By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
This time last year the Buffalo Bills were off to a 1-2 start and lugging around the NFL’s heaviest load of so-called “dead money” on the way to losing seven of their first nine games overall.
With the likes of Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn and Eric Wood eating up roughly $33 million of Buffalo’s salary cap but no longer taking up space on its front lines, general manager Brandon Beane had five full months to plan how to spend that much cash and more once the old contracts cleared the team’s books.
So when the doors swung open on NFL free agency in March, Beane sprung into a shopping spree. He immediately committed more than $80 million to nine newcomers and soon nearly doubled Buffalo’s list of free-agent signings to 15 in all.
Most of the money was spent in one place — on offense to protect and serve the Bills’ first-round investment in the 2018 draft, quarterback Josh Allen.
On March 14 alone, Buffalo inked eight free agents for that single side of the ball.
To protect Allen, they picked up center Mitch Morse, guard Jon Feliciano and tackle Ty Nsekhe. To shorten the field for him, they added the league’s top returner of a year ago, Andre Roberts. To bolster his backfield, they secured soon-to-be 15,000-yard rusher Frank Gore. And to expand his receiving options, they locked up tight end Tyler Kroft and receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley.
All of whom — except for the injured Kroft — will try to help Allen on Sunday join Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Kyle Orton as the only quarterbacks to lead the Bills to victory over the Patriots in a game started by Tom Brady.
Brown, formerly a Cardinal and Raven, poses a big-play threat for the strong-armed Allen. He averaged 17.0 yards per catch for Baltimore last year. His Buffalo debut included a 38-yard touchdown grab against the Jets.
Nevertheless, it’s the diminutive Beasley that figures to play the largest part if Buffalo is to build on its 3-0 start to this season and Allen is to eventually blossom into the franchise quarterback the Bills need him to be.
As Patriots assistant Jerod Mayo described Allen on a conference call this week, he can “make all the throws” and, at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, is athletic enough to make defenses “look at his legs.” However, as a rookie Allen completed just 52.8 percent of his passes, frequently airing it out downfield and often on the run.
According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, Allen averaged a league-high 11.0 air yards per pass in 2018, with a league-worst 22 percent over- or under-thrown. More than a quarter of his passes were delivered from outside the pocket, helping to explain why his average time from snap to release (3.22 seconds per NFL Next Gen Stats) was the slowest since Tim Tebow in 2011.
Enter Beasley, the former Cowboy often likened to Julian Edelman — on network telecasts, anyway — who told Buffalo reporters that he agreed to his four-year deal with the Bills after considering an offer from New England.
Short and shifty, frequently though not exclusively aligned in the slot and a reliable stick mover — all of which make him, yes, like Edelman — Beasley was ostensibly brought into Buffalo to give Allen an opportunity to get rid of the ball more quickly, read defenses more easily and extend drives more consistently.
Beasley owns a 71 percent career catch rate. In 2018, 39 of his 65 receptions resulted in Dallas first downs. Meanwhile, the Bills were last in the NFL in first-down completions. Through three weeks of 2019, Beasley and — guess who — Edelman each have 17 catches, including four on third down.
“Cole’s an outstanding player,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “He’s got great quickness, can really separate, good with the ball in his hands after the catch. He’s certainly a good third-down player to create that separation in those man-to-man situations on third down.”
“I think he’s able to do a lot of things on the field,” added safety Devin McCourty. “Similar to Jules, I think guys always just want to label him as a slot guy that only can play in the slot. But, Cole Beasley, he’s out there. He’s playing the Z, he’s playing the X and two-receiver sets, and he kind of plays all over their offense. So, you can tell he’s a smart guy that can do a lot of different things. So, I’m sure Josh Allen has a lot of trust between him and [John] Brown out there.”
Hence, ex-Pats assistant Brian Daboll, now in his second season as Buffalo’s offensive coordinator, seemingly trusts Allen, whose completion rate is up to .641 — albeit with three interceptions — to execute an expanded playbook.
“Yeah, you definitely see that through the first three games – just their ability to attack each one of those defenses a little differently each week and kind of having (a) matchup offense,” McCourty says.
As for the Patriots’ matchup defense, Jonathan Jones is validating his recent contract extension through three games with the way he’s playing primarily in the slot. He’s never faced Beasley, whose only prior appearance against New England was with Brandon Weeden spelling Tony Romo in 2015. Beasley caught four passes on six targets in a 30-6 loss.
Our Matt Dolloff wrote more about the presumed pairing of Jones and Beasley, as well as some other key matchups to watch closely on Sunday.
1. High On B-Lo: Before every trip to Western New York I am asked — usually rhetorically — about visiting Buffalo. Without fail, as evidenced by the questioner’s raised eyebrows upon hearing my response, my answer belies expectation. Understand that our weekly travel leaves little time in any one place. In town early Saturday evening, we’re out by the time the stadium parking lots empty late Sunday afternoon. Priorities for the radio crew are 1) Saturday night eating options, 2) our press box whereabouts and booth size and 3) time of game (earlier being better).
Finding good food, and not just wings, is easy in Buffalo. As an older stadium built when fans attended to be entertained only by the game and not while sipping cocktails from luxury suites, the broadcast location is among the league’s best. And, generally, 1 p.m. kickoffs combined with a short flight allow for early touchdowns back home. Plus, the “Bills Mafia” always bring it — love for the home team exceeded only by their hatred of the visitors from New England. Sunday will have a Saturday feel; a pro game played in a college football atmosphere.
2. Good Housekeeper: Along with the yearly question above, there’s an annual reminder before departing for Buffalo to beware of flying objects from the stands of New Era Field. That’s where in the third quarter of the Pats’ 41-25 rout of Rex Ryan’s Bills in Week 8 of the 2016 season a sex toy was tossed in the direction of Chris Hogan just as he caught a screen pass inside the 5-yard line.
This Sunday not only will our broadcast team — and, I should mention, the CBS duo of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts — return to the scene of the crime, we’ll be joined by official Keith Washington. His kick save of sorts after the play cleared the, ahem, marital aid from the field. Washington was the side judge back then, positioned in the corner of the end zone as a member of John Parry’s crew. On Sunday he’ll be the field judge for referee Craig Wrolstad.
3. That Date In Bills Mafia Infamy: The aforementioned affair on Oct. 30, 2016 is memorable for more than a projectile. It turned out to be the final game of Jamie Collins’ first stint with the Patriots. A day later, he was traded to Cleveland. It also marked the last time Ryan coached against New England. Eight weeks later he was fired by Bills owner Terry Pegula.
Not a single player who touched the ball for Buffalo in the game remains on the team’s roster. That includes the kicking specialists, long snapper, center and two quarterbacks. Meanwhile, the lone starting defenders still around are linebacker Lorenzo Alexander and defensive end Jerry Hughes.
You can hear Bob Socci on the call of the game on every game day for the New England Patriots, right here on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can also hear him on his own The Gridiron And Beyond podcast at 985TheSportsHub.com.