Sullivan: Finally, most of NFL trying to catch the Bills

Jerry Sullivan

Ponder this if you will: In a very short time — assuming that Mac Jones isn’t a total bust in New England — the Bills’ Josh Allen will be the elder statesman among starting quarterbacks in the AFC East.

That’s how quickly fortunes can shift in the volatile world of the NFL, where the forward pass is king and half the league seems to be in a perpetual quest to discover a savior at the sport’s most important position.

Over the last two years, the Bills’ division rivals have all snagged a QB early in the draft. Last year, the Dolphins took Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick. On Thursday, the Jets, who had drafted Sam Darnold third overall just three years earlier, took Zach Wilson at No. 2.

The Patriots, who had never drafted a quarterback in the first round in 21 years under Bill Belichick, were happy to have Alabama’s Jones fall to the 15th pick of the first round.

It’s only natural for Bills fans to worry about the AFC East teams finding the answer at QB. But they should smile, think back to the drought and take comfort in the fact that it’s finally the other teams trying to catch up to Buffalo.

Allen is the real deal. He’s coming off a huge year in which he broke most of the team passing records and led the Bills to a franchise record 501 points. Remember we used to say it was all about the franchise QB, and how once you found him everything else had a way of falling into place?

The AFC has become the conference with the rising young quarterbacks. In last year’s divisional round, all four starting QBs (Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield) were 25 or younger for the first time since the league went to the current playoff format.

You get the distinct impression that the rest of the AFC is scrambling to keep pace with the Bills and the Chiefs, two high-powered offenses with dynamic young quarterbacks.

Last year, the Bengals took Joe Burrow first overall. This year, the Jaguars and new head coach Urban Meyer picked Trevor Lawrence, who is regarded as one of the four or five most gifted quarterbacks to come out in the last 40 years.

Eight of the first nine picks by AFC teams on Thursday were offensive players. Maybe that’s a coincidence. Or it could be that AFC coaches and personnel men believe the only way to compete for titles nowadays is to put together an offense that could win a shootout against KC or Buffalo.

The Chargers, who have revamped their offensive line with free agents, drafted tackle Rashawn Slater at 13 overall. It’s clear that they want to do a better job protecting second-year quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns as a rookie behind a weak O line.

Picking fifth, the Bengals nabbed wide receiver Ja’marr Chase, reuniting him with his old college buddy, Burrow. Cincinnati has issues on the offensive line, but Burrow was having a rookie season similar to Herbert’s when he got hurt after 10 games and figures to be even better in Year 2.

The Dolphins maneuvered their way to the sixth overall pick and took Alabama wideout Jaylen Waddle, who has been compared with Tyreek Hill. Waddle joins DeVante Parker and Will Fuller in a receiving trio that could compensate for Tagovailoa’s suspect throwing arm.

The two most coveted running backs went back-to-back to AFC teams: Najee Harris to the Steelers at 24 and Travis Etienne to the Jaguars a pick later. The Jags took heat for the pick, but it’ll be interesting to see how that offense performs with the two former Clemson stars, Lawrence and Etienne, reunited in the backfield as rookies.

A lot of Bills fans were disappointed to see the two tailbacks go off the board that soon. I imagine we’ll never know whether general manager Brandon Beane tried to move up in the draft to get one of those so-called “home run hitters” to bolster an already explosive offense.

My guess is that they intended to go with an edge rusher all along. How desperately is the need for a back when you set the team scoring record? Defense was the smart play, and in Gregory Rousseau the Bills got an edge rusher who possesses all the physical tools to be an impact player in the NFL.

What do you do when everyone else in the conference is adding offensive talent to keep up on the scoreboard? You add a defensive player who can contend with a rising tide of young quarterbacks both now and in the future.

“Anytime you can affect the quarterback, and you saw two teams in our division take new quarterbacks, we definitely wanted to add there at the right time," Beane said. “And we're really excited about Greg.”

There it is. Beane made it fairly clear that the Bills approached their first-round pick with an eye on what's going on in the rest of the AFC, particularly at the quarterback position.

Rousseau likely would have been drafted a lot higher if he hadn’t opted out last season at Miami to help his mother cope with her job as a nurse treating COVID-19 patients. At 6-6, 267 pounds, he has the size, speed and strength to play all along the line.

“The thing about Greg is a lot of his sack production came from the inside,” Beane said. “They played him all over.”

Rousseau is perceived as a bit of a project, though Sean McDermott will expect him to contribute immediately as a rotational lineman and challenge for the starting defensive end spot opposite Jerry Hughes.

The Bills were also looking long-term. Veteran ends Hughes and Mario Addison will be 33 and 34 at the start of the new season. Beane, who is paid to look ahead, said he envisions a time when Rousseau and A.J. Epenesa, their first pick a year ago, are the starting defensive ends.

A few years down the road, when all these young quarterbacks are hitting their primes, offense could be at historic levels in the AFC. The Buffalo defense will need to be ready. Taking Rousseau was a wise way to begin.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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