Buffalo Bills 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills made the post-season at 9-7 in 2017, but they were not nearly as good as their record. They had a -57 point differential, despite having a +9 turnover margin. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Case in point, the Bills had a league leading +14 turnover margin through the first 7 games of 2017 and were 5-2 with a +38 point differential as a result, but they were -5 in their final 9 games and went 4-5 with a -95 point differential in those games as a result. All in all, the Bills finished the 2017 season 31st in first down rate differential at -5.73%.

In an effort to improve an offense that ranked 29th in first down rate, the Bills traded Tyrod Taylor, their unspectacular and well-paid starting quarterback, to the Browns for a 3rd round pick and then traded up a couple times in the first round to select Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, a much higher upside quarterback than Taylor. Allen struggled mightily in his first 6 games, completing 54.0% of his passes for an average of 5.99 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and rushing for 155 yards and 3 touchdowns on 35 carries. Then Allen got hurt and missed 4 games, which made things even worse. Through 9 games, the Bills had a pathetic 25.85% first down rate, dead last in the NFL.

Things started to turn around from there, starting with a week 10 start by Matt Barkley, who was the Bills 4th starting quarterback of the season at that point. Despite being signed off the street two weeks prior, Barkley completed 15 of 25 for 232 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 41-10 victory over the Jets. Then Josh Allen returned in their following game and was much better in his final 6 games of the season, completing 51.9% of his passes for an average of 6.86 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and rushing for 476 yards and 5 touchdowns on 54 carries. As a result of that and Barkley’s one game performance, the Bills had a 37.14% first down rate over their final 7 games of the season That rate is most similar over a full season to the Chicago Bears, who finished last season 14th in first down rate. That’s a huge improvement over their first 9 games of the season.

Allen never became an accurate quarterback, but he became more effective throwing downfield as the season went on and he also showed himself to be a major weapon on the ground down the stretch as well. The Bills got solid play from their defense in 2018, finishing 7th in first down rate allowed, so if their offense can take a step forward in 2019, this could be a playoff contender. The Bills are hoping for a significant improvement from year 1 to year 2 from Allen and he obviously has a ton of upside. They also re-signed Matt Barkley to be the backup and he would start if Allen got hurt, although his one start last season is not indicative of how he’s played in his career (68.3 QB rating in 7 career starts)

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Bills also made adding talent around Josh Allen a big priority of their off-season, as his struggles last season were not entirely his fault. The Bills entered the off-season with among the most cap space in the league and were very active adding players, especially on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. The Bills signed guard/center Spencer Long (3 years, 12.6 million), center Mitch Morse (4 years, 44.5 million), guard Quinton Spain (1 years, 2.05 million) and tackle Ty Nsekhe (2 years, 10 million) and then they used a 2nd round pick (38th overall) on Oklahoma Cody Ford, who can play both tackle and guard.

Morse is the only one locked into a role, starting at center. Morse started all 49 games he played in 4 seasons in Kansas City, after being selected in the 2nd round in 2015, but his durability has become a concern, missing 14 games in the past 2 seasons combined. Morse also never finished higher than 14th among centers on Pro Football Focus, so he’s a bit of an overpay as the highest paid center in the NFL in average annual salary. He’ll be an obvious upgrade though for a team that cycled through a pair of mediocre starting centers, Ryan Groy and Russell Bodine, in 2018.

Spencer Long can also play center and it looked like he’d be their starting center when the Bills signed him in February (he was released by the Jets so he didn’t have to wait until free agency to sign), but that changed when they later added Mitch Morse. Now Long will compete with Quinton Spain and Cody Ford for the two starting guard jobs. Long has been a solid starter at both guard and center in recent years, but struggled down the stretch in 2018 due to a hand injury, leading to the Jets releasing him just 1 year and 7 million into his 4-year, 27.4 million dollar deal. If he’s healthy, he could easily bounce back in 2019, though he has missed 16 games with injury over the past 4 seasons combined.

