With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing the quarterback position on the Buffalo Bills:
2018 cap hits of top returnees:
Tyrod Taylor -- $18.08 million
Nathan Peterman -- $614,877
Pending free agents: Joe Webb
Key stat: The Bills' lack of faith in Taylor is perplexing to some outside Buffalo, but one of the possible reasons the Bills have been reluctant to label Taylor their franchise quarterback is his struggles in leading the team from behind when he needs to push the ball downfield. Taylor is generally conservative and takes care of the ball, ranking second behind Tom Brady since 2015 in interception rate per pass attempt (1.3 percent). But when Taylor has needed to take chances in order to win a game, he has come up short.
When the Bills have trailed by eight points or less in the fourth quarter since 2015, Taylor has been intercepted on 7 percent of his passes, sixth-worst of 41 qualifying NFL quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In such situations, Taylor has gained first downs on 26.8 percent of his throws, 31st in the NFL, and has thrown only three touchdowns in three seasons. Taylor has a 3-15 record when trailing in the fourth quarter, a .167 winning percentage that is tied for 42nd in the NFL since 2015.
While not addressing Taylor specifically, Bills general manager Brandon Beane last week stressed the need for NFL quarterbacks to make from the pocket downfield passing plays that could determine the outcome of games.
"In this game, you have plays where it's third-and-9 and you can't run for it, and you got to be able to make plays from the pocket," he told the Bills' official radio program. "We know how close these games are. You look at the Super Bowl. Most of these games come down to three or four plays, and a lot of them at the very end. You're going to eventually have to make plays from the pocket. You can't just be a run-around guy, but you can't be a statue back there, either. A good blend is nice."
Money matters: If the Bills decide to keep Taylor, his $18 million cap number would be the highest on the team but rank 17th among NFL quarterbacks. That is roughly commensurate with his value. The question is whether the Bills could find a better veteran quarterback this offseason at a comparable cost, or whether they would prefer to sign a lower-cost veteran and draft a young quarterback to eventually take over. The Bills must decide by March 16 whether to keep Taylor on their roster and pay him a $6 million roster bonus. Releasing or trading him before then would result in about $8 million in dead money, while waiting until after the bonus is paid would mean $14 million in dead money.
Big picture: The Bills have drafted only three quarterbacks in the first three rounds since Jim Kelly retired in 1997: J.P. Losman (first round, 2004), Trent Edwards (third round, 2007) and EJ Manuel (first round, 2013). All three picks, which were made by three different general managers, flopped. The Bills have picked only three quarterbacks in franchise history in the first round, and only Manuel was the team's first pick of the draft. That could change this April, as the Bills have some draft assets that they could use to move up the board in the first round and pick a quarterback regardless of whether they keep Taylor. The price will be steep, but the Bills have collected bargaining chips since last season in order to give them flexibility.
The game plan: The home run for the Bills would be to snag one of the draft's top quarterbacks by executing a trade at a reasonable asking price. The problem is that the Bills will not know until April whether that can happen, so they must make decisions in the coming days about Taylor and free-agent quarterbacks independent of their draft plans. Keeping Taylor as insurance or as the starter next season is one option, but trading him and acquiring a quarterback at a comparable or lower price would also make sense. The unlikely scenario is the Bills splurging on a top free agent such as Kirk Cousins or Case Keenum. It would also be surprising if the Bills let Taylor go and rode into 2018 with Peterman as their starting quarterback; he simply is not ready.