In 2020, the Bills had the best offense in the league, leading the league in efficiency rating, but their defense, which only ranked 17th in efficiency rating, was a bit of a weak spot and ultimately the Bills’ season ended with an AFC Championship loss in Kansas City. There were reasons to be very optimistic about them going into 2021 though, especially when you consider that the Bills finished the 2020 regular season 1st in the league in overall efficiency, despite a middling defense.
Elite offensive play is much easier to consistently maintain from year-to-year than elite defensive play, meaning their offense, led by budding superstar quarterback Josh Allen, would likely continue to perform at a high level in 2021, especially since minimal changes were made around him on offense. Meanwhile, their defense was more talented than their efficiency rating in 2020 and had a good chance to bounce back at least somewhat to their 2019 form, when they ranked 4th in the NFL in efficiency rating.
It looked likely the Bills would be one of the better teams in the league on both sides of the ball in 2021 and that was true in a big way, with their defense being dominant throughout the regular season, not only leading the league in efficiency, but doing so by over 3.5 points over the 2nd ranked Saints. Their offense wasn’t as good as the year before, but they still ranked 5th in efficiency, leading to the Bills again finishing the regular season #1 in overall efficiency, this time by a huge margin (5.5 points) over the 2nd ranked Buccaneers. The Bills “only” had a 11-6 record, but that was despite a 0-5 record in one-score games, which is not something that is likely to continue. None of their wins came by fewer than 12 points and just one of their losses came by more than 7 points, giving them a league best +194 point differential.
In the post-season, the Bills had an incredible offensive performance in the first round, scoring a touchdown on every meaningful drive in a blowout 47-17 victory over a New England team that finished the regular season 3rd in efficiency, 3rd in point differential, and 5th in defensive efficiency. However, the Bills’ season then ended in the second round in a similar way to the year before, on the road in Kansas City. The Bills ran into a Chiefs team that led the league in offensive efficiency in the regular season and, not surprisingly, the Bills’ #1 ranked defense couldn’t hold up, but the Bills’ offense performed well enough to win the game, which they likely would have done had they won the coin toss and gotten possession first in overtime.
Even though the Bills didn’t make it back to the AFC Championship game last season, in many ways they were closer to the Super Bowl than the previous year, when they lost by 14 to the Chiefs in a largely uncompetitive game. Having barely lost to the Chiefs, who barely lost to the AFC winning Bengals, the Bills can rightfully argue they are right there in terms of being the top team in the AFC. With much of the same core of the past two seasons returning, the Bills have as good of a chance as any to make it out of a loaded AFC.
Obviously the most important core player for the Bills is Josh Allen. A classic boom or bust pick taken #7 overall in 2018, Allen looked closer to the latter in his rookie season, completing 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, but he took a big step forward in year two, completing 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, and a bigger step forward in year three, emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in the league over the past two seasons, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.35 YPA, 73 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions combined in 33 starts, while finishing 5th and 6th among quarterbacks on PFF in the two seasons respectively.
In addition to developing into a great passer, Allen is also a big threat on the ground and has been since he entered the league, rushing for 2,325 yards and 31 touchdowns on 422 carries (5.51 YPC) in his career. The extra hits expose him to greater risk of injury, but he hasn’t missed time since his rookie season and, at 6-5 240, Allen is built to take hits well. He hasn’t won an MVP yet, but he’s only going into his age 26 season and his future is as bright as any quarterback’s in the league, so at least one, if not multiple MVPs are almost definitely in his future.
In case Allen does miss time, the Bills sent a late round pick to the Browns for veteran backup Case Keenum this off-season. Keenum would still obviously be a huge drop off, but he’s one of the more accomplished backups in the league, with a 85.4 QB rating in 64 career starts, and he’s not washed up yet in his age 34 season. With a good roster around him, Keenum could hold down the fort if needed for a few games, without the Bills falling out of contention in a serious way. Allen is still obviously the key to this team’s ultimate goals though.
