The Bills won 10 games and made the post-season in 2019, but there was reason to be concerned. Their +0.93% first down rate differential (13th in the NFL) suggested they were a little lucky to win as many games as they did and that’s even before taking into account that they faced one of the easiest schedules in the league. Their 2020 schedule seemed significantly tougher, which was a bad sign for a team that had gone just 1-5 against winning teams the year before, including a post-season loss to the Texans, with their only win coming by 7 points over the Marcus Mariota led Titans, who missed four field goals in the game.
The Bills were also led by a defense that ranked 6th in first down rate allowed, while their offense ranked just 22nd in first down rate, which is normally a bad sign for a team going forward because defensive play tends to be far less consistent year-to-year than offensive play. In fact, the Bills’ defense did drop off significantly in 2020, falling all the way to 25th in first down rate allowed over expected at +1.27%. Based on that alone, you might think the Bills fell off significantly as a team in 2020, but instead they finished with their best record in 30 seasons at 13-3 and made their first AFC Championship appearance in 28 seasons.
What happened? Well, the wild card for this team was always quarterback Josh Allen. Allen was selected 7th overall by the Bills in 2018 NFL Draft and was a controversial pick to say the least, as some saw a late blooming quarterback prospect who had the throwing ability and physical upside to be an elite NFL quarterback, while others saw a major project with inconsistent mechanics and accuracy and little history of collegiate success. For the first two seasons, the latter seemed like the more correct assessment.
In his rookie year, Allen was downright bad as a passer, completing just 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible and finishing with the 2nd lowest completion percentage over expected (-7.7%), giving a lot of fuel to the critics who believed he lacked NFL accuracy. The Bills defense actually ranked 7th in first down rate allowed, but their offense ranked just 29th in first down rate, leading to the Bills winning just 6 games, despite the performance of their stop unit.
Year two was better, but largely by default. His -3.7% completion percentage over expected (5th worst in the NFL) still showed him to be inaccurate and he finished the season with just a 58.8% completion percentage, 6.70 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while ranking 28th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF. He did a good job of avoiding negative plays, especially compared to his rookie year, but he didn’t play consistently well enough for the Bills to even finish as an average offense and there was a stark drop off in his level of play against tougher opponents, which extended into the post-season.
I mentioned earlier that the 2019 Bills went just 1-5 against teams with a winning record, with the one win being a game in which they scored 14 points against a mediocre Titans defense, and one look at Allen’s production splits in those games shows why. Against winning teams, he completed just 51.7% of his passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, as opposed to 62.6% completion, 7.26 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions against .500 or worse teams.
A stark dropoff against tougher competition isn’t all that unusual, but Allen wouldn’t always be able to only face winning teams in 6 of 17 games like he did in 2019. Allen showed a lot of promise on the ground in his first two seasons in the league, averaging 5.76 YPC on 198 carries, while rushing for 17 touchdowns, but his massive ceiling as a passer seemed to only be theoretical and a big leap from year two to year three didn’t seem like the most likely outcome.
However, Allen proved almost everyone wrong by not only making a big leap, but playing at an MVP caliber level, leading the league’s best offense in first down rate over expected at +4.00%, and carrying a team with a mediocre defense to one of the league’s best records, a 6th ranked finish in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (+2.73%), and a spot in the NFL’s final four teams. Their 37.03% first down rate not only led the league, but is the third highest mark of the past two decades, only behind the 2018 Chiefs and the 2004 Colts, an impressive feat even if it’s easier to move the ball than ever before in today’s game.
Suddenly from one season to another, Allen seemed to transform from the mechanically raw quarterback that his critics thought wouldn’t be a consistent starter in the NFL to the elite dual threat quarterback that his biggest fans dreamed he could someday be. In total, Allen completed 69.2% of his passes (+4.6% over expected, 2nd in the NFL) for an average of 7.94 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, rushed for 4.13 YPC and 8 touchdowns on 102 carries, and ranked as PFF’s 5th ranked quarterback overall. He was no game-manager either, dropping back to pass or taking off to run on 67.7% of the Bills plays, among the highest usage rates in the league.
The question now becomes, can he do it again consistently? Allen is obviously a one-year wonder in terms of playing the level he played at last season and, while it may seem like Allen has gone through his full development and is now going to be a consistently elite quarterback, development of even elite players is not always linear. We saw Josh Allen’s draft classmate Lamar Jackson win an MVP with a legendary season in 2020, only to fall back to earth with a good season, but not an elite season in 2021.
