ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The music blaring out of the Bose speaker in Brandon Beane’s bedroom was contemporary country, with a playlist courtesy of Sirius/XM’s The Highway.
The motif, however, was classic Eminem.
Last Thursday morning, as Beane prepared to preside over his fifth NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills’ unfailingly bold general manager spent nearly two hours completing a project that had abruptly ascended to the top of his to-do list. While fans, draft analysts and rival coaches and personnel executives were fretting over how the first round would play out, Beane, before making the short drive from his home to the Bills training facility, was locked in while cleaning out his closet.
“It was driving me nuts,” Beane recalled about 16 hours later as he scarfed down some Raisinets following the completion of Thursday’s first round, which featured another textbook display of the targeted bravado that has become his custom. “My wife told me, ‘Your clean clothes are hanging up on the dining room table. I’ve got company coming over tonight; can you clean it up?’ So I decided to get after it.”
It was an endeavor that helped clear Beane’s head while serving as a convenient metaphor for the football renaissance taking place in Western New York. Since arriving in May of 2017, four months after the hiring of head coach Sean McDermott, Beane has methodically helped get the Bills’ house in order.
The foundation is now so strong that the Bills, who lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early ’90s, appear poised to make a run at capturing their first Lombardi Trophy — or, perhaps, multiple trophies. With an ascending franchise quarterback in 25-year-old Josh Allen and a well-rounded roster, Beane had the luxury of letting the 2022 draft come to him.
Well, kind of. Many of Beane’s biggest moves have come when he has given in to his aggressive nature, from the series of deft maneuvers that netted Allen with the seventh overall pick in 2018 to the 2020 trade for star wide receiver Stefon Diggs, and it’s not a tendency he can easily shed. After all, the man known to many in the Bills Mafia as “BBB” — Big Baller Beane — didn’t earn that nickname for nothing.
“It’s not always obvious to everyone, because he’s a friendly guy, but Brandon is a killer,” said Joe Schoen, who was Beane’s chief lieutenant in Buffalo before being hired as New York Giants general manager in January.
Or, in the words of Bills owner Terry Pegula: “This guy has ice water in his veins.”
As he sat in his office last Wednesday afternoon, the day before the Bills were due to pick 25th in the first round, Beane tried hard to sound chill. He spoke like a man who’d be able to sit back and assess his opening-pick options as if he were boutique shopping.
“We can just see who’s at the top of our board, and there are positions on each side of the ball we’d like to bolster,” he said. “And if there’s a group of people we feel similarly about and we believe we’ll get one of them eventually — and if someone wants to come up and we can pick up some extra assets — we’d definitely feel comfortable moving back.”
Moving up to take a player, he insisted, was much less likely.
“If I trade up for someone tomorrow,” Beane said, “that means I really love him.”
It also stood to reason that such a scenario would likely involve a cornerback, given that the position was the only one resembling an obvious need for a team that won the AFC East in 2021 — and was 13 seconds away from securing a road divisional-round playoff victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, before Patrick Mahomes and an overtime coin flip cruelly intervened. With star corner Tre’Davious White recovering from a torn ACL suffered last November and fellow starter Levi Wallace having departed to the Pittsburgh Steelers via free agency, the Bills sought the type of pass defender who theoretically could have helped prevent Mahomes’ magic last January.
And sure enough, when the moment of truth arrived Thursday night, Beane sized up the situation and swung a deal: The Bills moved up two spots to select Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam, sending a fourth-round choice to the Baltimore Ravens to facilitate the first-round pick swap.
Afterward, Beane explained to reporters that Elam was the last remaining player on the Bills draft board to whom they had assigned a first-round grade. That, coupled with the fact that landing a cornerback was his top priority, compelled Beane to act.
Later, in the early hours of Friday morning, he told Bally Sports, “If there’s a guy I really like that I think stands out above the others, then why chance it? Are you ever gonna bat 1.000? No. But if you have that much conviction about someone, go get him.