The Bills were also a very effective rushing team last season, ranking 6th in the NFL with 4.79 YPC, but that was largely an extension of Josh Allen and the passing game, with Allen having a ridiculous 794 usage total (pass attempts, carries, sacks). Not only did Allen rush for 6.25 YPC on his own 122 carries, but his combination of rushing ability and deep passing ability creates a lot of running room for running backs because defenses have to play deep and defend the quarterback run as well. Devin Singletary, who averaged 4.63 YPC on 188 carries as the lead back, wasn’t a bad runner in his own right, ranking 17th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade, but he definitely benefited from having easy running situations.
Top backup Zack Moss, who had 96 carries as the #2 back last season, did not take advantage of those easy running situations, averaging 3.59 YPC, and hasn’t shown much since the Bills took him in the 3rd round in 2020, averaging 3.99 YPC and just 0.84 yards per route run, even though pass catching was supposed to be a strength of his coming into the league. Singletary has consistently averaged a high YPC (4.71 for his career) and earned at least an average grade from PFF in all three seasons since being selected in the 3rd round in 2019, but the 188 carries he had last season were a career high, he’s averaged just 0.71 yards per route run in his career, and he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal.
With Moss underwhelming thus far and Singletary potentially gone in a year, the Bills added another young running back to the mix this off-season, using a second round pick on Georgia running back James Cook, who has the potential to contribute both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield. The latter has been sorely needed in Buffalo in recent years, but the Bills did add Duke Johnson this off-season and the veteran could easily be their primary pass catching back, over any of their three young backs.
Johnson has never surpassed 104 carries in a season in 7 seasons in the league (4.27 YPC) and is unlikely to have much of a role as a ball carrier, but he does have a career 1.55 yards per route run average, with 5 seasons of 40 catches or more. He might not quite reach that number in 2022, but he has a good chance to be involved in this offense. The Bills lack a true feature back, but Devin Singletary is a good early down option, the rookie James Cook has potential, free agent addition Duke Johnson could be a solid passing down back, and the thus far underwhelming Zack Moss is now on the roster bubble, even if he still potentially has untapped upside, so, overall, this is a solid backfield and one with good depth.
Even though the Bills ran well last season, that had much more to do with Josh Allen’s dual threat abilities, as well as to a lesser extent Devin Singletary’s abilities as an early down runner, as the Bills actually didn’t have good run blocking, finishing 27th on PFF in team run blocking grade. They were better in pass protection, ranking 14th, but that was also down from the year before, when they ranked 9th and 13th in pass and run blocking grade respectively. Inferior offensive line play was probably the biggest reason why the Bills’ weren’t quite as good on offense in 2021 as they were the prior year.
The Bills did a good job retooling this group this off-season though and could have as many as three new starters on what looks like an overall deeper and more talented unit than a year ago. The Bills did lose Daryl Williams, who earned an above average grade from PFF, while making all 17 starts and seeing action at both right guard and right tackle, as well as Jon Feliciano, who was decent in 6 starts at guard, but they added a pair of proven veteran starting guard options in Rodger Saffold and Greg Van Roten, as well as a starting right tackle option in David Quessenberry.
Quessenberry will compete for the starting job with Spencer Brown, a 3rd round pick in 2021. Brown wasn’t bad in 10 rookie year starts at right tackle, earning an average grade from PFF and playing well enough to push Williams inside and keep the right tackle job for the rest of the season, and it’s possible he could take a step forward in year two, but Quessenberry might still be their best starting option, considering he was PFF’s 16th ranked offensive tackle as a 17-game starter at right tackle with the Titans last season. It was surprising he couldn’t get more on the open market this off-season, settling for just a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal in Buffalo.
