There is the battle of rookie quarterbacks — Cleveland’s first overall selection, Baker Mayfield, and Buffalo’s seventh overall pick, Josh Allen — and the return of former Browns first-round pick Corey Coleman after Cleveland traded him to the Bills almost two weeks ago.
But before Mayfield or Allen are likely to take the stage before a national television audience, Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor will play in his first game against the Bills since they dealt him in March to Cleveland for a 2018 third-round draft pick.
Taylor’s performance against Buffalo’s starting defense, which could play most or all of the first half, will be analyzed by many viewers either as justification for why the Bills dealt him away or as evidence of why they should not have jettisoned a quarterback with a higher passer rating with Buffalo (92.5) than franchise icon Jim Kelly (84.4).
The topic might be compelling in the moment, but in the big picture, Buffalo has no reason to second-guess its move.
Taylor could outperform Bills quarterbacks Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron on Friday night and eventually lead Cleveland to its first playoff appearance since 2002 — snapping the NFL’s longest postseason drought the same way he did for Buffalo last season — and it should not matter to the Bills.
The Bills traded Taylor as part of an overall effort to upgrade at quarterback and from a passing offense that produced the NFL’s fewest yards per game (191.8) in Taylor’s three seasons as the starting quarterback from 2015-17.
There were several factors at play in the performance of the Bills’ offense, including a revolving door at coordinator — from Greg Roman to Anthony Lynn to Rick Dennison — and at wide receiver, as well as an overall emphasis on the running game because of the abilities of Taylor and LeSean McCoy.
But it was perfectly reasonable for Bills general manager Brandon Beane to conclude that swapping Taylor for a third-round pick was better than keeping him this season, and that decision should be kept separate from Taylor’s performance with the Browns after their winless 2017.
Taylor said this week he is using the trade as motivation this season. The feeling in Buffalo seems to be neither one of bitterness toward nor regret about Taylor, but rather an understanding that Taylor was good enough to get the Bills to the playoffs last season and an acceptance he was probably not good enough to get them much further than their 10-3 AFC wild-card round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I have a ton of respect for Tyrod,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday. “We certainly shared some moments last year together and he was instrumental in us making the playoffs. I’ve got a ton of respect for his family and how hard the young man works and the great intangibles that he holds and possesses. I wish him nothing but the best.
“For us, certainly, we’ve moved forward and I know he has as well. We wish him nothing but the best.”
The Bills are moving forward with a still-unknown starting quarterback after neither Peterman nor McCarron has created obvious separation in a competition that also includes the starter in waiting, Allen. Solely comparing the performances of Peterman or McCarron to Taylor this season would not provide a fair evaluation.
By trading Taylor and signing McCarron, the Bills created $7.6 million in 2018 cap space that helped them bolster their defensive line by signing defensive tackle Star Lotulelei ($6.7 million cap charge in 2018) and defensive end Trent Murphy ($4.5 million cap charge).
It also gave the Bills the first pick of the third round, No. 65 overall, at a time when they were stockpiling assets, knowing they likely would have to move up for a quarterback in April’s draft. After a trade with the Denver Broncos for the No. 5 overall pick never materialized, Buffalo traded up to No. 7 to select Allen using, among other assets, an extra second-round pick acquired from the Los Angeles Rams as part of a deal involving wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
After not using the Browns’ third-round pick in their deal for Allen, the Bills used it as part of a package to move back into the first round and draft linebacker Tremaine Edmunds at No. 16.
Although the specific costs of each of the trades did not become clear until draft night, the Bills theoretically could have passed on Edmunds, still drafted Allen and kept Taylor this season instead of dealing him to Cleveland.
Taylor might have given the Bills a better shot at making the playoffs again this season over McCarron or Peterman, but he would have carried an $18 million salary-cap charge as a backup quarterback if he relinquished his job to Allen during the season. Keeping Taylor also would have come at the expense of some of Buffalo’s free-agent spending this offseason and left a hole in the middle of the defense that Edmunds is now likely to fill for a half-decade or longer.
Ultimately, it was the right time for the Bills to move on from Taylor, and Buffalo has little reason to look back.