“I’d rather give up another pick and know I get a guy I’m excited about. I always ask myself, ‘How pissed am I gonna be if I lose that player?’ That’s how I approach it. I’m not sure it’s the right way — but it’s the way I’m wired.”
Beane experienced his share of tension during Thursday’s first round, from the “stress headache” that plagued him before the Jacksonville Jaguars’ opening pick, to the quick disappearance of top-rated corners Derek Stingley Jr. (taken third overall by the Houston Texans) and Sauce Gardner (selected fourth by the New York Jets), to an unsuccessful, on-the-clock attempt to cut a deal with the Green Bay Packers for the 22nd selection.
Yet, it was nothing compared to the stress Beane endured during his first draft as a GM, when he was desperate to land the quarterback of his dreams — and found himself in the middle of a nightmarish scenario that threatened to derail his well-crafted plan.
‘Freaking out’ over Josh Allen
The Bills’ organizational reshaping began after the 2016 season. Buffalo had missed the playoffs for the 17th consecutive campaign, extending the longest drought in major professional sports. In conjunction with his wife and fellow owner, Kim, Pegula fired coach Rex Ryan and ultimately replaced him with McDermott, the Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator for the previous six seasons.
Then, after the 2017 draft, the Pegulas cleaned out the personnel department, parting ways with GM Doug Whaley and his entire scouting staff. McDermott then recruited Beane, a North Carolina native who had spent nearly two decades in the Panthers personnel department, ascending to interim GM in 2012 and later staying as new GM Dave Gettleman’s right-hand man.
“He had that wide-ranging foundation, in terms of his responsibilities there, and I had a healthy respect for him,” McDermott said.
Beane, in turn, hired Schoen as his assistant GM, and the two longtime friends began obsessively breaking down the incoming quarterback class, which would include collegiate standouts Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson, Mason Rudolph and Allen, a relatively raw prospect entering his junior season at Wyoming.
“When we got there in May (of 2017), both of us had already studied the quarterbacks at length,” said Schoen, a former Panthers scouting intern who’d been the Miami Dolphins’ director of player personnel from 2014 to 2017. “Terry and Kim were like, ‘Are you sure this is a good quarterback class?’ and we were like, ‘Yes, definitely.’”
Recalled Beane: “That summer we started watching their film from the previous year. Every time a game would come in, our video guys would tell us, and it was like watching a new-release movie. Josh didn’t start out at the top of our list, but when his film came in, it was always exciting.”
In the meantime, Beane began trying to accumulate draft capital to give him greater flexibility the following April. In August of 2017, he traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins and a 2018 sixth-round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-rounder. And Beane simultaneously swung a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire a 2018 third-rounder and wide receiver Jordan Matthews for cornerback Ronald Darby.
“It was a master plan by Brandon,” Schoen said. “The deals were literally announced at the same time, so neither team knew. He got the corner from the Rams and the receiver from Philly to replace the guys we traded, and we got the picks.”
Beane would need additional assets because the Bills surprisingly snuck into the 2017 postseason. After a 10-3 wild-card defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo received the 21st pick in the first round. The Bills also owned the 22nd choice via a 2017 draft-day trade with the Chiefs — the deal which allowed K.C. to move into Buffalo’s slot and select Mahomes with the 10th overall pick.
By the time he arrived at the 2018 scouting combine in Indianapolis, Beane had Allen and Mayfield ranked as his top two quarterbacks — in that order — and was intent on getting one of them. The challenge was to find a trade partner in a highly competitive market, with numerous teams also seeking quarterbacks.
“I started talking to people at the combine about moving up, and nobody in the top 10 was giving me anything,” said Beane, whose response was to deal tackle Cordy Glenn to the Cincinnati Bengals and swap the No. 21 pick for No. 12 as part of that trade. “Once I got from 21 to 12, now people were like, ‘We can talk.’”
Five days later, while a Bills contingent was conducting a private workout with Allen in Wyoming, the Jets — who were also in the QB market — swung a deal with the Indianapolis Colts to move from the No. 6 to No. 3. “That,” Beane said, “was a kick in the you-know-what.”