Quessenberry has had an incredible career path, being drafted by the Texans in the 6th round in 2013, but being diagnosed with cancer early in his career and not making his first career start until 2020, when he started 6 games and was a middling player, before surprisingly taking a huge step forward in 2021. He’s already in his age 32 season in 2022 and he’s a complete one-year wonder so last season is likely to be the high point of his career, but he could easily remain at least a solid starter and may have earned the right to start, even with Spencer Brown also being a capable option with upside.
At guard, Rodger Saffold is the by far the more experienced of the two new veteran additions and is much more likely to be locked into a starting role, having made 92 starts at left guard over the past 6 seasons (out of 97 possible), with an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons. He came relatively cheap this off-season on a 1-year, 6.25 million dollar deal, but that’s because he’s going into his age 34 season and could easily decline significantly sometime soon. That hasn’t happened yet, as he still made 15 starts and finished 24th among guards on PFF in 2021 with the Titans, and it might not happen in 2022, but it’s a strong possibility. He’s likely locked in as the starting left guard either way, at least to begin the season.
Greg Van Roten, on the other hand, has only made 50 starts in 9 seasons in the league, but they’ve also all come in the past four seasons (out of 65 possible) and he’s earned at least an average grade from PFF in all four seasons, including a 34th ranked finish among guards in 10 starts with the Jets in 2021. Van Roten also getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, and his contract (1-year, 1.2725 million) is much less than Saffold’s and doesn’t lock him in as a starter, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he locked down the right guard job and was at least a decent starter for at least most of the season.
The Bills also retained young reserves Ryan Bates (294 snaps, 4 starts), Ike Boettger (636 snaps, 10 starts), and Cody Ford (485 snaps, 7 starts) who all saw action last season at guard with off-season departures Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano, and who all could conceivably push to start at right guard opposite Saffold in 2022. Ford is the highest drafted of the bunch, going in the 2nd round in 2019, but he’s largely been a bust in his career, making just 29 starts in 3 seasons in the league, switching between guard and tackle on several occasions, and finishing below average on PFF in all 3 seasons, including a 86th ranked finish out of 90 eligible guards across 485 snaps in 2021. It’s possible he still has untapped upside, but he could also easily struggle if forced into starting action again.
Boettger wasn’t drafted in 2018, but he’s been a much better player in his career than Ford, making 17 starts over the past two seasons and earning at least an average grade from PFF in both seasons, including a 35th ranked finish among guards in 7 starts in 2020. Bates also wasn’t drafted back in 2019 and he showed some promise down the stretch last season as well, but he’s much less proven than Boettger, having never started a game in his career prior to last season. Boettger is the most likely of the bunch to win a starting job and, even if he doesn’t, he gives the Bills another good depth option. He was another good value signing, being brought back for near the league minimum as a free agent this off-season.
Left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Mitch Morse are the only players on this offensive line locked into the same position as a year ago and Dawkins is the only one of the eight offensive linemen who started a game for this team last season to finish well above average on PFF, earning their 21st highest grade among offensive tackles as a 16-game starter. That’s nothing new for Dawkins, who has started 64 of a possible 65 games on the blindside for the Bills over the past four seasons, with four straight above average grades from PFF, including three straight seasons in the top-23 at his position. Still only going into his age 28 season, without much history of injury, I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021.
Morse is the only starter on this offensive line who started all 17 games in the same spot last season. He wasn’t bad, but he did only finish 25th among 41 eligible centers on PFF, his worst finish since 2017, after finishing 20th, 17th, and 16th in the prior three seasons respectively. He has some bounce back potential, but he’s never been an elite center, maxing out at 14th among centers in 2016, and, while he’s plenty experienced (96 career starts in 7 seasons in the league), he’s now heading into his age 30 season and his best days are almost definitely behind him at this point. I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly drop off completely and he should remain a capable starter at least, but a significant drop off is at least somewhat of a possibility. This is still a deeper and more talented group than a year ago though, even if Morse doesn’t have a bounce back year.
