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How the seismic AFC quarterback shuffle will impact the Bills in 2022

Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen, left, shakes hands with Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson after an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Bills won 44-34. (AP Photo/John Munson)
Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen, left, shakes hands with Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson after an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, in Orchard Park, N.Y. The Bills won 44-34. (AP Photo/John Munson)

Now that the dust has slightly settled from free agency, it's time to take a look around the NFL.

Which conference got better? Who's the new tough team to beat?

One thing that's obvious—the AFC is extremely loaded at quarterback. And not packed with just any quarterback, the conference is full of players with Hall of Fame credentials and Pro Bowl pedigrees.

It's to the point where you wonder if every team is going to average over 30 points a game this year. You've got Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson among the players set to battle for the AFC crown for years to come.

"There are no quarterback problems in football right now so we're in a very good state," NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms said. "But the AFC, it is insane. I can't ever remember a time where we had this many big-time talents all on one side of the conference."

If you're an AFC team, it's insane that you have to game-plan against stopping these quarterbacks on a weekly basis.

"I'm voting for realignment and seeing if we can get into the NFC," Bills general manager Brandon Beane said jokingly. "You just look at the teams you're going to run into, this may be as deep as the league's been in quarterbacks at least on one side of the conference."

Beyond the flashy names of Allen and Mahomes, the AFC also welcomed a gun slinger in Matt Ryan and a guy who could have a lot of upside in Mitch Trubisky. There are also young QBs like Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson who are trying to prove they can carry their teams to the playoffs.

"As somebody that grew up sort of watching the Montanas, the Elways, Bernie Kosars, the Dan Marinos this is like a new golden era of quarterback play that we're seeing," USA Today Touchdown Wire writer Mark Schofield added. "It's full of guys that can make every throw from anywhere in the pocket, make any throw from anywhere outside the pocket, their arm angles and things they can do on the move. It's a brand-new day at the quarterback position, and it really starts with the AFC."

The Josh Allen Effect

Even AFC quarterbacks realize they are in an era of exceptional quarterback play that is extremely entertaining to watch.

"I do think that the young talent in this league is maybe at an all-time high," Josh Allen told Sports Illustrated during Super Bowl week. "You have guys that are playing at a really high level, putting up a lot of really crazy numbers throughout the season."

Allen belongs in that category and has put up his own crazy numbers since coming to the NFL. He posted a 149 passer rating in the playoffs last season, which is the highest all-time in the postseason (minimum 50 attempts). In his first four seasons, the QB had the second-most touchdowns (135) in NFL history. Allen is also one of three quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 120 total touchdowns and at least 30 wins in their first four seasons.

These numbers, the character and the willingness to do whatever it takes to win are just a few reasons why Bills teammates love playing for Allen. Stefon Diggs knows what it's like to play for one of the best in the game and respects the QBs he gets to play against.

"I love Patrick Mahomes," Diggs told Antoine Bethea and Darius Butler on the Man to Man podcast. "I think he does everything well, everything. He doesn't have a flaw. But when you look at my guy (Josh Allen), he does everything extremely well. He runs the ball well, he can jump over you, he can extend a play.

"Only thing I can say is I haven't watched Patrick Mahomes in the pocket and I ain't never seen him stiff arm no lineman. I ain't ever seen him shake off a lineman like Big Ben and then throw for 70. It's no shade. I still think he's an amazing quarterback but I'm standing on the table for my guy right now. He does everything and he does everything super well."

Beyond his traits that are tough to match, Allen has been a game-changer for Buffalo. The Bills have made it to the postseason the last three seasons, have one AFC Championship appearance and have three-straight 10-win seasons since Allen was named the starter. He has helped make Buffalo a destination, which has attracted several top-tier players.

"He became a superstar quarterback, and he's one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to be a part of this," Bills linebacker Von Miller said of Allen during his introductory press conference. "I believe in him. I believe in this offense."