Most quarterbacks who see the kind of year-to-year jump that Allen had last season, even young talented quarterbacks early in their career, tend to drop off noticeably the following season. However, Allen was so good last season that even if he does drop off noticeably in 2021, he’ll probably only be dropping off an elite quarterback to a very good or above average one. It would be a real surprise to see him regress back to his early career form and it’s possible he has even further untapped potential and could see even better days in his future, still only heading into his age 25 season. He seems like a good bet to win an MVP at some point in his career.
The Bills probably won’t be the #1 team in first down rate again in 2021 if Allen isn’t quite as good, but the flip side of that is their defense should benefit from the inconsistency of defensive play this time around, as they figure to be better than their 25th ranked finish in first down rate allowed over expected from 2020 and, at least on paper, they appear more talented than their rank last season suggested. Even if their offense slides a few spots, their defense could easily improve more than enough to make up for it. Barring a massive drop off from Allen, the Bills should be considered one of the top few Super Bowl contenders in the league and one of the league’s best teams overall. And if Allen doesn’t drop off, they might just be the favorites.
The worst case scenario for Allen would be a significant injury and, even though Allen hasn’t missed any time with injury since his rookie year, his playing style and his propensity to run the ball necessarily leads to him taking more hits and being more at risk. That hardly guarantees an injury, but the Bills were wise to try to find a better option at the backup quarterback spot this off-season, after using journeyman Matt Barkley in that role over the past two seasons, signing ex-Bears starter and first round pick Mitch Trubisky.
Trubisky’s stint in Chicago was highly disappointing, but that was because he joined the team with massive expectations as the #2 overall pick. Trubisky never lived up to that potential, but he wasn’t a horrible starting quarterback, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions and game-managing a team with a strong defense to a record of 29-21. He also shares similar traits to Allen with his rushing ability, averaging 5.56 YPC with 8 touchdowns on 190 carries with the Bears, and a year ago it honestly would have been a debate between Trubisky and Allen who had the brighter long-term outlook.
That doesn’t mean Trubisky is about to make the same leap Allen did, now in his 5th season in the league, but he’ll benefit from the same coaching, which he didn’t really have with the Bears, and he could be a reasonable replacement and keep this team afloat for a few games if he has to and we’ve seen quarterbacks like him be late bloomers before. Arriving in Buffalo with much lower expectations on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal, Trubisky has a good chance to be a surprise in a good way with his second team, still only in his age 27 season, possessing a legitimate first round upside despite being a reach with the 2nd overall pick. With Allen likely to be one of the better quarterbacks in the league again this season, with the upside for more, and a solid backup who also has upside, the Bills are in very good shape here.
Beyond Josh Allen being one of the top quarterbacks in the league, he is also still on a cost-controlled rookie deal, which has allowed the Bills to be aggressive adding to his supporting cast, a big part of the reason why the Bills are in the position they are in now. It’s not an insignificant difference, as Allen’s cap number is just 6.91 million this year, while a quarterback of his caliber would likely command around 40+ million annually on the open market. Since the start of the salary cap 27 years ago, only 7 teams have won the Super Bowl with their quarterback taking up 10% or more of the cap and all 7 of those quarterbacks are Hall of Famers.
By comparison, more than half (14 of 27) have taken up less than 7% of the cap while a third (9 or 27) have taken up less than 5% of the cap, which is where Allen is now. Even if Allen is extended on a big contract before the end of his current deal, the two years remaining on his current deal will allow the Bills to spread the cap hit out over more seasons and his 2021 cap hit would be unlikely to jump significantly, which the Bills don’t even really have the cap space for anyway. Not just Allen’s level of play, but his contract is also a big part of the reason why the Bills are one of the top contenders in 2021.
The Bills have mostly opted for volume and depth over star power in building this roster around Allen, but the biggest addition they made was acquiring Stefon Diggs from the Vikings last season, as he was the single biggest external factor that led to Allen’s success in 2020. Diggs was a 5th round pick of the Vikings in 2015 and, despite his draft status, made an instant impact on the Vikings’ offense and quickly developed into one of the better wide receivers in the league.
A 52/720/4 rookie year slash line led to a 3-year stretch from 2016-2018 where he averaged a 83/924/7 slash line and 1.83 yards per route run. That was followed by a 2019 season where his 63/1130/6 slash line didn’t look to be a huge improvement over the previous three seasons, but his efficiency numbers were among the best in the league, averaging 12.1 yards per target and 2.69 yards per route run, which ranked 2nd in the NFL and was a big jump from his already impressive average from the previous three seasons. The biggest thing that kept his production down in 2019 was that he didn’t have a high usage rate on a run heavy offense with other passing game options, which frustrated Diggs to the point where he demanded a trade, one that the Vikings granted when the Bills offered a first round pick for a player who the Vikings didn’t use like a #1 option anyway.