The 2020 Bills had arguably the best receiving corps in the league, trading their first round pick for Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs to give them a legitimate #1 receiver in a receiving corps that already had a pair of solid veteran receivers in John Brown and Cole Beasley, who had finished the 2019 season with slash lines of 72/1060/6 (1.97 yards per route run) and 67/778/6 (1.64 yards per route run) respectively in their first season in Buffalo as free agent acquisitions, a big part of the reason why Allen was able to take a significant leap that season from his rookie year in 2018.
Things went probably even better than the Bills could have expected when they acquired Diggs, as Diggs led the league in receiving in his first season in Buffalo with a 127/1535/8 slash line, while ranking 6th in yards per route run (2.51) and finishing as PFF’s 4th ranked wide receiver overall, and he did so without taking a lot away from Brown and Beasley. Brown was limited to just 9 games, but he had a solid 33/458/3 slash line and 1.60 yards per route run average in those 9 games, while Beasley had a career best 82/967/4 slash line with a career best 2.10 yards per route run average.
This group wasn’t quite as good in 2021 though, another reason why the Bills offense as a whole wasn’t as good as they were when they were the league’s best in the regular season in 2020. Diggs still finished 7th in the league in receiving yardage, but he ranked just 22nd in yards per route run with 1.91 and finished as PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver in overall grade, as his 103/1225/10 slash line was still a big drop off from the previous year, despite an almost identical amount of targets (166 in targets in 2020, 164 in targets in 2021).
Brown wasn’t brought back for 2021, but he was replaced by another veteran Emmanuel Sanders, who was mediocre, with a 42/626/4 slash line and a 1.23 yards per route run average. Beasley, meanwhile, declined significantly, falling to 82/693/1 despite an uptick in targets (102 in 2020, 107 in 2021) and averaging just 1.38 yards per route run. Both veterans were let go this off-season, which frees up a young player with the potential to be a significant upgrade to take over as the new #2 receiver behind Diggs.
That young receiver is 2020 4th round pick Gabriel Davis, who has technically been the #4 receiver over the past two seasons, but has still seen snap counts of 799 and 572 respectively, while showing a lot of potential, with 1.29 yards per route run average as a rookie and a 1.64 yards per route run average in his second season in the league in 2021. He’s a projection to a larger role, but he’s also only going into his age 23 season and has good upside long-term. After finishing as PFF’s 38th ranked wide receiver in a part-time role last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he ended up being an above average starter as the #2 receiver this season.
Diggs also has some bounce back potential because, as well as he played in 2020, that actually wasn’t a one-time thing for him, as he actually averaged a higher yards per route run average the previous season in 2019 (2.69) and he has a 2.06 yards per route run average for his career, above his average in 2021. Diggs’ best slash line in five seasons with the Vikings prior to joining the Bills was his final season, when he had a 63/1130/6 slash line, but he didn’t see a huge target total in Minnesota, on a run-heavy offense, as the 1B receiver to Adam Theilen’s 1A, and was always efficient on a per play basis. Since coming to Buffalo, Diggs has been among the most targeted pass catchers in the league and has produced among the best as well, something that figures to continue in 2022, still only in his age 29 season.
The Bills signed veteran Jamison Crowder to give them a replacement for Beasley on the slot and he’ll serve as the #3 wide receiver behind Diggs and Davis. It was a good, cheap signing on a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal, a much better value than the 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal the Jets signed him to three off-seasons ago. Crowder was always overpaid on that contract, but he has a solid 1.53 yards per route run average in seven seasons in the league and, only in his age 29 season, could easily be a solid slot option. He’s been somewhat injury prone in his career, missing 17 games in 7 seasons in the league, with 9 of those missed games coming in the past two seasons, and he’s a slot only option at 5-9 177, with 75.7% of his career snaps coming on the slot, but he still could be a useful player if he can stay on the field.