It's not just Allen's teammates that understand how he can turn a game around with a few freakish plays.

"I think he's one of the best in this league," Tyrann Mathieu shared. "He's obviously a physical specimen, can make every throw, can really use his legs. And then, he's a team leader too. He's the guy that gets those guys going, gets those guys riled up. His future is definitely bright."

Allen's ability to do it all makes it tough on opposing defenses. Steelers linebacker and four-time Pro Bowler T.J. Watt has played against Allen three times and has just one win.

"He's one of those quarterbacks that can do things through the air," Watt added. "Obviously he's got a great arm and he can also escape in the rush lanes. So, it's a challenge for the guys in the back end. It's also a tough challenge for the guys on the front to be able to keep him in the pocket, so it's a tough day every time you play him."

How teams are trying to find their version of 'Josh Allen'

The Bills are lucky to have their guy who fits the "can make any throw and juke defenders on his feet" mold pretty well. After four seasons of showcasing a countless number of jaw-dropping completions, athletic touchdowns, impressive rushes and the ability to hurdle defenders, other teams decided they need something similar in their QB1.

"That was like priority one, making sure we had a quarterback that could move and get mobile," Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. "The amount of complex defenses we see nowadays has just increased year after year. And it has to be time for a quarterback who can go run and get 8, 10, 12 yards. Josh Allen can go get 50 yards whenever he wants it seems like.

"It's a quality in a quarterback that we used to like to have but now we feel like we have to have to run our offense the way we want to."

Quarterbacks like Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow fit the description because of what they have shown on tape. Herbert and Burrow can escape for 30 yards when the pocket is collapsing and also throw a 60-yard bomb to a receiver in stride.

As the Bills know, a quarterback who can beat you in multiple ways makes it harder on opposing defenses.

"You got to get you a Josh Allen," Maurice Jones-Drew said on GMFB as he ranked Josh Allen the second-best AFC QB. "When you can't run the ball, he runs the ball. When you need a big play, he's able to make it. I wasn't high on him coming out of Wyoming but over the years and throughout his career, he's gotten better and better to the point where you have teams trading for top-notch quarterbacks because of what he's been able to do in Buffalo."

In just two seasons, Herbert and Burrow have proven how an athletic quarterback can help a team earn double-digit wins and go deep into the postseason. Burrow led his team to a Super Bowl appearance in his second NFL season. He also broke two franchise records in 2021 — most passing yards in a single season (4,611) and most passing touchdowns in a single season (34). Herbert was named NFL's offensive rookie of the year in 2020. He was also the first QB in NFL history to reach 500 completions before his 20th career start and had the most passing touchdowns as a rookie (31) in NFL history.

"The AFC is in great hands," Chargers safety Derwin James said. "Starting with our quarterback of course, Justin Herbert. And then we got a lot of other great quarterbacks out there too, a lot of young quarterbacks. It's going to be a lot of fun for the next 10 to 20 years."

The NFL will be plenty of fun to watch in the near future due to the state of the quarterback position but it's not like the NFL hasn't seen this mobility in previous seasons. Before the new wave of today's field generals, there was and still is the athleticism of QBs like Russell Wilson and Cam Newton, the strength of Ben Roethlisberger, the mobility of guys like Michael Vick, Steve Young, Doug Flutie and so on.

The difference in some of today's quarterbacks is their ability to combine several of these desirable traits. That's what puts them in a category of their own.

How defenses must adapt to mobile QBs

It's a luxury to have a quarterback that teams have nightmares about but having a guy who has that "it" factor isn't the only thing needed to win. General managers like Brandon Beane realize when they're in a conference like the AFC, you need a defense who can stop players like Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow.

"We know this team is built around Josh Allen," Beane said. "We want to protect him first and foremost and then we want to get him weapons. We also want to get the other teams' quarterbacks down – Mahomes, Burrow, all of those guys that we're going to face and the guys in our division."