The Vikings used that selection on another wide receiver Jordan Jefferson, who was among the best wide receivers in the league as a rookie, at a much cheaper rate than Diggs, who had 55.5 million over 4 seasons left on his deal when the Bills acquired him, but there is no guarantee that the Bills would have taken Jefferson had they not traded for Diggs and the Bills won’t complain as Diggs continued his high efficiency production from 2019 into a much bigger role with one of the most effective and highest volume passing games.
That led to Diggs ranking first in catches (127), receiving yards (1,535), targets (166), despite actually seeing his yards per route run average drop slightly from the year before to 2.51. He also added 8 touchdowns and finished the season as PFF’s 4th ranked wide receiver. Overall, he has never finished lower than 30th in any of his six seasons in the league, he has arguably gotten better in every season, and he is still in his prime in his age 28 season. He’s established himself as one of the top wide receivers in the league and the Bills bought at a perfect time with the Vikings possibly not realizing quite how good Diggs was. Even if he isn’t quite as good as he was last season again in 2021, he should remain one of the top wide receivers in the league and has a decent chance to win the NFL’s receiving title for the second straight season.
This receiving corps wasn’t just Diggs either. Prior to adding Diggs, the Bills made a couple more minor moves to improve this receiving corps the previous off-season, adding Cole Beasley on a 4-year, 29 million dollar deal and John Brown on a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal, and both proved to be great pickups, leading this team with slash lines of 67/778/6 (1.64 yards per route run) and 72/1060/6 (1.97 yards per route run) respectively in 2019 and providing significant upgrades for Allen at the wide receiver position.
With Diggs being added in 2020, they took on more of a complementary role and Brown also missed seven games with injury, but Brown still averaged 1.60 yards per route run when he did play, while Beasley excelled as the primary option after Diggs, posting a 82/967/4 slash line, averaging 2.10 yards per route run, and ranking as PFF’s 13th ranked wide receiver on the year. Has been pretty inconsistent throughout his 9-year career and he’s now going into his age 32 season, but he also ranked 8th among wide receivers and had a 2.07 yards per route run average in 2016 and, overall, he’s averaged an above average 1.63 yards per route run over the past five seasons combined. Even if he isn’t quite as good in 2021, he should remain an asset barring a massive dropoff.
The Bills also had 4th round rookie Gabriel Davis, who was unspectacular, but overall held up pretty well over 799 rookie year snaps, serving as an every down player when Brown missed time. In a cost saving move, the Bills released the talented, but injury plagued John Brown ahead of a 8.15 million dollar salary for his age 31 season, which was understandable given that the Bills would still have a strong wide receiver trio even without Brown, but it was surprising to see the Bills go out and somewhat significant money on an even older replacement, signing 11-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders to a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal for his age 34 season in 2021.
Sanders had three straight 1000+ yard seasons in his prime from 2014-2016, but then he stopped playing with a prime Peyton Manning, tore his Achilles, and hasn’t topped 1000 yards in four seasons since. He’s still remained an above average receiving option, averaging a 1.80 yards per route run average over those four seasons, but his at his age, further injury or decline is a strong possibility and the Bills didn’t seem to need him with Gabriel Davis seemingly ready to become the #3 receiver in year two.
Sanders could still be an asset and is likely to play ahead of Davis, but he’s unlikely to see a big target share regardless and he got quite a bit of money on a one-year deal relative to the market this off-season. It’s not a bad deal because it keeps the Bills deep at an important position and they had the excess money with Josh Allen being very underpaid, but I wouldn’t expect much from him and they probably could have found another use for the money.
The one key thing this receiving corps still lacks is a tight end. They used a 3rd round pick on the position in 2019, selecting Dawson Knox, who was the nominal starter for the Bills last season, but he managed just a 24/288/3 slash line and, while part of that was him missing four games and only playing 40.6 snaps per game when on the field, he also averaged a mediocre 1.13 yards per route run average, actually down from his 1.16 yards per route run average in an underwhelming rookie year in 2019. The Bills have been tied to veteran tight end Zach Ertz, who the Eagles are looking to move and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them add him or another veteran to the mix. At the very least, the Bills need to find a replacement for departed veterans Tyler Kroft (298 snaps) and Lee Smith (172 snaps).
