After a reality check in a 38–24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game, Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott did his typically expert job of blunt self-analysis. Yes, the Bills, thanks to a 13–3 regular season, won their first AFC East Division title since 1995 and, after winning two playoff games, had their closest sniff of the Super Bowl in nearly 30 years.
But the gap between them and the two-time defending conference champion Chiefs remains significant. And what Buffalo achieved in COVID Year 2020 won’t have any bearing on what it does in 2021, when expectations will be sky high from Bills Mafia.
Thanks to hitting it big with 2018 first-round pick Josh Allen and a blockbuster trade for wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the Bills possess one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the NFL. Buffalo finished No. 3 in passing yards and set a franchise record by scoring 501 points in 2020, its scoring average rising by a whopping 11.7 points.
Allen’s improvement in his third season was nothing short of stunning, as was his instant chemistry with Diggs, one of the game’s best route-runners who will be poised to repeat as the NFL’s leading receiver (127 catches, 1,535 yards, eight TDs).
Allen’s record-busting season (Jim Kelly’s franchise mark for TDs in a season was among the victims) saw him raise his accuracy from 58.8 percent to 69.2, taking his passing TD totals from 20 to 37. He’s a big, mobile gamer and mentally built to put the time in to get even better. He lives McDermott’s mantra of “humble and hungry," and this isn't expected to change even after agreeing to a six-year contract extension shortly after the start of training camp that could be worth as much as $258 million with $150 million guaranteed.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is a mad scientist and will look to find even more ways to capitalize on Allen’s unique skill set that has already produced 92 touchdowns passing and rushing. Meanwhile, the Bills upgraded their insurance behind Allen with the signing of Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft who had a turbulent four seasons in Chicago but does have a 29–21 career record. He’s on a one-year “career reset.’’
When it comes to adding weapons around Allen, things haven’t stopped with Diggs. Sure-handed veteran Cole Beasley, a matchup nightmare in the slot, is coming off a career-best 82-catch season, while Gabriel Davis adds speed and size downfield. With veteran John Brown out injured, Davis made the most of his rookie season and averaged a team-leading 17.1 yards per grab. The Bills released Brown in a salary cap move but were able to restore that loss of experience by adding two-time Pro Bowler Emmanuel Sanders.
Buffalo is still waiting for a breakout season from tight end Dawson Knox. Veterans Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith have moved on, but Seattle’s Jacob Hollister was signed to push Knox and replenish depth. Hollister played with Allen at Wyoming.
With the leaps and bounds of improvement in the passing game, it was expected that Buffalo’s running game would tail off a bit. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss return as a 1-2 running game committee. They both averaged better than 4.0 yards per carry but aren’t considered home-run threats or backs built for heavy-duty work.
The Bills have built one of the better pass-blocking lines, which will look to be better in opening holes for Singletary and Moss. Veteran center Mitch Morse, one of the best in the NFL, leads the group, flanked by tackles Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams and guards Jon Feliciano and Cody Ford. Feliciano, who plays like everyone is the enemy, and Williams were among a host of key free agents GM Brandon Beane was able to keep in the fold despite salary cap restraints. Bobby Hart was an exceptional depth acquisition.
McDermott and coordinator Leslie Frazier enter their fifth season together, and that consistent connection has worked wonders. The numbers dropped a bit last season, but that was expected given a tougher schedule, the COVID opt-out of run-plugger Star Lotulelei, key free-agent losses and nagging injuries to top linebacker Matt Milano.
With Lotulelei rejoining the squad, Milano healthy and happy with a new four-year, $44 million deal and a draft that addressed an inconsistent pass rush, Buffalo is well-positioned to play what McDermott calls “championship-caliber” football. It starts up front, where veteran ends Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison will flank Lotulelei and Ed Oliver. Though his days of 10-sack seasons are behind him, Hughes, 32, is still a productive, high-motor presence who is a locker room leader. Addison joined the team as a free agent and chipped in 5.0 sacks. The Bills, meanwhile, tapped their Carolina pipeline once more for Efe Obada, who is coming off a 5.5-sack year and could surprise. Oliver, the ninth overall choice in 2019, started all 16 games and had his best season with 33 tackles and 3.0 sacks. His quickness in conjunction with Lotulelei’s size gives Buffalo 1- and 2-gap options and should improve the unit’s ability to affect the pocket more often.
Linebacker has been thin for the Bills, and they allowed 4.6 yards per rush in 2020. But a healthy Milano on the weakside alongside young star Tremaine Edmunds in the middle creates a dynamic combination of versatile, three-down players, while depth has slowly gotten better. Milano, a fifth-round pick in 2017, is an active tackler with 25 career QB hits. The freakishly athletic Edmunds (6'5", 250), a defensive end playing LB, has topped 100 stops each of his first three seasons and has barely scratched his potential. He also has rebounded from a shoulder issue. Milano and Edmunds have great chemistry and often confuse opposing offenses with their interchangeable maneuvers.
The strong-side spot is open but not dire, as the Bills line up predominantly in nickel. After a slow start, free agent A.J. Klein played superbly in whatever role he took on, especially when Milano was down, and finished with 75 tackles and 5.0 sacks. Other options include Tyrel Dodson and Andre Smith and free agents Tyrell Adams and Marquel Lee.
Buffalo returns one of the NFL’s top secondaries, led by Pro Bowl corner Tre’Davious White and the safety tandem of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. White, the club’s first-round pick in 2017, has excelled from Day One and enters his fifth season with 15 career interceptions, 54 pass breakups and 238 tackles. He’s the shutdown piece that allows Frazier to get creative in other areas. Poyer and Hyde are both on the other side of 30 but still play at a high level, as evidenced by last season’s combined 194 tackles and three picks.
The other corner is steady fourth-year pro Levi Wallace, 25, a restricted free agent who was retained on a one-year deal. The undrafted player has 35 career starts. The nickel spot is held down by 2018 draft gem Taron Johnson from Weber State; he finished third in tackles with 94, to go with seven passes defended and three QB hits. He also had an electrifying 101-yard pick-6 vs. Baltimore in the playoffs.
After a shaky start, rookie placekicker Tyler Bass wound up breaking Steve Christie’s team mark for points in a season with 141, to go with 71 kickoff touchbacks. Losing Pro Bowl return specialist Andre Roberts (9.9 average on punts, 30.0 on kickoffs) to Houston was a blow, but Isaiah McKenzie is a nice fallback (84-yard TD punt return vs. Miami). Free agent Brandon Powell will also compete there. Punter Corey Bojorquez (Los Angeles Rams), a great weapon who flipped many a field with his 50.8-yard average, was another big free-agent loss. Veteran Matt Haack takes his place.
With three playoff appearances in four years, the Bills are soaring under McDermott and Beane. Advancing to the AFC title game was perhaps a tad ahead of schedule, but the loss to the Chiefs will stand as a great motivator. The Patriots, Jets and Dolphins have each added young QBs, but the Bills have already put in the hard work drafting and developing Allen. That makes them the team to beat in the AFC East.