2023 NFL Combine: AFC powers weigh tough decisions ahead

Frank Clark (Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Frank Clark (Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports) /

On the opening day of the 2023 NFL Combine, the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs spoke about tough choices ahead this offseason.

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL Scouting Combine is here. So are the AFC superpowers.

On Tuesday, the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs all spoke, each addressing their pressing situations heading into the offseason. Let’s run them down in the order in which they spoke.

To start, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane talked with reporters only hours after the team announced defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier won’t coach in 2023. With Frazier off the sideline, Beane alluded to head coach Sean McDermott taking a bigger role with the defense. McDermott, who worked as the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator from 2011-16, will now be wearing multiple hats.

“Right now, he’ll just kind of lead that,” Beane said of McDermott’s defensive role. “… It’s not on the offensive side of the ball. It’s on the defense. We feel like we have some really good minds in that room with Bobby Babich. We added Al Holcomb, John Butler, Eric Washington, just added Joe Danna.”

Beane also talked about Buffalo’s lack of financial flexibility. After spending lavishly in recent offseasons, the Bills won’t have the ability to aggressively upgrade as they did in years past, instead focusing on smaller moves — internal and in free agency — along with the draft.

“We are tight on the cap this year,” Beane said. “We’re going to be tight next year. Looking at it from a forecasting standpoint, we have a couple of tough years coming up. We will strategically push some money forward with some restructures to get under the cap, but that’s why I said at the end-of-season presser, I wouldn’t expect the Von Miller-type moves.”

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs are dealing with their own questions.

While the defending champs don’t have a cap crunch ahead, they do have a looming choice to make on left tackle Orlando Brown, along with edge rusher Frank Clark.

Brown, 26, has made three consecutive Pro Bowls and was part of an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack to the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII. After getting the franchise tag last year, Brown is eligible for free agency once more, but Chiefs general manager Brett Veach says conversations are ongoing with Brown’s camp.

“It’s an option,” Veach said of a second franchise tag for Brown. “As always, it’s more beneficial to get something done long-term, that’s why this season is so important for us. This is the start, we’ll have a lot of dialogue. As you know, the combine is great to come in and check out the new college talent, but a lot of the time here we’re talking with agents of our players.

“Unlike last year, I think we have a runway to work with. We’ve gotten to know (Brown’s) team a little bit better. We’re excited to get that process started here and hopefully we can get something figured out.”

Beyond Brown, Veach has other pressing questions as well. With free agency only a few weeks away, the Chiefs are $3.5 million over the projected cap and need to create space, especially if Brown is giving a franchise tag of $19.9 million. One way will be either releasing or extending defensive end Frank Clark.

If Kansas City released Clark, it saves $21 million while incurring $7.7 million of dead cap. Now Veach must decide whether to cut ties, or extend Clark while lowering his cap hit.

“We’ll probably, to a certain extent, need some cap space,” Veach said. “But we have a long history with (Clark) and his agent too. It will be one of the many conversations we have this week. I look forward to getting with him and seeing if we can work something out that makes sense for both parties.”

While Veach will make the ultimate call, Clark has a well-documented relationship with head coach Andy Reid. Both are from Los Angeles and share a strong bond, one Reid spoke about during his presser immediately preceding Veach on Tuesday.

“I actually talked to him at the parade,” Reid said. “… I had a good talk with him. I love Frank Clark. Veach has to juggle all these things going on, but Frank is top notch. Top-notch guy. I love him. Love him to death.”

Then there’s the Bengals, who played in their second consecutive AFC Championship Game this past season. While the roster is stacked, there are questions galore for general manager Duke Tobin this winter.

For openers, Tobin has a litany of high-profile free agents to address including safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates, linebacker Germaine Pratt, tight end Hayden Hurst and running back Samaje Perine. Then there’s the option of releasing longtime running back Joe Mixon, and the potential extensions for quarterback Joe Burrow and receiver Tee Higgins.

While Tobin addressed all of those topics in some capacity, he was most emphatic on Higgins, who some have speculated might be traded this offseason with cap concerns surrounding Cincinnati’s future. For his part, Tobin did his best to squelch those talking points.

“I’m not in the business of making other teams better,” Tobin said. “I’m in the business of making the Cincinnati Bengals better. Trading Tee Higgins is not on my mind. That’s their problem. They want a receiver, go find your own. In my opinion, Tee Higgins is a good piece for the Cincinnati Bengals. The trade stuff is a little ridiculous.”

Still, Tobin understands the reality of the salary cap for every ascending team with a bevy of stars. The Bengals won’t be keeping every notable name hitting the market in a few weeks.

To replace them, Cincinnati will have to continue its recent tradition of developing mid- and late-round picks into quality starters. Since 2018, Tobin has found Bates, Pratt, Higgins, defensive end Sam Hubbard, linebacker Logan Wilson, kicker Evan McPherson and corner Cam Taylor-Britt either on the second and third day of the draft.

The Bengals’ knack to marry scouting and coaching to elevate their drafts has been a key to their resurgence, and it must continue.

“I don’t think that plan ever really changes,” said Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor of the organization’s ability to quickly develop later-round picks. “We’re always looking to maximize our draft picks. But I think that’s where we have such an advantage with Duke and our scouting department.

“The experience that’s (Duke’s) got, just being in Cincinnati, understanding the draft classes coming in, he does a great job on giving our coaches a great start on what they need to know and how they can help in the process. … We have to continue to do that as we move forward.”


New Denver Broncos head coach Sean Payton talked about building his new staff for the better part of his presser. He also mentioned Vic Fangio, whom he spoke with about a role in Denver before Fangio took the defensive coordinator job with the Miami Dolphins.

Fun fact? Payton’s parents are from Scranton, Pa., which is where Fangio hails from. Payton says his cousin taught sixth-grade math to Fangio, and the geographical connection helped spawn a friendship.

Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio was very careful with his words, but said he enjoys his new relationship with first-time head coach DeMeco Ryans. Caserio also said he’s not concerned about the Indianapolis Colts potentially jumping Houston in the draft order for a quarterback, stating he’s only worried about the Texans. With due respect, Nick, sell that elsewhere.

 Ryan Poles stated his support for quarterback Justin Fields, but the Chicago Bears’ GM stopped short of minting him the ’23 starter. As always, Poles is committed to doing his due diligence. The reality? Poles is smart for making other teams believe his options are open, but it should take an absurd offer to pry Fields out of Chicago. The Bears’ best move has, and remains to be, moving back.