because Tannehill plays the best football of his career after losing his top weapon.

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