The only significant move they have made at the position thus far is signing veteran journeyman Jacob Hollister, a 2017 undrafted free agent who has seen some decent action over the past two seasons, but has managed just a 41/349/3 and 25/209/3 slash line respectively, while struggling as a blocker, and averaging 1.16 yards per route run in his career. Even with Knox yet to develop, Hollister is not necessarily an upgrade and he doesn’t have the same upside Knox. Barring a veteran addition, the Bills will just be hoping for more out of Knox, which could happen, but is far from a guarantee. Fortunately, the Bills have more than enough talent at wide receiver to balance out their lack of a reliable tight end and if they add an upgrade, it will only make this offense all that much better.
Along with a good tight end, one thing this Bills offense didn’t have in 2020 was a good pass catching running back, or an above average runner at the running back position either for that matter. The Bills were tied to Clemson’s Travis Etienne, who would have been a perfect fit in this offense, but he didn’t fall to them with the 30th overall pick and the Bills didn’t add a running back at all in the draft as a result, opting to try to get more out of a pair of recent drafts picks instead in 2019 3rd round pick Devin Singletary and 2020 3rd round pick Zack Moss. The Bills also signed veteran journeyman Matt Breida in free agency to give them another option, if an underwhelming one.
Singletary rushed for 5.13 YPC on 151 carries as a rookie, but saw that fall to 4.40 YPC on 156 carries in 2020, while Moss rushed for 4.29 YPC on 112 carries in his first season. Neither of those are bad averages, but there should be a lot of running room on this offense given how much respect defenses have to pay to the pass and the Bills ranked just 20th in the NFL as a team with 4.19 YPC. Moss and Singletary have also averaged just 0.55 yards per route run and 0.79 yards per route run in their careers thus far. Both backs could be better overall in 2021, but neither one is a guarantee.
Breida is also an option and he flashed with 4.99 YPC on 381 carries in his first 3 seasons in the league, after going undrafted in 2017, but he played on a 49ers offense that always gets the most out of running backs, he never surpassed 153 carries in a season, and the 49ers moved on from him ahead of his contract year last off-season in a trade for a late round pick, sending him to Miami. With the Dolphins, Breida showed very little with 4.31 YPC on 59 carries, sending him to a cold market in free agency, where he signed a cheap deal with the Bills.
Breida is an alright receiver with a career 1.37 yards per route run average and could see somewhat significant action in passing situations, but it would probably take injuries ahead of him on the depth chart for him to see more than a few carries per game. The running back position is obviously the Bills’ weakness on defense, one they masked in 2020 with a heavy usage rate by Josh Allen, with just 290 carries going to running backs, which when paired with just 74 targets, is a very low usage rate for Bills running backs. I wouldn’t expect anything different in 2021. With three backs vying for roles, it’s very likely none of them produce a significant rushing total, possibly with Josh Allen leading the team in rushing.
The Bills have also invested significantly on their offensive line and the result was a solid unit upfront in 2020, ranking 9th on PFF in pass blocking grade and 13th in run blocking grade. Of the six offensive linemen to see significant action upfront for the Bills, only three can be considered homegrown and only one was drafted prior to 2019, so this is a young that was overhauled in a hurry. That relatively long-tenured member of this offensive line is left tackle Dion Dawkins, a 2017 2nd round pick who is entering his 5th season with the Bills.
Dawkins took some time to become a starter as a rookie, but he’s made 54 straight starts on the blindside since week 10 of his rookie year, not missing a single game and earning above average grades from PFF in all four seasons, ranking 5th, 36th, 22nd, and 23th respectively. The Bills wisely locked him up long-term on a 4-year, 58.3 million dollar extension and, only in his age 27 season, he should remain an above average starter with the upside for more, at least for the next few seasons, barring a fluke injury.
The Bills’ other three starters who are locked into starting roles, hybrid guard Jon Feliciano, center Mitch Morse, and right tackle Daryl Williams, are all recent free agent additions, while 2018 undrafted free agent Ike Boettger and 2019 2nd round pick Cody Ford are expected to compete for the other starting guard role. Feliciano, Morse, and Williams all played at a high level in 2020, but Morse was actually the only one of the bunch who came to the Bills on a top of the market deal, signing a 4-year, 44.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago after the 2015 2nd round pick spent the first four seasons of his career in Kansas City.
