BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Among myriad difficult decisions the Buffalo Bills must make this offseason, their situation at quarterback flies under the radar.
Backup quarterback, that is.
Since arriving in Buffalo as a free agent in October 2018, veteran Matt Barkley has served as Josh Allen's backup. In those three seasons, Barkley has completed 53 of 97 passes for 788 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions, making one spot start in 2018. He is a free agent once again in 2021, and the decision to bring him back is complicated, thanks to the presence of 2020 fifth-round pick Jake Fromm.
The Georgia product, like every other rookie in last year's class, did not have a normal offseason because of the coronavirus pandemic. Fromm's year was even more unique, considering he dealt with an offseason controversy and the Bills made him the team's emergency quarterback, which involved him practicing separately from the rest of the team throughout the week and remaining socially distant inside the Bills' facility.
"Jake Fromm had the most un-normal year a player could ever have, to have to come in here and be the COVID quarantine quarterback," Bills general manager Brandon Beane said. "I thought he handled it greatly. In his exit meeting we just praised him for staying true. He would literally be back there hearing the call in his helmet, and while Josh [Allen] or Barkley are going back [in the pocket], he's going back just like he's making the throw from 20 yards back. He stays after and throws with the practice squad.
"Really tough year for him, but ... it will help him going into next offseason. He'll be excited to be able to sit in the quarterback room within six or seven feet of the other guys."
Based on Beane's explanation, Fromm will return to the team in 2021, which is obvious for a player at a prime position in the second year of a rookie contract. The real question is whether Buffalo believes Fromm is ready to be Allen's primary backup, or if he needs another year learning alongside Barkley.
Without any game action -- even in the preseason -- to evaluate, it's difficult to gauge Fromm's progress. His coaches and teammates have praised his work ethic in practice, particularly Allen, who was asked about the rookie late in the 2020 season.
"It's not an easy ask, to put a guy who's played his entire career and just kind of say, 'Go over there and stay away from everybody,'" Allen said. "He's handled it with a lot of pride. He takes pride in his work, and it's good to see a guy like that go in there and do his job. He's been a pleasure to be around, he's grown a lot since he first got here, and he's been awesome in the quarterback room."
Buffalo kept only two quarterbacks on its roster in 2019, Allen and Barkley, before drafting Fromm. The Bills will have to clear some salary-cap space to improve their roster this offseason, but will need a stabilizing presence behind Allen.
On Jan. 26, the Bills signed journeyman Davis Webb, who has spent time on their practice squad, to a futures contract, but it might be worth it to bring Barkley back on a one-year deal. It would provide insurance as they evaluate Fromm throughout training camp. Assuming there's a normal preseason, if Fromm plays well enough to instill confidence in him, the Bills could cut Barkley before the season.
If not, Barkley would spend his fourth straight season with the Bills; or, Buffalo can go in a different direction.
Fromm will obviously return, but Beane can opt for a "high-end two," as ESPN analyst Matt Bowen puts it -- a player like C.J. Beathard or Nick Mullens.
"Knowing where they are right now, as one of the top Super Bowl contenders ... do you need to bring in a veteran quarterback to be a high-end two until you believe Jake Fromm is ready?" Bowen said. "If you don't think he is right now, then you're going to have to go out and get someone, in my opinion."
Either way, any decision that involves not bringing Barkley back will weigh heavily on Beane; Barkley and his wife are beloved within the organization.
"What a selfless guy. Some guys are the backup and they're itching to play," Beane said. "Matt's a competitor, he wants to play, but his first thing every day he walks in this door is to help Josh Allen be the best version of himself. And that's why it's been so great to have him.
"Without getting into contracts, we'll see, but very appreciative of Matt, even his wife, Brittany, does a great job of helping wives connect. It's big for our team culture. So the Barkleys have been a big blessing to the Buffalo Bills. We'll see [on] the business side where that ends up."