ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — How many times does a team trade away the player who is the face of its league and get away with it? Or at least, the draft pick that became the face of its league?
In the Buffalo Bills‘ case, they might have pulled off the unthinkable; they will get a chance to prove it this weekend.
In Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, the Bills will face the Kansas City Chiefs (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS) and quarterback Patrick Mahomes (assuming he clears the NFL’s concussion protocol) — the player the Chiefs drafted in 2017 with the No. 10 pick they received from the Bills.
It’s a trade Buffalo fans have heard about ad nauseam. In coach Sean McDermott‘s first draft as coach, the Bills traded down with the Chiefs for the No. 27 pick, a third-round pick (No. 91) in 2017 and the Chiefs’ first-round pick in 2018 (No. 22). After some maneuvering, Buffalo emerged from the deal with three franchise cornerstones — cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and left tackle Dion Dawkins — and special-teams ace Siran Neal.
Is that enough of a return for Mahomes, 25, who in three seasons as a starter has a Super Bowl ring, a league MVP award and a chance to add to his trophy case this postseason? Sunday’s game result will help frame that discussion moving forward.
“They got a good player in Patrick, and I think we made out as well with Josh [Allen], Tremaine and Tre’Davious — however you kind of shape that, in terms of picks that became picks,” McDermott said Monday. “I think both teams fared awfully well.”
For a time, particularly during Mahomes’ MVP season in 2018 when Buffalo went 6-10, it seemed the Bills were destined for a decadelong reminder of the player they allowed another AFC team to pounce on.
But even in the wake of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LIV victory, it became clear during the 2020 season the Bills had built a sustainable future around their haul from that 2017 trade and the selection of their own franchise quarterback in Allen in the 2018 draft. Not only did Allen turn in the greatest statistical season of any quarterback in Bills history, setting single-season franchise records for passing yards (4,544), passing touchdowns (37) and completion percentage (69.2), he also is in the conversation for MVP this season — right alongside Mahomes.
“He’s special; this is a special group,” Dawkins said after Buffalo’s first-round playoff win against the Indianapolis Colts, when Allen passed for 324 yards. “Josh is almost like a character on Madden — a 99 overall. He just keeps doing it week in and week out. I’m happy to call him my quarterback and I’m happy to block for him.”
White has been the prize of the Bills’ return from the Mahomes trade, having been named first-team All-Pro in 2019 and a Pro Bowler in each of the past two seasons. Bills general manager Brandon Beane has insisted his plan is to draft, develop and re-sign the team’s cornerstone players, and the Bills rewarded White this past offseason with a then-record four-year, $70 million extension that made him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history until Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey surpassed him four days later.
“I was their first pick, so they just wanted me to come in and help build the culture here,” White said. “From the day I got drafted to when I got here and met everybody, they just told me I’m the first pick to changing this organization. I didn’t take that lightly.”
And White isn’t the only pick from that 2017 class to receive a second contract, as Dawkins signed a four-year, $60 million extension in August. Unlike White, who starred in each of his first two seasons, Dawkins struggled in his second NFL season. However, he bounced back and was named a team captain in 2019, elevating his play to a point where Buffalo locked him in to an extension before he could play out the final year of his rookie contract.
Dawkins is as much of a linchpin as any other player on the Bills’ roster.
“He’s improved every year since he’s been here, his intangibles, his confidence, his ability in his craft,” Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “It’s a testament … to Dion for putting in all the work. I’m glad we have him.”
It’s also impossible to ignore Edmunds’ contributions as one of the NFL’s most productive linebackers over the past three seasons. Since his rookie season in 2018, only 11 NFL players have more tackles than Edmunds’ 355. The two-time Pro Bowler is also younger than all but three Bills players; just 22, the Bills’ starting middle linebacker could quarterback their defense for the next decade.
Not worried about what-ifs
Then there’s the player who has changed this discussion the most — Allen. His evolution this season into one of the league’s elite quarterbacks officially made any regret following that 2017 draft trade obsolete.
Marcus Spears says everything would have to go right for the Chiefs to beat the Bills without Patrick Mahomes.
For two seasons, the question remained — what would the Bills look like if they had drafted Mahomes instead of trading the pick? The answer is no longer relevant.
“I don’t really operate in the what-ifs world, I really don’t,” Beane said. “I look at what the Buffalo Bills — when I got there in May [after the 2017 draft] — what that opportunity was. That’s for the fans and other people to do; that’s not really for me to do. My thing is, when I walk in the door, this is what we have, these are the holes on our roster, this is where we’re good. That’s my approach.”
Buffalo gained three franchise pillars, two of whom have signed multiyear extensions, and found its franchise quarterback the next season after dealing away the pick that became Mahomes.
Especially if they can topple the Chiefs this weekend, the Bills have a chance to cement themselves as one of the few teams to pass on a generational talent and actually be better off for it.