For depth purposes, the Bills retained Isaiah McKenzie on a 2-year, 4.4 million dollar deal and used a 5th round pick on Khalil Shakir. McKenzie has averaged a middling 1.35 yards per route over the past three seasons with the Bills, but that has come on an average of just 326 offensive snaps played per season and the 5-8 173 pounder is more of a gadget player and return man, so, even though he’s getting paid a little more than Crowder, I would still consider Crowder the favorite for the primary slot job, as long as he’s healthy.
McKenzie has also contributed as a ball carrier in his career, with 4.61 YPC on 38 carries in 5 seasons in the league, and I would expect that to continue this season. Shakir, meanwhile, has some long-term potential, but would probably struggle if forced into rookie year action. He’s unlikely to have to play a significant role though, with a talented top-4 ahead of him on the depth chart, led by Stefon Diggs and promising #2 receiver Gabriel Davis.
The Bills also added to their tight end group this off-season, adding needed depth behind Dawson Knox, who played the 6th most snaps in the league among tight ends last season with 917, while top backup Tommy Sweeney only saw 267 snaps. Knox wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t particularly effective in all that action, averaging just 1.16 yards per route run and posting just a 49/587/9 slash line, underwhelming considering how much he played on a great passing offense.
That average is in line with the 1.15 yards per route run average Knox has throughout his 3-year career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2019. Also a decent blocker, Knox has earned an average grade from PFF in all three seasons in the league, but hasn’t shown much upside. His touchdown total was impressive a year ago, but that’s something that is likely to regress, as high touchdown rates almost always do. Going into his age 26 season, he could remain a decent starter, but he’s running out of time to become more and the Bills probably want to bring his snap count down a little bit.
Given that, it makes sense that they signed someone like OJ Howard to a cheap deal in free agency, but his 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal isn’t much more than a flyer. Howard was a first round pick by the Buccaneers in 2017, the first tight end off the board that year, and his career got off to a good start, as he averaged 2.05 yards per route run as a part-time player in his first two seasons in the league, but he suffered a serious ankle injury late in his second season and didn’t look the same upon his return, averaging just 1.22 yards per route run in 2019.
Howard’s yards per route run average jumped back up to 2.39 the following season in 2020, but it was in a limited sample size, as he went down for the season for a torn Achilles after four games, and then he again did not seem the same upon his return in 2021, averaging 0.92 yards per route run. Not much of a blocker, Howard will need to bounce back as a pass catcher to be a useful player, after finishing last season as PFF’s 57th ranked tight end overall out of 58 eligible across 365 snaps. Now in his age 28 season, Howard is running out of time to establish himself as a consistent starter and it’s very possible injuries have permanently sapped his athleticism.
It wouldn’t be hard for Howard to do more than Tommy Sweeney though, as the 2019 7th round pick struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career last season. He’ll now be the 3rd tight end at most. This isn’t a significantly upgraded group from a year ago, but it’s still an above average group overall, led by Stefon Diggs, who has some bounce back potential after a bit of a “down” year in 2021, and Gabriel Davis, a promising young receiver who has a good chance to be an upgrade on the declining veterans he is replacing.
The Bills might not quite repeat the dominant defensive performance they had a year ago, just because of how hard it is to be that good defensively in back-to-back years, but they bring back most of their key players on defense from a year ago and look like one of the most talented defenses in the league yet again. A couple key players the Bills lost this off-season were edge defenders Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, who played 557 snaps and 481 snaps respectively and were productive pass rushers, with 9 sacks, 5 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate combined, but they weren’t great against the run, they’re going into their age 34 and age 35 season respectively, and the Bills upgraded on them by signing talented edge defender Von Miller in free agency, a much more well-rounded player who can rush the passer and defend the run at a high level.
Miller didn’t come cheap, signing a 6-year, 120 million dollar deal that makes him the 7th highest paid edge defender in the league and guarantees him 45 million over the next two seasons, even though Miller now heads into his age 33 season. Miller hasn’t shown many signs of decline though. With the Broncos and Rams in 2021, Miller finished the season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender on PFF, dominating against the run and adding 9.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate.