Quinton Spain has also been a solid starter in recent years, making 48 starts in 4 seasons with the Titans, since signing there as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Both he and Long could be capable starters, but Cody Ford is also competing for a role and the Bills traded up to get him early in the 2nd round, suggesting they had a first round grade on him. Either way, the Bills should have better guard play in 2019 than 2018. Right guard John Miller wasn’t bad, but Vladimir Ducasse and Wyatt Teller both struggled at left guard.

Ford is also an option at right tackle, where he’d compete with free agent addition Ty Nsekhe. Nsekhe got a higher average annual average than Spain or Long though, suggesting he has a better chance to start. Going into his age 34 season, Nsekhe has just 16 career starts, but he is a late bloomer and has impressed as an injury fill in with the Redskins over the past 4 seasons. He at least deserves a chance to start and his salary suggests that’s how they view him. Last year’s right tackle Jordan Mills finished 74th out of 85 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. It wouldn’t be hard for either Nsekhe or Ford to be an upgrade. These positional battles will figure themselves out in training camp and the pre-season and the ultimate result should be better play than 2018.

The only 2018 starter who remains is left tackle Dion Dawkins, who wasn’t great in 2018, but he wasn’t bad enough to need to be replaced. He also played much better as a rookie in 2017, finishing 5th among offensive tackles on PFF, and has obvious bounce back potential in his 3rd season in the league. The former 2nd round pick still looks like a long-term starting left tackle, but it’s possible the Bills could move Ford to left tackle at some point if Dawkins were to struggle for an extended period of time. No one stands out on this offensive line, but this should be a solid group.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Bills were also active in adding to their receiving corps. They signed two tight ends, Tyler Kroft for 18.75 million over 3 years and Lee Smith for 9 million over 3 years, drafted a third, taking Mississippi’s Dawson Knox in the 3rd round, and added a pair of wide receivers as well, signing Cole Beasley 29 million over 4 years and John Brown for 27 million over 3 years. Zay Jones and Robert Foster, a pair of young wide receivers who are their only returning pass catchers to top 260 yards receiving in 2018, will also be in the mix for roles. Much like on the offensive line, there isn’t a standout player here, but there’s enough depth and competition that this could end up being a solid group. Most roles will be determined in the pre-season and training camp.

Some roles are likely already decided, like Cole Beasley being their primary slot receiver. The 5-8 180 pounder has run 88.5% of his routes from the slot in his career. Beasley has never put up huge numbers, but he’s caught 176 passes for 1819 yards and 12 touchdowns in the past 3 seasons, an average slash line of 59/606/4 per game and he’s been especially dependable on 3rd and 4th down, with a whopping 39.2% of his catches coming on 3rd or 4th down. Even going into his age 30 season, Beasley should have another couple solid seasons left in the tank at least, as his game isn’t overly dependant on athleticism. He gives this offense something they didn’t have last season.

That leaves John Brown to compete with Zay Jones and Robert Foster for the two outside receiver jobs. Brown had a 65/1003/7 slash line in 2015 and was on pace for a 60/1048/7 slash line through 9 games last season, before the Ravens turned to an ultra run heavy offense with Lamar Jackson under center. Brown missed 7 games and was limited in others with injuries in 2016 and 2017, but he seems to be over those issues now. He’s a deep threat for a quarterback with a big arm.

Brown’s salary suggests he’ll start at one of the outside receiver spots, but Zay Jones was a 2nd round pick in 2017 and showed some promise with a 56/652/7 slash line in his 2nd season in the league, while Robert Foster came on down the stretch last season with 25 catches for 511 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 7 games of the season. Foster’s skill set is redundant to John Brown’s, so Foster could be the 4th receiver with Zay Jones as the other outside receiver opposite Brown, but it’s possible all 4 receivers play enough and see enough targets that none of them posts a big receiving total, especially with a quarterback under center who loves to take off and run.

