All this talk about tanking and processes drawn out over an extended period of time is suddenly giving way to legit discussions about the playoffs for the Buffalo Bills.
The team finds itself at 5-2 heading into Thursday night’s nationally televised clash with the New York Jets. Not only are they three-point road favorites against their AFC East rival this week, they’re fifth in the conference standings and a half-game behind the New England Patriots for the division lead.
Perhaps the most poignant statement regarding the club’s playoff ambitions came at the cusp of Tuesday afternoon’s 4 PM ET trade deadline. For it was then that the Bills acquired wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from the Carolina Panthers. Buffalo put their treasure trove of 2018 NFL Draft picks to work, sending a third and seventh-rounder to Carolina in the trade.
Buffalo Bills Show Playoff Intent With Kelvin Benjamin Trade
It’s the latest in a series of shrewd moves from first-year general manager Brandon Beane aimed at molding this team in the image he’s sees fit moving forward. Before the season started, that image seemed geared towards short-term pain for long-term gain. But a more optimistic narrative has suddenly emerged with the Bills now in the thick of the playoff discussion.
The conversation begins with a defense whose play can only be described as elite. Through seven games, they’ve forced 17 turnovers which is tied with the Baltimore Ravens for tops in the NFL. Their 11 interceptions is second best in the league, while only three teams have more than their six forced fumbles. And Buffalo is the only team with three members of its secondary garnering a top ten player grade from Pro Football Focus.
On the other side of the football, it’s been a bit more up and down. Yes, they’ve averaged 384 total yards during this current two-game winning streak, up over 100 yards from their previous five contests. And LeSean McCoy is finally coming into his own after a slow start to the season. Nearly half of his rushing yards and all three of his scores on the ground came in these last two victories against the Tampa Bay Bucs and Oakland Raiders.
But the pass game remains inconsistent. The Bills are averaging a mere 178.7 yards per game through the air which ranks fourth worst in the league. To put it in perspective, that’s not even 60 percent of the Patriots’ league-leading total of 302.1. The departure of Sammy Watkins, combined with injuries to Jordan Matthews and Charles Clay, are partly to blame. Clay remains the team’s leading pass-catcher with 258 receiving yards.
That number ranks Clay 83rd among NFL pass catchers and is the worst yardage total in the league for a team leader. It underscores the immediate impact Benjamin should have in the passing game. The fourth-year pro out of Florida State boasts nearly twice Clay’s output, with his 475 yards receiving currently 17th in the league. He also provides a big-bodied target whom Tyrod Taylor is undoubtedly excited about throwing to.
Benjamin is the epitome of a matchup nightmare. His 6’5″ height and ridiculous 83-inch wingspan give him a catch radius few receivers in the league possess. It also makes him a vertical threat in contested catch situations. Among receivers in the top 15 of Football Outsiders defense-adjusted yards above replacement ratings, Benjamin ranks eighth with a catch rate of 63 percent.
And lest we forget, his new quarterback is proving to the NFL world that he possesses franchise quarterback capabilities. Taylor currently boasts the seventh highest passing grade among signal callers from PFF. Among the players he finds himself ahead of in those rankings right now: Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford. Those three made plenty of noise in the off-season with respect to their current compensation.
Tuesday’s move made plenty of sense from a salary cap standpoint. Benjamin’s cap hit for this season is a minute $529,412 as he’s still on his rookie deal. But the Bills do take on the fifth year option he signed with Carolina which comes to $8.459 million for the 2018 season. It’s a glaring year-over-year change in the salary pecking order as he goes from a bottom ten cap hit to one that, for the time being, ranks top ten on the Bills next year.
Nevertheless, the Bills remain in great shape beyond this season. Even after sending two picks to Carolina in exchange for Benjamin, they still have nine for the 2018 draft. They’ll make five of them in the first three rounds. Buffalo’s cap space of around $30.1 million according to OverTheCap.com puts them in the top half of the league next year. So the process remains on schedule and continues to necessitate trust out of the fanbase.
But the front office is also well-aware of the current situation. The Bills possess a game-changing defense, one of the league’s top running backs and a quarterback whose two interceptions on the year is tied with Tom Brady for second best in the league among those who’ve attempted at least 100 passes. The missing link is a big play wideout who can give an added dimension to Buffalo’s vertical passing game.
It comes in the form of Benjamin. And his arrival provides a potential catalyst to a team whose narrative has done a complete 180 heading into the ninth week of the NFL season. “Trust the process” no longer means tank in 2017 and hope for the future. It now carries with it the added purpose of proving that the Bills are legit right here and right now. The intended end game: erasing North American professional sports’ longest playoff drought.