Beane stayed aggressive, trying to figure out a means of moving up from 12 in the hope of landing Allen. The Cleveland Browns, who held the first and fourth picks, were open to trading the latter selection; the Giants, who held the No. 2 pick (with Gettleman having become the team’s GM), weren’t interested in moving, nor were the Colts, who now held the sixth pick. The Denver Broncos, at five, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at seven, were potential trade partners, but the situation remained fluid.
As the draft approached, Beane, like Mick Jagger, got no satisfaction.
“You need a partner, right?” McDermott said. “That was probably what caused the most stress in the situation — just trying to find someone who would deal with us. You look back on that whole day and say, ‘What a moment that was.’ Because it could have changed the whole course of our (organizational) direction.”
In the weeks leading up to the draft, Beane had several conversations with then-Browns GM John Dorsey. The two had worked out a trade to send Tyrod Taylor, the Bills’ incumbent QB, to Cleveland for the first pick in the third round, despite the fact that the Broncos were willing to offer more. Beane believed that Dorsey, in turn, would give him first dibs on securing the fourth overall pick, all things being equal. On numerous occasions, they discussed the framework of a deal that would allow the Bills to move up to No. 4, as long as another team didn’t swoop in with a much sweeter offer.
Then, on the eve of the draft, it all fell apart. Dorsey called and raised his asking price — substantially. Beane angrily ended the call; he would have to find another way to move up. (He and Dorsey, now a senior personnel executive for the Detroit Lions, have since smoothed things over.)
The next night, as the draft began, Beane tried another approach. With the Browns on the clock at No. 1, Beane called then-Broncos general manager John Elway and worked out a deal to secure the fifth overall selection. Elway, however, insisted on a contingency. “He did say, ‘There may be a player there — not a quarterback — that we want, and if he’s there I’m gonna pick the player,’” Beane recalled.
The Browns took Mayfield first overall, and the Giants followed by selecting running back Saquon Barkley. Things stayed tense as the Jets selected Darnold at No. 3. Dorsey, picking fourth, then further hampered Buffalo’s cause (inadvertently) with a surprise choice: cornerback Denzel Ward.
That left edge rusher Bradley Chubb on the board — the very player Elway craved. When the Broncos GM called Beane to tell him their deal was off, the tension in the Bills draft room escalated to epic proportions. Colts GM Chris Ballard had already closed the door on trading away the sixth pick; everyone exhaled when Indy took guard Quentin Nelson.
Now the Bucs were on the clock, and Beane was hell-bent on securing their pick before the Arizona Cardinals and Dolphins — two teams seeking quarterbacks he viewed as threats to trade down — could beat the Bills to it.
Schoen had spoken previously with Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek to discuss the framework of a deal, but talks had gone nowhere. He and Beane were worried that Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht, who had previously worked in Arizona under GM Steve Keim, might have already agreed to a trade with the Cardinals.
“I was paranoid they had something worked out, with a hometown discount,” Schoen recalled. “We had heard they liked Josh. It was crazy. All those months of wanting Josh Allen and deciding he’s our guy, all the anxiety, and we couldn’t find anyone to do business with us.”
With the Bucs on the clock, Schoen called Spytek again. Then Beane and Licht got on the phone and began negotiating terms. Licht asked for both of the Bills’ first-round picks (12th and 22nd overall) and each of their second-round selections (53rd and 56th).
“They were asking for too much, and we hung up.,” Schoen recalled, “I’m thinking, ‘Who gives a s---? We need a quarterback!’ I was freaking out.”
About 90 seconds later — a long 90 seconds — Beane called Licht again. He offered everything but the 22nd overall pick, with the Bucs throwing back a seventh-rounder, and Licht accepted. Suddenly, at long last, the Bills had their quarterback.
Beane, however, wasn’t done. He used the third-round pick acquired from the Browns in the Taylor trade and packaged it with his remaining first-rounder (22nd overall) to acquire the No. 16 pick from the Ravens to draft Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. It was only then that the people in the Bills draft room were confronted with a visual representation of the drama they’d experienced.
