Josh Allen and company have their sights on winning the franchise's first division title since 1995
After losing to the Houston Texans 22-19 in a wild card playoff game, the Bills put themselves under the microscope instead of focusing on controversial calls by the officials. Despite rolling up a season-high 425 yards vs. the Texans, the Bills, whose 10-6 regular-season record was their best since 1999, couldn’t better their 19.6 regular-season points-per-game average and dropped their second playoff game in three seasons under head coach Sean McDermott.
But where to get better came into full focus: Keep giving rising star quarterback Josh Allen more weapons so the offense can better complement the NFL’s No. 3-ranked defense. A blockbuster trade for receiver Stefon Diggs, along with a draft that was heavy on offense, accomplished that.
In two seasons of sometimes brilliant, sometimes wacky but always passionate play, Allen has justified his selection as the No. 7 overall pick in 2018. He’s big, mobile and a gamer, joining Steve Grogan, Dak Prescott, Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson as the only NFL quarterbacks with 20-plus passing and 12-plus rushing touchdowns in their first two seasons. He tied Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson for most game-winning drives in 2019 with five.
With third-year coordinator Brian Daboll having polished Allen’s rough edges and Beane adding Diggs to join John Brown and Cole Beasley to form one of the NFL’s most versatile trio of receivers, Buffalo’s passing game is poised to make a giant leap from its ranking of 26th. Diggs, just 26, is a dynamic plug-and-play veteran who had grown tired of his Minnesota surroundings. For a batch of picks, including a 2020 first-rounder, the Bills added a player who can run the entire route tree and, with Brown, make full use of Allen’s deep-ball skills. Beasley, meanwhile, is an accomplished short- to mid-range weapon, peskier than a fly at a picnic. How good can this trio be? Their combined numbers from 2019 add up to 202 catches, 2,968 yards, 18 touchdowns and a catch percentage of 64.1 percent.
Meanwhile, things look better at tight end than they have in years. Dawson Knox had a promising rookie campaign with 28 receptions for 388 yards and two scores, and he turned in several of the season’s most memorable plays, including a 49-yard catch-and-run against Cincinnati where he made bowling pins out of two Bengals defenders. At 6'4", 254, he’s a presence the Bills have sorely lacked at the position. Depth is strong, led by veteran Tyler Kroft, who is healthy again after missing five games.
Playing dime packages all day would be one solution for an opposing defense against Buffalo’s passing ability, except that the league’s No. 8 rushing attack was also upgraded with the addition of rookie running back Zack Moss of Utah to join last year’s rookie sensation Devin Singletary. Moss, a bruiser who replaces Frank Gore, will be the smash to complement Singletary’s flash. As a rookie, Singletary led all rookies with 549 yards from scrimmage in Weeks 11-16. He has elite ability to find seams and accelerate and figures to be an even bigger factor in the passing game. Veteran T.J. Yeldon, who was underutilized last season, provides solid insurance.
Making it all click is a nimble, athletic line that GM Brandon Beane was able to overhaul in just one offseason. Returning as a unit are center Mitch Morse, guards Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano and young bookend tackles Dion Dawkins and Cody Ford. Morse, a 2019 free agent from Kansas City, started all 16 games after an early concussion scare and provided stability after the sudden 2018 retirement of Eric Wood. Ty Nsekhe and free agent Daryl Williams are key depth players, who will be needed right away as Feliciano will be out 8-12 weeks after undergoing surgery on July 31 for a torn pectoral muscle.
McDermott and coordinator Leslie Frazier have built a nasty defense that has ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the NFL in total yards allowed the past two seasons, respectively. The Bills’ core players will enter their fourth season playing an aggressive 4-3, zone coverage scheme that relies on heavy rotation to stay fresh.
Buffalo did lose heart-and-soul linebacker Lorenzo Alexander to retirement as well as defensive linemen Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson, who combined for 16 sacks, and veteran cornerback Kevin Johnson in free agency. But as quickly as those holes materialized, they were filled with a flurry of veteran signings. Defensive end Mario Addison, who has collected at least nine sacks in each of the past four seasons for Carolina, will play on the edge with Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy. Hughes, who hasn’t hit double digits in sacks since 2014, fought through a slew of injuries last season but is poised for a bounce-back in the twilight of his career. Helping these 30-somethings is rookie A.J. Epenesa, the Bills’ top draft pick (second round, 54th overall) out of Iowa. Epenesa, a human eclipse at 6'6", 280, was one of the nation’s top edge rushers with 11.5 sacks. Inside, last season’s first-round pick, Ed Oliver (43 tackles, 5.0 sacks), is ready to hold down a starting tackle spot. Oliver was arrested in May on DWI and weapons charges in his native Houston, but those were dropped a week before the scheduled start of training camp. Star Lotulelei, a reliable space-eater, was expected to start at the other tackle spot, but he opted out of playing this season due to concerns related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. His decision puts an emphasis on third-year pro Harrison Phillips being fully recovered from ACL surgery. Newcomers Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson and second-year man Darryl Johnson provide additional depth, giving the Bills have a six- to seven-man rotation to rush the quarterback and clog running lanes.
Middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, a 2018 first-round pick who has freakish size (6'5", 250) for the position, led the Bills with 115 tackles but hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential. He’s joined by overachieving Matt Milano (101 tackles) and versatile free agent A.J. Klein, another former Panther who slides into Alexander’s strongside slot.
The Bills’ secondary is led by Pro Bowler Tre’Davious White, who had a breakout year with six interceptions. He held opposing QBs to a 38.9 rating, second best in the league. Levi Wallace, an undrafted rookie in 2018, started all 16 games opposite White, finishing with 76 tackles and two picks. Brought in to challenge for his starting spot was Josh Norman, 32, a former Pro Bowl player for McDermott in Carolina. Meanwhile, the Bills employ one of the NFL’s best safety tandems in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, McDermott’s original building blocks in Buffalo. Poyer, who had 107 tackles and two picks, has soared since arriving from Cleveland and signed a two-year, $20 million extension. Depth overflows with nickel Taron Johnson, Dean Marlowe and Jaquan Johnson.
Stephen Hauschka’s nickname of “Hausch Money’’ is well deserved, as the 12-year veteran has been among the NFL’s best kickers for a long time. But trust in his leg is waning, especially after he went 1-for-5 from beyond 50 yards last season. Enter sixth-round pick Tyler Bass to signal that the job is wide open. Third-year punter Corey Bojorquez went through growing pains in 2019 but wound up with a team-record 34 punts inside the 20 to go with a 37.7 net average. Andre Roberts, one of the best at his craft, returns to handle both kickoff and punt returns. The former Pro Bowler averaged 26.6 yards on 25 kickoff returns, with three going 40-plus yards.
Buffalo has gone from one of the most dysfunctional organizations to one of the most stable in three quick seasons under Beane and McDermott. They came in talking about “a process’’ and have stuck with it. Now it’s a matter of getting over the wild-card playoff hump. With Tom Brady’s exodus, the New England Patriots’ stranglehold on the AFC East Division has been loosened, putting the emerging Bills in position to win their first division title since 1995.