Bills' McDermott, Beane face new challenges in 8th season

Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott is entering his eighth season alongside general manager Brandon Beane with difficult roster decisions ahead. Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- Over the last seven seasons, the Buffalo Bills have developed into a team that is consistently competitive.

Since coach Sean McDermott was hired in 2017, and general manager Brandon Beane shortly after, the Bills won four division titles (2020-23), compiled the fourth-best winning percentage (64%) and made the playoffs six times. The decision to draft Josh Allen in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft helped change the direction of the organization.

What hasn't come together is taking the next step and reaching the Super Bowl. The Bills have made one AFC Championship Game during that stretch, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs on the road to end the 2020 season.

The work continues for Buffalo to try and take that step, despite a difficult cap situation and major question marks in various aspects of the roster.

"We're frustrated as ever to win, and we're going to do everything we can," Beane said at the NFL scouting combine this week. "Every year is its own year. And we know the challenge ahead that when you won the division four times in a row that it's getting harder. It's not going to get easier.

"But experience helps. And we know some of the landmines that we have to navigate. And we're confident that at the right time we'll get it done."

While the Bills have experienced significant stability during this period, getting to the ultimate goal of a title, especially in what has been a packed AFC, will come with some changes in 2024. The decisions made this year -- especially around spending -- will impact the team in seasons to come.

There is plenty to be sorted out in the weeks and months ahead. The team has a new full-time offensive coordinator in former interim coordinator Joe Brady, while Bobby Babich has been promoted to defensive coordinator -- a role that did not exist in 2023 when McDermott first took over playcalling. McDermott said at the combine that they are still sorting through who will have playcalling responsibilities moving forward.

"We'll make that decision when we need to," he said. "Right now, we're just one step at a time."

In addition to new coordinators, McDermott made significant changes to the defensive staff with new coaches throughout.

"Continuity is certainly important, but there's some good things that come with some newness as well ... some new ideas," McDermott said this week. "Some of the new coaches are from college as well, so that will offer another dimension to us."

The biggest obstacle that is currently in front of Beane and the front office is the cap situation. While the 2024 cap number for teams jumped to $255.4 million, the Bills are still about $40 million over the cap.

The Bills restructured starting left guard Connor McGovern's contract on Monday and will continue to find ways to create room.

"It's less that we have to take off because we were hoping it would get to $250 [million] but didn't really expect it to; we were conservatively planning for a number in the 40s," Beane said. "So, to get the $255 [million], I was smiling."

While the increased cap number helped the Bills, the team still has to navigate trying to retain some of its own free agents while also not pushing money down the road and creating issues in the future.

Allen's contract is another that is likely to get restructured this year (set to account for over $47 million in cap space) but also in the coming years due to the team having a variety of big contracts on the books, like pass-rusher Von Miller.

"We've obviously tried to not pile [money up for the future], but also take a shot, make a run," Beane said. "Sign a Von Miller two years ago. Add that pass-rusher, that closer, so we've done some things like that. I think it's really hard. Now, if you tell me the cap will jump $40 million next year, maybe. But I don't believe that's what the league anticipates. So, it kind of all depends on where we end up, what guys do we extend this year, what do we add onto the books."

Allen's contract is something the Bills will continue to navigate, especially as the price for quarterbacks rises relative to the extension Allen signed prior to the 2021 season.

In the meantime, the Bills need the players they've invested in to perform at a championship level. Beane said they are "hoping" Miller will perform closer to how he played prior to a major right ACL injury suffered on Thanksgiving in 2022. He did not record a sack last season and is continuing to work his way back from injury. He is also being investigated for assault allegations.

That could result in many new faces with several starters set to hit free agency, like safety Micah Hyde, a free agent who is contemplating retirement. Hyde has played alongside Jordan Poyer in the defensive backfield for seven seasons. While Poyer is under contract for another season, starting over with a completely new safety duo is on the table.

There's also going to have to be tough choices made with center Mitch Morse and/or cornerback Tre'Davious White, who is rehabbing from a torn right Achilles, having the potential to be cap casualties or asked to play on reduced salaries.

The restrictions in spending could also result in the Bills having to move away from a trend that has contributed significantly to the team's success: keeping draft picks in-house. The team has established many key members of the organization this way, including linebacker Matt Milano and left tackle Dion Dawkins, but the likes of wide receiver Gabe Davis and defensive end AJ Epenesa could see more money from other teams.

Adapting to new challenges from both a coaching and front office perspective will be instrumental in the Bills finding that path forward that hasn't come together in recent years.

"We love to draft, develop and sign," Beane said. "I think those guys have all developed well and earned the opportunity to go to free agency. We're still working through -- now that we know the cap -- we're working through getting under and then how much can we create without totally piling up a huge mess."