Lee Smith is another player locked into a role, as the 6-6 268 pounder is a dominant run blocker, but has just 56 catches in 107 career games. Even in his age 32 season, Smith should still be able to move guys around in the running game and should see about 300-400 snaps in a specialist role. That leaves Tyler Kroft and Dawson Knox to compete for the primary pass catching role. Kroft’s salary suggests he’ll have a passing game role, but he never topped 42 catches in a season in 4 seasons in Cincinnati and broke his foot during the off-season, which could allow Dawson Knox to impress in practice in his absence. It’s unlikely one tight end puts up big receiving numbers. This could be a solid group overall though.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Bills also added at running back this off-season, signing veterans Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon to deals worth 2 million over 1 year and 3.2 million over 2 years respectively and then using a 3rd round pick on Florida Atlantic’s Devin Singletary, who could be a long-term lead back. All these moves would suggest the Bills are moving on from LeSean McCoy, who averaged 3.19 yards per carry on 161 carries as the lead back in 2018 and is owed 6.175 million non-guaranteed in his age 31 season in 2019, but McCoy is still on the roster, perhaps in an effort to convince a team to trade for him. That may be unlikely, given his salary and his age. Even if they don’t trade him, I give him a 50/50 chance to be on the roster week 1.

Even if McCoy stays in Buffalo, he’s unlikely to have the 195 touches he had in 2018. His 3.19 YPC average was not all his fault, given the lack of talent around him, and he should be better this season with a better supporting cast, but he’s clearly not the back he was in his prime. Even if Devin Singletary is more of a back of a future rather than an immediate factor, the Bills have a pair of proven veterans in Frank Gore and TJ Yeldon that are capable of handling roles and limiting McCoy’s playing time.

Gore is actually older than McCoy, going into his age 36 season, but he’s still running well, averaging 4.63 yards per carry on 156 carries with the Dolphins last season, despite horrible offensive line play. He ranked 15th in the NFL in elusive rating with 23 broken tackles and 3.29 yards per carry after carry. He’s at the point in his career where his abilities could fall off a cliff at any point, but he’ll likely have a role regardless of whether or not McCoy stays. Yeldon, meanwhile, is not much of a runner, averaging just 4.03 yards per carry on 465 carries in 4 seasons in Jacksonville, but he’s caught 135 passes in the past 3 seasons and should have a role on passing downs, regardless of whether or not McCoy stays. This is a deep group, but like the rest of this offense it lacks a standout player.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Bills have a talented defense, but one weakness they had coming into the off-season was defensive tackle, with Kyle Williams retiring after 13 seasons in Buffalo. The Bills addressed that need with the 9th overall pick, taking Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who easily could have been a top-5 pick. Williams still played well in 2018, but Oliver could be a capable replacement right away and he has the upside to be one of the better interior defenders in the league long-term. Williams’ specialty was rushing the passer, with 5 sacks, 10 hits, and 19 hurries on 413 pass rush snaps in 2018, but Oliver is an NFL ready pass rusher who could match those numbers immediately. He’s a little undersized against the run at 6-2 287, but could get stronger in the NFL.

Oliver will start next to Star Lotulelei, who the Bills added on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal last off-season. Lotulelei is a good run defender, but doesn’t get to the quarterback at all. In 6 seasons in the league, he has just 11.5 sacks, 15 hits, and 77 hurries on 2,052 pass rush snaps (5.0% pressure rate). Last year he was even more ineffective rushing the passer, not recording a single sack or hit and hurrying the quarterback on just 8 of 247 pass rush snaps, leading to him earning a below average overall grade from Pro Football Focus in his first season in Buffalo. Now going into his age 30 season, his best days might be behind him. He should remain a solid run stuffer, but he’s not nearly worth what the Bills are paying him.

Reserves Harrison Phillips and Jordan Phillips also remain in the mix for snaps. Harrison Phillips flashed a lot of potential against the run as a 3rd round rookie, but didn’t generate any pass rush either, with no sacks, 2 hits, and 6 hurries on 176 pass rush snaps. He could play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league after being limited to 389 snaps as a rookie, but he may never develop into a capable pass rusher because of his limited athleticism.