Miller’s best days are probably behind him, as he was a top-5 edge defender on PFF in eight straight seasons in his prime from 2011-2018, and he could decline further in 2022, but, even if he does, he’s still likely to be better than most edge defenders. A true every down player with no weaknesses, Miller has averaged 55.7 snaps per game in 150 games in his career, while totaling 115.5 sacks, 129 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate. He figures to be a big upgrade and was an aggressive signing for a team that is very much in win now mode, with Josh Allen’s cap hit set to increase significantly in 2023 and beyond, when Allen’s 6-year, 258.034 million dollar extension will kick in.
The Bills are also expecting to get more out of a trio of young edge defenders who they have a lot of draft capital invested in, 2020 2nd round pick AJ Epenesa, 2021 1st round pick Greg Rousseau, 2021 2nd round pick Carlos Basham. All three have shown promise in limited action thus far. Epenesa has earned middling grades from PFF across snap counts of 291 and 331 respectively, while totaling a 9.8% pressure rate. Rousseau finished his rookie season as PFF’s 37th ranked edge defender across 531 snaps, showing well against the run and as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate. Basham was limited to 200 snaps as a rookie, in part by injury, but he was decent and had a 10.3% pressure rate.
All three have significant upside and the opportunity to earn an expanded role in 2022, particularly Rousseau, who has the upside to develop into at least an above average starter long-term. The Bills also signed veteran Shaq Lawson in free agency, reuniting with their 2016 first round pick, who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Bills, before spending 2020 with the Dolphins and 2021 with the Jets.
Lawson struggled with the Jets last season though, finishing 95th out of 129 eligible edge defenders across 534 snaps. He might have bounce back potential, only in his age 28 season, having earned an average or better grade from PFF in four straight seasons prior to 2021, on an average of 483 snaps per season, but he’s not guaranteed a role, with only 150k guaranteed on his contract and Von Miller and the trio of high draft picks ahead of him on the depth chart, in a position group with a lot of depth and upside.
The Bills kind of overhauled the interior defender position this off-season, but that’s not really a bad thing because the interior defender position was the relative weakness of this defense. Four of the five interior defenders who played at least 200 snaps for the Bills last season are no longer with the team, but three of them earned below average grades from PFF, with Harrison Phillips, who finished 13th among interior defenders on PFF across 473 snaps, being the only one who will be tough to replace, after signing a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal with the Vikings this off-season.
Incoming is a trio of veterans, DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle, and Jordan Phillips, on contracts worth 14 million over 2 years, 9 million over 2 years, 5 million over 1 year respectively and all three figure to play significant roles. Jones is plenty experienced, starting all 109 games he has played over the past 7 seasons (40.3 snaps per game), earning average or better grades from PFF in each of those seasons, playing the run well at 6-4 322, but also adding decent pass rush production, with a 5.9% pressure rate. However, he’s going into his age 31 season so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he declined a little bit, even if he would likely still be at least a capable starter in that circumstance, after finishing last season 39th among interior defenders on PFF.
Tim Settle has only ever been a reserve, maxing out at 348 snaps in a season in four seasons in the league, since being selected in the 5th round in 2018 by Washington, but that was mostly because of having a lot of talent ahead of him on the depth chart in a talented position group. Settle played well in limited action, earning above average grades from PFF in each of the past three seasons, he’s only in his age 25 season, and he could easily break out in a bigger role on his second contract, even if he’s a projection to a larger role. Not only a big run stuffer at 6-3 328, Settle also has 7 sacks, 5 hits, and a 8.8% pressure rate over the past three seasons, despite a limited role.