“Joe Schoen literally sweated through his whole suit,” Beane remembered. “He took his jacket off and it was dripping inside — there were pools of water under his arms.”
On Thursday, hours before he would preside over his first draft (with the Giants selecting fifth and seventh overall), Schoen laughed at the memory.
“Once the dust settled,” he said, “I turned around and someone said, ‘Jesus Christ, Joe!’ I had a grey suit on, and there were pools of water on both sides. My wife, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time, was gathered with some other people’s family members in the cafeteria, and I didn’t even go out and see her for awhile. I thought, ‘I better just stay in here and hydrate.’
“And trust me — I’ll have two undershirts on tonight. And I’m wearing navy.”
Blueprint for ‘sustainable’ success
Beane’s first-round maneuvering attracted the bulk of the attention, but his initial draft was actually a three-day tour de force. With the help of a personnel staff that featured a slew of talented and experienced evaluators, including Dennis Hickey (former Dolphins GM), Brian Gaine (former Texans director of player personnel), Lake Dawson (former Tennessee Titans vice president of football operations) and Marvin Allen (former Chiefs director of college scouting), Beane drafted six additional players who remain on NFL rosters.
“Talk about setting the foundation for an organization,” Schoen said. “That first draft is a little bit underrated. We did it with a brand-new scouting staff, which wasn’t easy. We thought, ‘How are we gonna hire a pro and college staff to come to Buffalo, New York?’ — but Brandon found some great talent, guys who’d had big jobs before.
“Let’s look back at that draft. Josh obviously got the big contract (a six-year, $258 million extension last August). Edmunds, two Pro Bowls, had his fifth-year option picked up. (Third-round pick) Harrison Phillips, just got paid by Minnesota in free agency. (Fourth-round pick) Taron Johnson and (fifth-round pick) Siran Neal got second contracts in Buffalo. (Fifth-round pick) Wyatt Teller got a big contract in Cleveland. (Sixth-round pick) Ray-Ray McCloud just signed with the 49ers, and (seventh-round pick) Austin Proehl is on (the Giants) roster.”
Since then, Beane hasn’t hit on every pick, but he hasn’t been afraid to take a swing when he feels the situation merits it. In 2019, he moved up two spots in the second round to draft offensive lineman Cody Ford, leapfrogging the Bucs, who might have taken him. Later, he dealt a pair of fourth-round picks for the third-round selection that secured tight end Dawson Knox.
In March of 2020, Beane took things up a notch, making a blockbuster trade for Diggs, the Minnesota Vikings’ disgruntled wideout. Though Beane gave up a lot — his first-, fifth- and sixth-round picks in the 2020 draft as well as a 2021 fourth-rounder — Diggs instantly helped elevate Buffalo’s offense. The Bills reached the 2020 AFC championship game, losing to the Chiefs in Kansas City, and Beane was named the NFL executive of the year by the Sporting News and the Pro Football Writers of America.
For what it’s worth, Beane’s 2020 draft crop continues to pay dividends: The Bills’ fourth-round selection, wide receiver Gabriel Davis, caught an NFL playoff-record four touchdown passes in last January’s playoff defeat to the Chiefs.
A year ago, Beane’s draft experience was uncharacteristically uneventful. He stayed true to his draft board and selected edge rushers Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham in the first and second rounds because he felt they were the best players available, not because he was consumed with bolstering that specific position.
To the delight of Bills fans, BBB returned in full force in March, landing star pass rusher Von Miller with a six-year, $120 million contract at the start of free agency. The move fueled a narrative that the Bills are all-in for Super Bowl LVII, a characterization that Beane strongly disputes.
“I was asked if people would expect me to be very aggressive (in the draft), given the Von Miller signing,” Beane said Wednesday as he sat in his office. “No! I don’t subscribe to the ‘one player away’ theory. It’s not the NBA. The NFL is more of a team game.
“We’re in a different phase than when I got here, but the core philosophy doesn’t change. You still have to draft, develop and re-sign. People say, ‘Now you change (and go for broke).’ No — that’s not a lasting formula. Yes, we can compete for a Super Bowl now. But we want to have a sustainable model. We’re trying to make a steady run. We don’t want to put it all on 2022 and then be bad in ’23. We have to build a team with the next few years in mind, not just this year.”