Jordan Phillips, meanwhile, has earned a below average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Phillips has upside, but he’s running out of time to make good on it, going into his age 27 season. He was kicked off the team in Miami due to issues with his coaches last season after 3+ seasons with the team and spent the final 12 games of the season in Buffalo, playing an average of 22.4 snaps per game. The Bills brought him back on a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal, suggesting he’s locked into a role. He should play 20-30 snaps per game for lack of a better option. The Bills need a big rookie year from Ed Oliver, as he’s probably their best overall interior defender, even before ever taking an NFL snap.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

Ed Oliver is the only newcomer on this whole defensive line, with the Bills bringing back all of their key edge defenders, led by Jerry Hughes, who just signed a 2-year, 23 million dollar extension to keep him in Buffalo through 2021. Hughes’ age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he’s also coming off of arguably the best season of his career. He had just 7 sacks, but he added 13 hits and 54 hurries on 397 pass rush snaps (18.6% pressure rate) and he played the run well. Overall, he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked edge defender last season. He’s had some good years in the past, but that’s the highest he’s ever finished for a single season. In 6 seasons in Buffalo, he has 42 sacks and a 13.0% pressure rate in 80 games. It may be tough for him to match his career best year in his age 31 season, but he should have at least a couple more good seasons left in the tank.

In base packages, Shaq Lawson will start at the other defensive end position. The 19th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Lawson has been a disappointment thus far, missing 13 games with injury and totaling just 10 sacks. The Bills declined his 5th year option for 2020, even though it was guaranteed for injury only. That could prove to be a mistake. Not only does Lawson excel against the run, ranking 32nd among edge defenders on PFF in run defense grade in 2017 and 11th in 2018, but Lawson also showed some life as a pass rusher last season, with 4 sacks, 8 hits, and 11 hurries on 220 pass rush snaps (10.5% pressure rate). That’s a significant improvement from the 8.0% pressure rate he had in his first 2 seasons in the league.

Only going into his age 25 season, the odds that Lawson has a breakout year are higher than the odds he suffers a serious injury that forces the Bills to pay him in 2020, so they should have picked up his option. The Bills could end up regretting that move. Now in his contract year, Lawson will continue being a base package end and should play at least the 440 snaps he played in 2018. If he continues improving as a pass rusher, he may earn more playing time and stay on the field in more sub packages.

Trent Murphy is more of a sub package defensive end, but he struggled against the run and as a pass rusher in 2018. He had just 4 sacks, 5 hits, and 12 hurries on 252 pass rush snaps (8.3% pressure rate). Murphy was a better player in 2015 and 2016, totalling a combined 12.5 sacks, 23 hits, and 49 hurries on 694 pass rush snaps (12.2% pressure rate) and earning above average overall grades from PFF in both seasons, before a torn ACL cost him all of 2017. He also missed 3 games with a knee injury in 2018 and was likely wasn’t 100% for most of last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, Murphy has bounce back potential, now another year removed from the ACL tear.

Outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander also sees frequent snaps as an edge defender in obvious passing situations. He was their 2nd best edge rusher last season behind Hughes, with 6.5 sacks, 4 hits, and 27 hurries on 238 pass rush snaps (15.8% pressure rate). Alexander’s age is becoming a concern, going into his age 36 season, but he’s been a late bloomer, playing the best football of his career in the past 3 seasons, after primarily being a special teamer for the first 11 seasons of his career. His abilities could fall off at any point though, given his age. Even if they do, this group might be deep enough to compensate.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Bills bring everyone back in their linebacking corps. In addition to Lorenzo Alexander, who remains as the 3rd linebacker, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, who stay on the field in nickel packages, remain as well. Milano is coming off of broken leg, but he was emerging as one of the better young linebackers in the league prior to the injury. A 2017 5th round pick, Milano was underwhelming in 450 snaps as a rookie, but took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, playing 741 snaps in 13 games and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked off ball linebacker. Healthy again and still only in his age 24 season, Milano could pick up right where he left off.