The Bills were one of three teams (Bills, Patriots, Browns) in the AFC that were top five on defense last season. Although, even being a part of the best defense in the NFL doesn't assure you success next season when opponents continue to add firepower to their offenses. That's one reason why the Bills felt like they needed to add someone who makes quarterbacks have a bad day.

"There's a ton of great young quarterbacks and it seems like the AFC continues to add quarterbacks," Bills head coach Sean McDermott said. "And you're seeing moves made to counter those moves. So, it's maybe a little game of chess going on here. So, to have a player of Von's (Miller) caliber, that should help us in that regard."

These chess moves have been a highlight of free agency, especially in the AFC. One team gets a big-name quarterback or weapon and then a divisional opponent adds a defender to try to stop that offense. 

During the NFL Combine, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco explained how these talented QBs directly impact how he puts together his roster.

"It makes us really focus on the defense actually because we want to slow these quarterbacks down," Telesco said during the NFL Combine. "We just can't have the mentality that we're going to try to outscore everybody because we have a good quarterback. So that really has to be a lot of the focus in our conference, being able to put a defense together so that we can rush the passer, try to move them off their spot a little bit and then cover."

Just a few weeks after Telesco shared those thoughts, he put his words into action and added a premiere edge rusher in Kahlil Mack and a cornerback who can take the ball away in J.C. Jackson. 

It's not just the Chargers who have bolstered up their defense, other AFC West teams have followed suit knowing they have to stop Mahomes, Wilson and Herbert. The Raiders added defensive end Chandler Jones and the Broncos added Randy Gregory in hopes of putting together a defensive line who can get after the QB.

Does the AFC East benefit from a stacked AFC?

If you looked at the AFC and had to identify the most loaded division, it's definitely the AFC West. It's basically the Wild Wild West due to the amount of QB talent concentrated into one division. They can duke it out, and other AFC divisions can enjoy watching from afar knowing that it could benefit them.

"I think that's very logical to say the Kansas City Chiefs, the LA Chargers, Raiders, Broncos are going to beat each other up and maybe come out the two through seven seed," ESPN NFL Draft analyst Matt Miller said on One Bills Live. "I think the other side of it is all four teams are playoff caliber. Derek Carr's the fourth best quarterback in the AFC West right now. He would be the best quarterback in most divisions.

"It's very crazy. I do think there's some logic to that. Obviously home field in Buffalo is a great advantage because of the wind and the cold. The fans are fantastic, so I definitely think there's a valid excitement when it comes to that."

We'll have to see how it all plays out, but this could give the Bills the extra help they need to make sure the playoffs run through Buffalo.

Sit back and enjoy the show

After polling so many different people on their pulse of the AFC, it's easy to see how difficult it is to wrap your mind around the talent level all on one side of a conference.

From a team's perspective, it makes sense that if you don't have your "Josh Allen" why wouldn't you want to go get one? And to stop an opposing "Josh Allen", you need an athletic defense that can fly all over the field and take the ball away.

But from an analyst and a fan's perspective, we are all very lucky. This season should be one to remember for so many different reasons. I mean this offseason has been one to remember and we haven't even seen how it will play out on the field yet.

Get ready and enjoy the ride because all of this "one-upping" we've been watching teams do during free agency will definitely amount to some entertaining games.

"It's going to be a game of chess, and that's super fun to watch," Frelund said. "In fact, one of the reasons why that game between the Chiefs and Bills was so interesting was because they were kind of both checkmating each other. They kept matching each other. We're going to see more exciting games like that."

Who wouldn't be down for a few of those games every season? It's not outlandish to say this could definitely happen in the AFC. 

As we detailed what a successful young quarterback looks like today and explained why every team wants one, it's pretty crazy to think about the impact that a few quarterbacks have had on the league and the league's future. 

Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow have completely altered the NFL based on their play. The fact that they've been able to do that is one reason why the NFL is so hard to turn away from. If these guys are the signal callers of today, who will be a part of the next generation?

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