Jordan Phillips is the least impressive of the three. He’s a decent pass rusher, with 18 sacks, 20 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate in 79 games over the past 6 seasons, but he surprisingly struggles against the run at 6-6 340 and has finished below average on PFF overall in four of those six seasons. He’s also going into his age 30 season and has missed 17 of a possible 33 games over the past two seasons. Even if he’s healthy in 2022, he’s no guarantee to be more than a decent sub package player, though he would at least provide a little bit of value in that role. He’s unlikely to have to play a significant snap count either way.
The only one of their top interior defenders from a year ago who returns is Ed Oliver, which is a good thing because he’s the best of the bunch, having developed into one of the best interior defenders in the league, since being drafted 9th overall by the Bills in 2019. In total, he has 12 sacks, 22 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate in his career, including 4 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.0% pressure rate in 2021, and he’s a decent run defender as well, good enough to finish as PFF’s 27th ranked overall interior defender across 622 snaps in 2021. Still only in his age 25 season, having never missed a game, Oliver could have further untapped upside and looks likely to be one of the better interior defenders in the league for years to come, at least as a pass rusher. He leads an overhauled group that isn’t spectacular, but that is still at least a solid group, with a solid trio of veteran additions being made behind Oliver.
Arguably the biggest reason for this defense’s improvement from 2020 to 2021 was the return of Matt Milano from an injury plagued season in which he played just 335 snaps and was not at his best even when on the field. Milano had been a big part of their defensive success prior to 2020 and was a big part again in 2021, finishing 17th among off ball linebackers on PFF on 915 snaps, after finishing 11th across 741 snaps in 2018 and 32nd across 893 snaps in 2019, especially excelling in coverage. Assuming he can stay healthy, Milano should continue playing at an above average level as an every down player in 2022, still only in his age 28 season.
Tremaine Edmunds is also an every down linebacker for this defense, as he has been since the Bills drafted him 16th overall in the 1st round in 2018. He’s put up a lot of tackles in that role and is a consistently solid run defender, but he’s also consistently struggled in coverage. He’s still only in his age 24 season though, entering the league very young, so he still has the upside to get better going forward, even if that’s not necessarily a guarantee. At the very least, I would expect more of the same from him, but there’s the potential for more.
The Bills also used a 3rd round pick on Terrel Bernard, who has a good chance to be the 3rd linebacker this season. He might be too raw to make a big contribution as a rookie, but last year’s #3 linebacker AJ Klein only played 277 snaps last season in 11 games in a base package role, so Bernard would only have to see significant action in case of an injury and they don’t have a better option as the 3rd linebacker anyway, with the rest of the position group being career special teamers with minimal defensive experience and undrafted free agents. With Edmunds going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Bills may view Bernard as a long-term starting option, but, for now, he’s just a situational option and a depth option at a position group that is above average overall, elevated significantly by talented every down player Matt Milano.
As good as the Bills’ defense was as a whole last season, it was the secondary that was their best unit. This is in large part due to their safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, which might be the best safety duo in the league and has been for some time. Hyde and Poyer came to the Bills as free agents together before the 2017 season and both proved to be steals on deals worth 30.5 million over 5 years and 13 million over 4 years respectively, with Hyde finishing 8th, 8th, 12th, 28th, and 6th among safeties on PFF in five seasons with the team and Poyer finishing 9th, 49th, 22nd, 12th, and 9th, earning them both significant raises on their extensions, worth 19.25 million over 2 years and 19.5 million over 2 years respectively.
Poyer and Hyde are going into their age 31 season and age 32 season respectively, so age is becoming a concern, but both have been durable, each only missing two games over the past five seasons, and both have yet to show any signs of decline yet. Even if it’s likely one of them regresses this season, a regression that would have a noticeable impact on defense, whichever one regresses would likely still be at least a solid starter and they should remain at least one of the better safety duos in the league.