It helps that Beane and McDermott are philosophically aligned, on matters ranging from the sustained team-building model to which players fit the Bills’ culture. Even more important, the GM and coach often operate in lockstep with ownership. Terry Pegula faithfully attends draft meetings and asks questions when prospects are being discussed.
“They’re good questions, too,” Schoen said. “He’s very knowledgeable about college football, and he’s the first owner I’ve been around who watches film.”
Beane, according to several people in the Bills personnel department, makes a point of having everyone feel included in the process, soliciting opinions from even the lowest-level members of the scouting department. Once the team is on the clock, however, he is clear and decisive in his actions.
“He’s very poised, and I think he’s just got a good demeanor about him,” McDermott said. “He’s a good team player. He always prepares well, as does his staff. We have a healthy respect for one another. There are times, like in any relationship, where it challenges you. There are tough moments, for both of us. But you fight through them. The biggest thing is we communicate and support each other.”
Said Schoen: “Early on, (McDermott) was heavily invested (in the personnel process). The more we earned his trust, the more hands-off he was. It’s a testament to him that he and his coaches did such a great job of clearly defining what they were looking for, and then in developing the players we brought in.”
Inside the Bills’ 2022 draft
Beginning on Thursday night, Beane did his best to strengthen McDermott’s hand. When the Chiefs, after trading up with the New England Patriots, selected Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie with the 21st pick, Beane felt that Elam was by far the best remaining option at a position of clear need. After making the trade with the Ravens, Beane got his man and, importantly, did so without surrendering his third-round selection in the process.
“If we’re down to one, I’m going to be aggressive,” Beane said early Friday morning. “I honestly didn’t think we’d end up with a corner in the first round — because I wasn’t giving up a Friday night pick. I love Friday night. It’s my favorite night of the draft.”
Beane believes Elam will supplement a group that includes Dane Jackson, a 2020 seventh-round selection, and White, a two-time Pro Bowler and 2019 first-team All-Pro whose timeline is uncertain following reconstructive knee surgery.
“The cool thing with (Elam) is he’s a little bit different than Tre,” Beane added. “He has a little more size and length. When we play a quicker, shifty receiver, Tre can cover him, and if we go against a taller, longer receiver, this guy can match up. It gives (defensive coordinator) Leslie Frazier some more versatile options. And it gives you insurance there if Tre is slow coming back. And trust me, Dane ain’t gonna give this thing up easily.”
On Friday, Beane hoped to find a way to recoup the fourth-round selection he surrendered to draft Elam via a trade down, but the opportunity never presented itself. He did manage to pick up some additional assets while filling another position of need.
Though Beane believes that running back Zack Moss, a 2020 third-round selection, will rebound from a disappointing 2021 season to challenge current starter (and 2019 third-rounder) Devin Singletary, the Bills could clearly use some more juice at the position. Had the Bills not landed Elam and stuck with the 25th selection, Iowa State running back Breece Hall would have been under consideration.
Hall (36th overall to the Jets) and Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III (41st to the Seattle Seahawks) were long gone as the Bills’ second-round selection approached, leaving Georgia’s James Cook — the brother of Vikings star running back Dalvin Cook — as Buffalo’s preferred target.
Beane traded down twice, first from 57 to 60 (with the Bucs) and then from 60 to 63 (with the Bengals), in each case picking up extra sixth-round selections.
“I feel like I’m playing ‘Four Corners’ in basketball,” Beane joked in the Bills draft room, evoking the famous pre-shot-clock stall tactic perfected by legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
As Beane explained later: “I was just stalling to see if anyone would offer us something pretty good. But it wasn’t happening. I didn’t want to go too far down. I was willing to go back 10 (picks) or so.
