Josh Allen and the Bills look to take a step forward this season
After ending an epic 17-year playoff drought in 2017, the Bills reverted to their old ways last season, finishing 6–10. So why, then, is this “an exciting time to be a Buffalo Bill and a fan of the Buffalo Bills,” per head coach Sean McDermott? Because he and GM Brandon Beane have been patiently building a roster they believe can win for the long haul, adhering to a “process” they learned in Carolina. Part of that process entailed paying some serious dues last season in drafting a rookie quarterback in Josh Allen — and then playing him before they wanted to.
No matter what personnel moves the franchise made this offseason, and the number was dizzying, the future all depends on Allen’s continued positive development. The team’s No. 2 defense, its ranking a bit of a mirage given its inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, was enhanced with the drafting of defensive tackle Ed Oliver in the first round.
“I think people can feel the direction of this team and the direction of this organization moving in the right direction,” McDermott says.
For his and Beane’s sake, it needs to be. This roster is 94 percent of their own making, and after two years, it’s time to see some results.
Calling the Bills offense “anemic” last season was an insult to people suffering from anemia. Buffalo ranked 30th in total yards, 31st in passing yards, 20th in touchdowns, 31st in interceptions and 30th in points. Even the Bills’ No. 9 run game was deceiving with LeSean McCoy (three TDs, 3.2 yards per carry) having by far the worst season of his career and Allen’s 631 scrambling yards skewing reality. To put things in perspective, Buffalo had games in which it scored three, zero, five, six and nine points; had 10 games where it failed to hit 200 yards passing; and had six games where it failed to rush for 100 yards. Basically, an offense can’t play worse. Beane was so disgusted with his offense that he attacked that side of the ball like a hungry man at a 24-hour buffet during the offseason. Of the 19 unrestricted free agents he signed, 15 play offense.
Allen, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft, showed flashes that he could be the franchise QB the Bills have sought since the days of Jim Kelly. In his 11 starts, Allen’s arm strength was never questioned, though his accuracy (52.8 percent) was. His running ability was a major asset (eight TDs), and the Bills will continue to build on that aspect of his game. So how can Allen stay on an upward trajectory? For starters, unlike a year ago in Week 1, he has two very capable veteran backups in Derek Anderson and Matt Barkley.
Then comes protection. The Bills will likely have four new starters on their line. Center Mitch Morse, who protected Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, is the only lock at his position. Spencer Long, Jon Feliciano, Ty Nsekhe, Quinton Spain and rookie second-round pick Cody Ford will battle it out for the two guard spots and the right tackle job, with Dion Dawkins returning on the left side.
Allen will also have better receivers to throw to, after the addition of free agents John Brown, who adds speed and experience, and Cole Beasley, one of the league’s better slot men while in Dallas. Robert Foster was a bright spot as a rookie in 2018 and is an emerging deep threat. Zay Jones (seven touchdowns) had his best season but remains a complementary piece.
With the release of veteran Charles Clay, the starting tight end job is wide open for third-round pick Dawson Knox to seize. Collectively, the Bills still don’t have a No. 1 receiving threat and will try and go about it by committee.
The same is true at running back, where Buffalo is hoping to get one more useful season out of McCoy, who turns 31 in July, and future Hall of Famer Frank Gore, 36, whose leadership the Bills value highly. Gore had a better year in 2018 (with the Dolphins) than McCoy. Frankly, McCoy needs a very good training camp to remain on the roster. Marcus Murphy, Jacksonville free agent T.J. Yeldon and rookie Devin Singletary, a 5’7” highlight reel at Florida Atlantic, are among many younger options should McCoy and Gore finally hit the wall.
McDermott, the architect of the Panthers’ Super Bowl defense, put his stamp on this unit a year ago with a No. 2 overall ranking. Sure, there were some clunkers. But overall, the Bills’ defense did its job, holding opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing eight times and fewer than 200 yards passing 10 times, and 10 starters are back.
The retirement of six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams, the heart and soul of the locker room, was a major loss. But there are several players capable of filling the void, led by linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, entering his 13th season; defensive end Jerry Hughes, entering his 10th; and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, just 20 and in his second season. “There’s a lot of young talent here, and we’re primed to do something special if guys really take advantage of this offseason coming up,” Alexander says.
One big reason is adding another first-round draft pick to the mix. Oliver was selected ninth overall to play the 3-technique position, taking over the spot manned by Williams. Oliver joins Shaq Lawson (2016), Tre’Davious White (2017) and Edmunds (2018) as a fourth consecutive first-round pick on defense.
If there’s an area for improvement for the Bills, it’s with their pass rush; they notched just 36 sacks last year, ranking 26th. Oliver’s quickness and push in the middle could be a major help. Hughes (47 career sacks) and Oliver are joined up front by space-eating nose man Star Lotulelei and end Trent Murphy, and there is ample depth with Lawson, Harrison Phillips and Jordan Phillips, who joined the Bills mid-year from Miami and was retained.
At linebacker, Edmunds had his growing pains but ultimately put together a very impressive rookie campaign, leading the team in tackles with 121 to go with two sacks and 12 passes defended. Alexander, 36, keeps defying time and chipped in 74 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Underrated Matt Milano returns to the weak-side spot from a leg injury.
The secondary remains one of the best in the NFL. White can be left alone to cover any team’s No. 1 receiver, while free safety Jordan Poyer and strong safety Micah Hyde are smart, deep patrol men and willing run supporters. There was a revolving door at the corner opposite White but no shortage of candidates to secure the job full time, led by Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, E.J. Gaines (a former starter who played last season for Cleveland) and free agent Kevin Johnson, a former first-round pick of the Houston Texans who is looking to shake a history of injuries and find a permanent home.
Placekicker Stephen Hauschka, entering his 12th season, continues to perform at a high level. He converted 22-of-28 field goals (4-of-7 from beyond 50 yards) in 2018 and all but one of his extra points. He ranks 46th all-time in field goals made with 242. The Bills went through three punters a year ago before settling on Corey Bojorquez, who averaged 45.1 yards. Isaiah McKenzie is back to handle punt returns and is also in the mix to handle kickoffs with Marcus Murphy (24.9-yard average on 13 returns).
After five games scoring in single digits, the Bills could have as many as eight new starters on offense. It’s a fresh look and sorely needed. The keys are a new-look line jelling quickly and a deep passing game developing to take advantage of Allen’s arm. The defense is good enough to take a team to the playoffs. Buffalo has missed 18 of the last 19 postseason parties, so it’s not like there’s the weight of expectations on McDermott. But time waits for no man in the NFL.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC East
(Top photo by Bill Wippert, courtesy of www.buffalobills.com)