Tremaine Edmunds is also a promising young linebacker, taken 16th overall in 2018 after the Bills moved up for him. He was a bit of a disappointment as a rookie though, earning below average grades from PFF for his pass coverage and run defense. His 18 missed tackles were 5th most among off ball linebackers and his 612 receiving yards allowed were 6th most. He was impressive as a blitzer, with 2 sacks, 5 hits, and 6 hurries on just 50 blitzes, but he needs to be more than a good blitzer to be worth his draft slot. Fortunately, he’s still only going into his age 21 season and could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Especially when you include Alexander, who can play the run as well as rush the passer, this is a good linebacker group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Bills had a weak spot at cornerback for the first half of last season, with both Phillip Gaines and Ryan Lewis underwhelming as the #2 cornerback, but that changed when undrafted rookie Levi Wallace moved into the starting lineup and started the final 7 games of the season. Wallace allowed just 10 catches for 94 yards on 19 targets and 218 coverage snaps in those 7 games and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback, despite being undrafted and not playing a single snap prior to those 7 games. It’s a small sample size and it could prove to be a fluke, but Wallace has certainly earned the right to compete for the starting job in 2019.

The Bills brought in some competition through free agency, signing EJ Gaines from the Browns and Kevin Johnson from the Texans to one-year deals. Gaines and Johnson both have upside, but they have the same problem, that they can’t stay healthy. Gaines was PFF’s 20th ranked cornerback in 2017 with the Bills and earned an above average grade from PFF in 2014 as well, but 3 of his 5 seasons in the league have been injury plagued and he’s played in a total of just 43 of 80 possible games.

Johnson, meanwhile, was a first round pick in 2015 and showed a lot of potential early in his career, but has been limited to 19 games in the past 3 seasons, leading to the Texans releasing him ahead of his 5th year option this off-season. Both Johnson and Gaines are worthwhile flyers and it’s possible one can stay healthy and have a strong season as the starter, but it’s also possible that Levi Wallace is able to keep the job in training camp. The Bills have plenty of options.

Tre’Davious White remains as the #1 cornerback. He was PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback as a rookie in 2017, but fell to middle of the pack in his 2nd season in the league in 2018. After allowing 50.0% completion, committing 3 penalties, and deflecting 12 passes as a rookie, he allowed 57.7% completion, committed 10 penalties, and deflected 5 passes last season. A return to form would obviously be a big boost for this secondary.

The Bills also have slot cornerback Taron Johnson returning. A 4th round pick in 2018, Johnson showed a lot of potential in 11 games as a rookie, allowing 0.78 yards per route run on the slot, 5th in the NFL, before going down for the year with a shoulder injury. Now healthy, he should be able to keep his job as the slot specialist, even with Gaines and Johnson coming in this off-season. This is a very deep position group.

The Bills are also deep at safety. They have a good starting duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and they also have Rafael Bush, a versatile veteran who can provide depth at safety and slot cornerback. In 2017, Hyde and Power were arguably the top safety duo in the NFL, ranking 7th and 9th respectively among safeties on PFF. Hyde was able to repeat that performance in 2018, finishing 9th, though Poyer fell to 49th. Neither Hyde nor Poyer were full-time starters before arriving in Buffalo, but the Bills appear to have found two late bloomers. Still in their age 29 and age 28 seasons respectively, I expect them to continue being an impressive safety duo, with Hyde likely being the better of the two again. The Bills should get strong play from their secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

Both Josh Allen and the rest of the Bills offense should be better in 2019. If their defense can continue playing at a high level, this could easily be a playoff contender. One thing to note is that their defense had the 6th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2018 and might not be as lucky in 2019, which could be noticeable on the field. I think the Bills are better than the Jets, who are also a sleeper team in their division, but ultimately I see the Bills as more of a .500 team than a playoff qualifier. 

Prediction: 7-9, 2nd in AFC East

Team Score: 73.22 (23rd in NFL)

Offensive Score: 71.11

Defensive Score: 75.32

team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

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