Morse’s contract makes him the 4th highest paid center in the league, so he arguably hasn’t lived up to what he’s being paid, but his 17th ranked finish among centers on PFF and his 20th ranked finish in 2020 are both solid performances and he’s definitely been an asset to this team, even if he’s not performing like the elite center he’s being paid like. In total, Morse has never finished worse than 21st among centers on PFF aside from an injury plagued 2017 season, so he has a relatively low floor, but he’s also topped out at only 14th, so his ceiling is limited as well. Barring another fluke injury, he should remain a solid starting option in 2021, still in his late prime in his age 29 season.
Feliciano and Williams, meanwhile, came here with much less fanfare, with Feliciano signing a 2-year, 7.25 million dollar contract as a free agent from the Raiders after playing sparingly in his first four seasons in the league with the team who selected him in the 5th round in 2018 and Williams signing a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal as a free agent from the Panthers, with whom he was one of the better right tackles in the league in 2017 (14th among offensive tackles on PFF), but otherwise had an underwhelming and injury plagued tenure over five seasons, after being selected in the 4th round in 2015. Williams especially struggled in his final season in Carolina in 2019, ranking 73rd among 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF.
However, both proved to be great investments for the Bills, as Feliciano broke out as an above average starter in two seasons with the Bills, ranking 34th and 40th among guards on PFF in 2019 and 2020 respectively (25 starts across the two seasons), while Williams bounced back in a big way, making all 16 starts and finishing as PFF’s 21st ranked offensive tackle in 2020 in his first season in Buffalo. Both were rewarded with new contracts this off-season, but Feliciano is still very reasonably paid on a 3-year, 14.4 million dollar deal, while Williams could live up to his 3-year, 24 million dollar deal even if he’s not quite as good as he was last season, which could easily be the case given his history. Both should remain at least solid starters.
That leaves the two youngsters competing at the other guard spot opposite Feliciano, Cody Ford and Ike Boettger, as the only true competition upfront. Ford would seem to have an edge based on his draft status as a 2nd round pick in 2019, but his career is off to a disappointing start, as he struggled across snap counts of 739 and 384 respectively in his first two seasons in the league and, when he got hurt in 2020, he was outplayed by Boettger, even though Boettger was a 2018 undrafted free agent who had played just 147 career snaps prior to entering the starting lineup in week 7.
Overall, Boettger finished 35th among guards on PFF across 623 snaps in 2020, kept the job down the stretch, and made a good case to keep the job long-term, pushing Cody Ford into a versatile reserve role. Boettger is still an unproven former undrafted free agent and might not be quite as good in a season-long role, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ford have to make starts at some point, but it’s fairly likely they continue getting at least capable play at right guard from one of them, even possibly from Ford who still has untapped upside. The Bills also used 3rd and 5th round picks on Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle in this past draft, giving them even more young depth. This once again looks like an above average offensive line, even if a couple players might not be quite as good as a year ago.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bills’ defense fell off significantly from 2019 to 2020. There are several reasons for that, but one of their issues was their pass rush. Their 38 sacks were middle of the pack as a team and 6 fewer than the previous season even though they faced 14 more dropbacks and played with significantly more leads. Beyond that, the Bills didn’t have a player surpass 5 sacks on the season and their top-3 edge defenders, Jerry Hughes (629 snaps), Mario Addison (606 snaps), and Trent Murphy (343 snaps), all were on the wrong side of 30.
Without many pressing needs this off-season, the Bills made adding young pass rushers a priority of their draft, using not just their first round pick, but also their second round pick on young edge defenders, selecting University of Miami’s Gregory Rousseau 30th overall and then taking Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham 61st overall. Basham was seen by some as a potential first round pick and an option for the Bills in the first round, so Buffalo managing to get both Rousseau and Basham is a nice draft haul.
Along with 2020 2nd round pick AJ Epenesa, who still has a significant upside despite a nondescript rookie year where he played just 291 snaps, the Bills now have a trio of promising young edge defenders. Trent Murphy is no longer with the team, but Addison and Hughes remain and will likely continue seeing significant snaps in rotation with the younger prospects, although it’s unlikely either sees their snap count from the year prior.
Hughes at least played at a pretty high level in 2020, despite his age and limited sack total. Behind his 4.5 sacks, he had a 14.6% pressure rate and, while he struggled against the run, he still finished 19th among edge defenders overall on PFF. That’s actually pretty much in line with how he’s played throughout his career. Defending the run has never been his strong suit, but he’s totaled 55.5 sacks, 71 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate in 167 career games, has earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season except his rookie year in 2020, and has finished in the top-19 on two other seasons aside from last year. Now going into his age 33 season, it’s very possible he’ll start to decline, but unless he falls off completely, he should remain an asset and he could continue being an efficient pass rusher in a decreased role.