Depth is a big concern at the safety position if one of Poyer or Hyde was to get hurt, but the Bills have had at least a little bit of an eye on the future, using 6th round picks in 2019 and 2021 respectively on Jaquan Johnson and Damar Hamlin, who figure to be the backups in 2022. They haven’t gotten to see much action behind Hyde and Poyer, playing 201 snaps and 50 snaps respectively in their careers, so it’s unclear what they would bring to the field if they were forced into significant action, but it’s likely they would struggle, given that they’re inexperienced former late round picks, and they would almost definitely be a huge drop off from Poyer or Hyde.
The Bills #1 cornerback Tre’Davious White was also one of the best players in the league at his position last season, as he has been for years, but his season was ended after 630 snaps in 11 games due to a torn ACL, which now has him questionable for the start of 2022 and could limit him upon his return. White has finished in the top-17 among cornerbacks on PFF in three of five seasons in the league, with his best finish being 5th and a career QB rating allowed of 66.3, but he may struggle to reach that level in his first season back, even if he is ready for week 1.
The Bills also lost their other starting outside cornerback Levi Wallace in free agency to the Steelers and he was a solid starter, so cornerback was a big need for them this off-season, one they addressed in the first round of the draft with University of Florida’s Kaiir Elam, who is likely to replace Wallace opposite White. He could have some growing pains as a rookie, but he also could easily be an above average starter and has great upside long-term.
Elam’s only competition for the starting job is Dane Jackson, who has been decent on 675 snaps (8 starts) as the 4th cornerback over the past two seasons, after being drafted in the 7th round in 2020. Jackson started in White’s place last season when White was hurt and would likely continue doing so if needed in 2022. He’s a projection to a larger role though and an obvious downgrade from White, so the Bills need White to get back and be close to 100%.
Taron Johnson remains locked in as the slot cornerback, a role he has served in for four seasons, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2018, playing 651 snaps per season over that stretch, with 83.9% of them on the slot. He hasn’t shown a huge upside, but he’s been an average or better starter in all four seasons in the league and should remain a solid slot option in 2022, in his age 26 season, after being extended on a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal in the final year of his rookie deal last off-season. With White coming off injury and Hyde and Poyer on the wrong side of 30, this group probably won’t be as good as a year ago, but they’re coming down from such a high base point that this is still a strong group overall.
Special teams was a bit of a weakness for the Bills in 2021, as they finished 19th in special teams DVOA, but they upgraded their biggest weakness this off-season, replacing Matt Haack, 33rd among 35 eligible punters on PFF last season, with 6th round pick Matt Araiza. Araiza isn’t a guarantee to be an above average option, but he won’t need to be in order to be a significant upgrade on Haack, which will have a significant effect on this special teams as a whole. The rest of this group stays largely the same, with talented young kicker Tyler Bass, proven return man Isaiah McKenzie, and their two top core special teamers Siran Neal and Tyler Matakevich all returning. They probably won’t be an elite unit this year, but they have a good chance to be above average.
The Bills have been one of the top overall teams in the league the past two seasons since Josh Allen broke out as an elite quarterback, finishing 1st in overall efficiency in both seasons, leading the league in offensive efficiency in 2020 and then defensive efficiency in 2021. They haven’t broken through yet to make a Super Bowl yet, but they still have mostly the same core as the past two seasons and they’re arguably the most well-rounded, balanced team in the league coming into the 2022 season, so they’ll be right there with the top teams in the AFC again and a Super Bowl appearance or victory would not surprise me at all.
The Bills went “just ” 11-6 last season, but figure to have better luck in close games in 2022 after going 0-5 in one-score games last season, 0-6 if you include their crushing overtime loss to the Chiefs in the post-season, a game that likely would have gone the other way had they won the opening coin toss in overtime. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Final Prediction: The Bills are one of the top few contenders for the Super Bowl this season and should improve even on their 11-6 record from a year ago. They’ll have a tough path out of the loaded AFC, like all AFC contenders will, but they could easily be considered a favorite to make it out of the loaded conference.
Prediction: 13-4, 1st in AFC East