Meiler: Bills suddenly AFC East favorite, and should stay that way

Mike Meiler

Stefon Diggs is a Bill, Tom Brady is no longer a Patriot, and 20 years of New England dominance never felt so distant.

Over a span of about 10 hours late Monday into early Tuesday, the Buffalo Bills went from plucky playoff hopeful to AFC East favorite. They made the all-in move many had been hoping for, and their greatest rival folded away half its stack.

After two decades as an afterthought at the divisional table, Buffalo suddenly has the majority of the chips. And it looks like it could stay that way for at least the near future.

There are legitimate questions about how content Diggs, who had been at odds with the Vikings for over a year, will be if — when? — Josh Allen airs a couple open passes 10 yards over his head. But in terms of managing contracts and assets while adding talent, Brandon Beane knocked this one out of the park.

Diggs is 26 years old and signed for four more years at a cap hit ($11.5 million this year) a little more than half of what Amari Cooper ($20 million) got from the Cowboys about an hour later on the open market. And though Diggs finishing his time in Buffalo at that cap number would be a bit of a shock given how often NFL contracts are renegotiated, he's almost certainly going to be a bargain for a year or two.

Diggs' contract also comes without any bonuses, which were paid up front by the Vikings when he signed the deal. That leaves the Bills with extra real cash on hand to throw bonuses elsewhere, should they decide to chase another big fish, like former All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who has been linked to the team.

And while the draft price — a first, fifth and sixth this year, plus a fourth in 2021 for Diggs and a seventh — was high, it's one Beane put the Bills in position to pay. He and his staff built such depth over the past few years that the Bills were able to trade fringe players — anybody miss Wyatt Teller or Russell Bodine? — for late-round picks.

They had nine picks this year prior to the trade, including two fifths and three sixths. After building a deep roster the past few seasons with solid drafts, smart fringe signings and successful waiver claims, Beane admitted to reporters at the Senior Bowl that it was possible the Bills wouldn't be able to fit nine new players on their roster for next season.

At that time, he said the Bills might use those excess picks to trade up a few spots in the earlier rounds of the draft. Instead, he used them to grease the wheels on a trade for a star. And if you assume the Bills were in the market for a receiver with their first-rounder anyway, the trade really becomes a few late-round picks for proven talent rather than potential.

The cost of that proven talent is Diggs' contract, which again is a bargain, even if his cap hit is about four times what a first-round pick would make. And the Bills have the room to take it on in large part due to Josh Allen's rookie deal, which has a cap hit of under $6 million this season. Diggs, Allen and new Bills signee Mario Addison ($10 million) combine for a hit of about $27.5 million, which would rank fourth in the league among quarterbacks, south of Russell Wilson ($31 million) and just ahead of Jimmy Garoppolo ($26.6 million).

Diggs is also worth every penny. Matt Harmon, an analyst for Yahoo! Sports, labeled him the "best route runner in the NFL" based on his success rates against man, zone and press coverages. Robert Mays, who covers the NFL for The Ringer, pointed out that Diggs finished second in yards per route run, second in yards per target, first in yards on deep receptions and third in percentage of team air yards, making him "unquestionably one of the the 5 most valuable receivers in the league last season."

Smart football people like what the Bills are doing, which is following a tried and true blueprint for championship contention. The past seven Super Bowls have been won by either Brady, Peyton Manning or a deep team built around the cheap rookie contract of a young star quarterback, and the Bills believe they have the latter.

Allen's development is still the biggest key to the Bills' future. Beane and Sean McDermott will have a huge decision to make when his rookie contract is up, especially if he doesn't make considerable strides over the next three years. But in the short term, the Bills management is acing its use of cap space and draft capital.

The Buffalo Bills are run by smart people and Tom Brady is gone. What a world.

Respond to sports editor Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or via email at mike.meiler@gnnewspaper.com.

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