Addison, on the other hand, struggled last season and could find himself buried on the depth chart or out of the rotation entirely if he continues that in 2021, after finishing 2020 ranked 96th among 124 edge defenders on PFF. Prior to last season, Addison earned average or better games from PFF in each of his previous five seasons, while averaging 574 snaps per season and totaling 45 sacks, 29 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate in 75 games, but now going into his age 34 season, his chances of bouncing back don’t seem all that high and the Bills might be lucky to get replacement level play from him as part of a rotation. This is a deeper group than a year ago though and they have a trio of young players who all have the upside to make a significant impact.
The Bills also struggled at the interior defender spot last year, perhaps even more so than they did on the edge. Ed Oliver (578 snaps), Quinton Jefferson (534 snaps), Vernon Butler (428 snaps), and Harrison Phillips (332 snaps) all saw significant action and none of them finished average or better on PFF. Their problems at the position in part can be traced back to veteran Star Lotulelei’s decision to opt out of the season, which didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time, but his absence proved to be a devastating blow to the Bills run defense.
Lotulelei’s return will be a welcome sight, not only because of how much the Bills struggled at the position last season without him, but because they lost Quinton Jefferson this off-season, who was arguably their best player at the position, although that wasn’t enough to save him from being released ahead of a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, which shows you how little this group impressed overall. Jefferson will more or less be replaced in the rotation by Lotulelei, with the rest of this rotation being the same as a year ago.
Lotulelei has never been much of a pass rusher, with a career 5.0% pressure rate that dropped to 3.7% in the two years prior to Lotulelei’s opt-out, but he’s consistently been a solid run stopper and has overall earned average or better grades from PFF in 5 of 7 seasons, despite his issues as a pass rusher. He only played 476 snaps for the Bills in 2018 and 482 snaps in 2019 and now he heads into his age 32 season having missed a whole year, so he could easily not be the same player and struggle, but his re-addition has the potential to benefit this run defense significantly.
This run defense would also benefit from a better year out of Ed Oliver, who wasn’t bad as a pass rusher last season, but struggled so much against the run that he finished 118th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF overall. Oliver was the 9th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and was better as a rookie, with decent if unspectacular play as a run stopper and a pass rusher, but in 2020, while the pass rush ability stayed, his run defense disappeared.
Oliver came into the league with a massive upside and, not even 24 until December, he still has time to make good on it. Not only does he have a good chance to bounce back to at least his rookie year form, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if his third season in the league was his best season to date. He figures to be the nominal starter next to Lotulelei, although the Bills rotate defensive linemen so often that the starter distinction doesn’t really matter.
Vernon Butler and Harrison Phillips figure to continue seeing significant snaps as the reserves. Butler was a first round pick in 2016 by the Panthers, but hasn’t panned out, only developing into a mediocre rotational option, averaging 343 snaps per season and earning below average grades from PFF in 3 of 5 seasons in the league. The 6-4 330 pounder seems like he would be a strong run stuffer, but even his run defense has been inconsistent in his career, while his career pressure rate is just 6.4%.
Phillips, meanwhile, was selected by the Bills in the 3rd round in 2018. He flashed potential across 332 rookie year snaps, particularly as a run stuffer, and then got off to a hot start in 2019, before his season was ended after just 77 snaps by an ACL tear. There was a chance he could carry that into 2020, but instead he was underwhelming in his third season in the league and missed another 4 games, while not seeing extension action even when healthy.
Phillips still has some upside, only in his age 25 season, another year removed from the injury, but he might max out as a solid run stuffer who isn’t a real asset as a pass rusher (5.2% career pressure rate). This group should be better than a year ago with Phillips having the upside to be better, Ed Oliver especially having the upside to be better, and Star Lotulelei returning from an opt-out, but it’s still likely to be a below average group overall.
The Bills linebackers were probably their most disappointing unit in 2020. Every down linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds entered the season as potentially one of the better linebacker duos in the league, but both had their seasons affected by injury. Edmunds only missed one game, but it came in week two and he didn’t seem to be the same the rest of the season, finishing as PFF’s 76th ranked off ball linebacker out of 99 eligible, after earning middling grades in his first two seasons in the league.
Edmunds continued playing well against the run, but he missed more tackles than usual and his coverage ability, which has never been a strength, became a huge liability, finishing with the 6th most receiving yards allowed by a linebacker (575) and the 5th worst QB rating allowed (129.9). The good news is not only should Edmunds be healthier this season, allowing him to bounce back, but he’s also a former first round pick who is only going into his age 23 season in his 4th season in the league, so he has the upside to have his best year yet in 2021 and could easily have a big breakout year if he can improve in coverage and become a more consistent tackler.