“We were hoping to add a player with some dynamic trait on offense. RAC (run after catch) was this one’s skill set. He’s not as heavy as Dalvin; he’s not gonna be a short-yardage, pound-it guy. But he’s a wide-zone running back who will find the crease. And look, I think Zack Moss is gonna come back this year and be good. He was coming off (ankle surgery) from after the (2020 first-round playoff victory over the Colts) and couldn’t cut off his left side as well in 2021.”
The third-down-back role envisioned for Cook was one Beane had hoped to fill during the “legal tampering” period before the start of free agency, when the team struck an agreement with Washington Commanders veteran J.D. McKissic — only to have McKissic change his mind and re-sign with the Commanders, who had upped their offer to match Buffalo’s after learning of his imminent departure. The turn of events upset Beane, causing tension in his friendship with Commanders coach Ron Rivera, who was Carolina’s head coach from 2011 to 2019.
In the third round, Beane’s Carolina roots were once again evoked. After the Bills selected Baylor linebacker Terrel Bernard, Beane mentioned recently elected Hall of Famer Sam Mills as an example of someone who overcame perceived size deficiencies at the position.
“I am not saying he’s Sam Mills,” Beane said of Bernard. “But there’ve been stories of guys who are undersized and thrive, and he’ll have a chance to prove it. He’s smart, he leads, he’s a good blitzer and his instincts are really good. He just doesn’t have the prototype size and length. If he did, he’d have been gone.”
On Saturday, Beane watched a good chunk of his draft board disappear while the Bills waited to make their pick late in the fifth round. As the Ravens prepared to use the fourth-round selection obtained from Buffalo in the Elam trade (No. 130) — Baltimore would choose a punter, Penn State’s Jordan Stout, with the Bucs taking another punter, Georgia’s Jake Camarda, three picks later — Beane made a mental note.
“I always look at the board if I’ve traded a pick away and see who would’ve been there,” Beane said.
In this case, Boise State wide receiver Khalil Shakir stood out as the obvious choice. With Shakir still on the board as the fifth round began, Beane began to ponder the possibility of trading up. On Saturday morning, Bears scouting director Jeff King — a former Panthers tight end — texted Beane to broach the possibility of acquiring one of the Bills’ four sixth-round picks. “Call me when the fifth round starts,” Beane replied.
So King did — at the time, Beane was meeting with Cook, the team’s newly drafted running back, in his office. Beane finished the meeting and, five minutes later, returned King’s call. They quickly worked out a trade that allowed the Bills to move up 20 spots in the fifth round, from 168 to 148, while surrendering one of their sixth-round selections (No. 203). Beane then drafted Shakir, a receiver he views as “versatile, smart and tough. His first position is inside, but he can survive on the outside, too. I got a few texts from around the league after that one.”
The gist of those texts: Damn you for taking him. We wanted him.
Beane kicked off the sixth round by taking the third of the three punters he viewed as draft-worthy: San Diego State’s Matt Araiza, a lefty known as “The Punt God.” For a team that won a playoff game last January in which it never punted, a 47-17 thrashing of the Patriots, that’s boutique shopping at its finest.
Yet the Bills — who rounded out the proceedings by taking Villanova cornerback Christian Benford and Virginia Tech offensive tackle Luke Tenuta in the sixth round and Clemson linebacker Baylon Spector in the seventh — are making a point of not dwelling on last season’s playoffs. They hope their failure to hold that three-point lead in Kansas City with 13 seconds to play, and their subsequent defeat on the first possession of overtime (and the rule change it has since provoked), will be a painful part of a process that ends with a Super Bowl parade in downtown Buffalo, if not multiple parades.
“I think it’s part of your story,” McDermott said. “It wakes you up in the middle of the night. But at the same time, it’s time to move on.”
Over the course of three days, the general manager known affectionately as Big Baller Beane did his best to move the Bills a bit closer to their ultimate goal. He traded up, he traded down. He filled needs and tried to stay true to his board. He cleaned out his closet and ran a draft room in which no one sweated through his suit.
“It’s all part of the process,” Beane said Sunday. “I’ve had a lot of help, and I’m far from perfect. But we’re gonna stay true to our vision and keep working and hope our way is the right way.”