Milano, meanwhile, was limited to just 334 snaps on the season and didn’t play all that well when on the field, a big disappointment for a player who finished 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2018 and 32nd in 2019, especially excelling in coverage, ranking 14th and 4th respectively in coverage grade. Still only in his age 26 season, the 2017 5th round pick has obvious bounce back potential and it’s clear the Bills still believe in his long-term potential, locking him up on a 4-year, 41.5 million dollar extension this off-season.
With Milano missing significant time last season, veteran linebacker AJ Klein played 652 snaps, but he predictably struggled, finishing 82nd out of 99 eligible linebackers on PFF. He’s now going into his age 30 season, but he’ll play sparingly in this defense unless Milano or Edmunds gets hurt and he’s been better in more limited roles in the past. With Milano and Edmunds both possessing significant bounce back potential and upside for even more, this linebacking corps should be much better in 2021 than 2020, which will go a long way towards this defense as a whole bouncing back.
The Bills’ secondary was their best group going in 2020 and their only group that wasn’t really a disappointment. Top cornerback Tre’Davious White finished well above average on PFF again, finishing in the top-30 among cornerbacks for the third time in four seasons in the league and, even though he has yet to live up to his 10th ranked finish as a rookie in 2017, White has shown himself to be a consistently above average player at arguably the toughest position to play at a high level consistently and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, meaning he should remain in his prime for several more season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a dominant season or two in that stretch.
The rest of this secondary is even younger, after moving on from veteran Josh Norman (344 middling snaps in 2020) this off-season. Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson were the Bills’ top outside cornerback opposite White and their top slot cornerback respectively and they also earned middling grades on the season across 612 snaps and 825 snaps respectively. Wallace was PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback in 2018, despite being just an undrafted rookie, but he only made the final seven starts of the season and he hasn’t been able to carry that into a larger role, earning middling grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons across snap counts of 785 and 612 respectively. He still has upside and he’s established a solid floor, but he could remain just a replacement level starter again.
Johnson has had a similar path, though the 2018 4th round pick didn’t play quite as well in his limited rookie year action as Wallace did. Johnson also has more of an injury history, missing nine games across his first two seasons, although Wallace did miss four starts last season, while Johnson played a career high 825 snaps, after playing 405 snaps in year one and 495 snaps in year two. Both have the upside to be better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but neither one is a guarantee to be better than replacement level.
The Bills reserve cornerbacks are also young and inexperienced, but they have some promise as well and could step into role and potentially hold their own if needed. Siran Neal was selected in the 5th round in 2018 and, while he’s only played 306 career snaps, he’s overall earned above average grades from PFF. Dane Jackson, meanwhile, was just a 7th round pick in 2020, but he flashed potential on 193 rookie year snaps. Even with three cornerbacks ahead of them on the depth chart, both should make this final roster.
The Bills also continued to have one of the better safety duos in the league in 2020, with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde making 16 starts and 15 starts respectively, while finishing 12th and 28th respectively among safeties on PFF. Poyer and Hyde have started together since both were added on contracts worth 13 million over 4 years and 30.5 million over 5 years back four off-seasons ago now and, even though neither one was a consistent starter prior to arriving in Buffalo, in the four seasons since, both have finished above average on PFF in all four seasons while missing a combined three games between the two. Both have also since signed more lucrative extensions worth 19.5 million over 2 years and 19.25 million over 2 years respectively.
Hyde’s age is somewhat of a concern, going into his age 31 season, especially since he has declined in each of the past two seasons, from 8th among safeties on PFF in 2018 to 12th in 2019 and 28th in 2020. He could continue declining, but he could also remain an above average starter for another couple years and could even still have some bounce back potential and be better than he was a year ago. Poyer, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season, but his 2020 was his third finish in the top-22 in four seasons in Buffalo, so he has yet to show any signs of decline and even if he begins to decline in 2020, he’s starting from a pretty high base point.
Hyde and Poyer don’t have much injury history, but 2019 6th round pick Jaquan Johnson (102 career snaps) or 6th round rookie Damar Hamlin look likely to be their primary reserves, so they’ll need Poyer and Hyde to continue staying healthy. The Bills’ secondary is still the strength of their defense and, with the rest of this stop unit looking likely to be better than a year ago, they should be a strength of a noticeably better defense overall, which should make up for any potential regression from their offense.
The Bills got a lot of help from their special teams last season, ranking 4th in DVOA and joining the Ravens, Patriots, and Cowboys as one of four teams to earn an above average DVOA in all aspects of special teams. As is the case with many good special teams units, the kicker and punter were not the stars, but punter Corey Bojorquez continued improving in his third season in the league, finishing 13th among punters on PFF, while 6th round rookie kicker Tyler Bass finished 16th among kickers, so both players were solid in their own right.
Bojorquez signed with the Rams this off-season, but Bass returns for his second season, after hitting 57/59 extra points and 28/34 field goals in 2020, while veteran Matt Haack replaces Bojorquez through free agency and should be an equally capable, if unspectacular option, earning three straight above average grades from PFF, including a 17th ranked finish among punters on PFF in 2020. Unless Bass takes a big step forward in year two, this is likely to remain a solid, but unspectacular group, but that isn’t a change from last year.
One big blow to this special teams unit is the loss of Andre Roberts, who returned kickoffs and punts for this team, averaging 30.0 yards per kickoff return and 9.5 yards per punt return, while finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked return man overall. The Bills do have some intriguing options to replace him though, starting with Isaiah McKenzie, a speedy wide receiver who has returned 20 kickoffs and 39 punts in three seasons in the league. He has only averaged 19.2 yards per kickoff return, but he has the speed and quickness to be better than that, he returned a punt to the house for 84 yards last season to give him a 9.5 yards per punt return average for his career, and he scored 6 times on 75 collegiate returns.
An alternative is free agent acquisition Brandon Powell, who was PFF’s worst ranked kickoff returner last season and averaged just 20.1 yards per return, but he had a solid 8.9 yards per return average on punts. Sixth round rookie wide receiver Marquez Stevenson only returned 4 punts in his collegiate career, but he returned 34 kickoffs for 26.1 yards per return and 3 scores. Special teamer Taiwan Jones has returned just 15 kickoffs over the past five seasons, including none in 2019 or 2020, but he has a 23.0 yards per return average on 82 career returns. None of these guys are likely to be as good as Andre Roberts, but they have enough intriguing options that they should get solid return play.
The Bills did lose one key special teamer this off-season, with Dean Marlowe, who earned an above average grade from PFF across 212 snaps, signing in Detroit this off-season, but they bring back their top-5 in snaps played, who all earned above average grades from PFF, Tyler Matakevich (337 snaps), Siran Neal (273 snaps), Darryl Johnson (252 snaps), Jaquan Johnson (244 snaps), and Andre Smith (212 snaps).
Smith earned only an average grade across 307 snaps in 2019 and is a one-year wonder as an above average special teamer, but the rest of the bunch all earned an above average grade from PFF across a significant snap count in 2019 as well, so they are a relatively proven bunch. The Bills added a pair of players in free agency in Jacob Hollister and Joe Giles-Harris,who both have special teams experience, but they are not likely to make positive contributions, as both have been middling at best in their careers, while Hollister could have somewhat of a significant role on offense.
However, depth is not a big concern, as they have veteran Taiwan Jones, who struggled in 2020, but has been better in the past, Reggie Gilliam, who showed a lot of promise across 186 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2020, and Tyrel Dobson, who flashed on 136 snaps in his first career special teams action in 2020 and could see a bigger role in 2021 if he doesn’t have to play as much on defense, with the Bills likely to have better health in the linebacking corps. This should remain a strong group in 2021, again coordinated by Heath Farwell for the third straight season.
Retaining most of arguably the best offense in the league from a year ago, the Bills figure to once again have one of the best offenses in the league, even if Josh Allen and a few other players who had career best years in 2020 take a little bit of a step back. Offensive play tends to be relatively consistent year-to-year anyway and the Bills lack of significant losses on that side of the ball this off-season only helps matters. On the flip side, the Bills had an underwhelming defense last season, but that side of the ball is much less consistent year-to-year than offense and, on paper, they have the talent to be noticeably better than a year ago.
The Bills finished last season 6th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +2.73%, so, even if their defensive improvement is only enough to make up for some drop off on offense, this should still remain one of the better teams in the league, with the upside to be the best if Josh Allen can continue playing at an MVP level and once again lead arguably the league’s best offense. They’ll have a more serious challenge for the division from a reloaded New England team in 2021, but the Bills should remain one of the top teams in the AFC and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them ultimately represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I will have a final prediction for the Bills at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21 Update: The Bills have a strong special teams unit as well, which is more predictive than I expected. They are one of the top few contenders in the NFL this season.
9/4/21 Update: Not much has changed for a team that figures to be one of the best in the league this season.
Prediction: 13-4 1st in AFC East