Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (1-0) at Miami Dolphins (0-1)

The Bills started their season with a big home win over the Jets, winning by score of 27-17 and finishing with a +9.90% first down rate differential, 4th best of the week. That result shifted this line from 3.5 on the early line last week to 5.5 this week, as bettors seem to think that the Bills will continue that into another easy matchup with the Dolphins. That’s not necessarily the case though, for a few reasons.

For one, they’ll be on the road in Miami, where the Dolphins will have at least some fans in attendance. The Dolphins are also a better and healthier team than the Jets and they play harder and are better coached as well. On top of that, the Bills will have to play this game without their talented young linebacker duo of Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, who are both out for this game. That’s a big blow to this Buffalo defense and should make it easier for the Dolphins to keep this close. I’ll need to confirm Devante Parker’s health status before the game, as the Dolphins #1 receiver is a gametime decision with a hamstring injury, but if he’s in the lineup and the line doesn’t move, the Dolphins may be worth a bet.

Update: Parker is playing, but this line has crept up to 6 in some places. I think that’s worth betting if you can get it. Without both of Buffalo’s linebackers, this line shouldn’t be any higher than 3.

Buffalo Bills 23 Miami Dolphins 21

Pick against the spread: Miami +6

Confidence: Medium

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

New York Jets (0-0) at Buffalo Bills (0-0)

I am not as high on the Bills as most, as their success last season came almost entirely against easier opponents and now they have a much tougher schedule, but I’m surprised they are only 6.5 point home favorites over the Jets. The Bills’ schedule will get tougher this season, but it doesn’t start that way as the Jets enter the season with a bottom-5 roster. The Jets finished last season 26th in first down rate differential and, while that was partially due to their significant amount of games lost to injury, most of the players who missed time are either irrelevant or no longer with the team, including opted out linebacker CJ Mosley. 

The Jets also are already pretty banged up to start the season, missing starting wide receiver Denzel Sims and possibly safety Marcus Maye. The Jets are also without their other incumbent starting safety Jamal Adams, their top defensive player a year ago, who was traded to the Seahawks. The Jets have a healthy Sam Darnold under center, but their -1.42% first down rate differential in his 13 starts last season would have been just 20th in the NFL over the full season, despite the fact that the Jets faced a very easy schedule. 

Darnold will need to make a huge leap forward to carry the rest of this roster into playoff contention against a tougher schedule in 2020, without defensive leader Jamal Adams. They should be underdogs of more than 6.5 in Buffalo, even with pandemic restrictions limiting fans. I have this line calculated at Buffalo -8 and while I’m not going to bet on this one yet, if Maye is ruled out and this line remains the same, I would recommend betting the Bills.

Buffalo Bills 23 New York Jets 13

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -6.5

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

With Tom Brady no longer in New England after two decades of dominating the division (16 consecutive division titles in healthy seasons), the Bills are expected by many to finally dethrone the Patriots in the division this season. The Bills gave the Patriots a run for the division last year and made the post-season as a wild card in their first double digit win season since 1999, so it’s understandable that many would expect this team to make the next step, but I wouldn’t be so sure. I already got into why I don’t think the Patriots are just going to disappear in 2019 during their season preview, but on top of that the Bills weren’t quite as good as their record suggested in 2019.

The Bills finished the season 13th in first down rate differential with a solid +1.53% mark, but they faced one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. For all the talk about how easy the Patriots’ schedule was, the Bills faced the same schedule, only instead of the Chiefs and Texans they faced the Brandon Allen led Broncos and the Marcus Mariota led Titans, who missed 4 makeable field goals in a 7-point loss. That win over the Titans was their only win over a team that finished with a winning record, as they lost their other 5 such matchups, including their first round playoff exit in Houston.

Quarterback Josh Allen’s splits against teams with a winning record standout, as, even with a solid game against the Titans included, he completed just 51.7% of his passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions against winning teams, as opposed to 62.6% completion, 7.26 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions against .500 or worse teams. Even with the struggles against tougher competition, Allen still took a big step forward from his rookie year, improving his QB rating from 67.9 to 85.3, but he still finished as just Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback and his struggles against tougher competition are concerning. 

Allen entered the league very raw, so it’s not a surprise he’s had some growing pains and has had troubles with tougher defenses. Still only 24, Allen will need to take another big step forward in his third year in the league for the Bills to be a true contender. The Bills will also need Allen to avoid injuries, with career backup Matt Barkley (65.7 career QB rating) and 5th round rookie Jake Fromm set to compete for the backup job. Allen played all 16 games last season, but missed 4 games as a rookie and his playing style and propensity to take off and run with the ball (1,141 yards and 17 touchdowns on 198 carries in 2 seasons in the league) make him more susceptible to injuries than most quarterbacks. 

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Probably the best thing about Josh Allen is he’s on a cheap rookie deal for another two seasons, which allows the Bills to commit more resources to the rest of their roster. As many teams have been in this situation, the Bills have been aggressive using free agency to build around the quarterback, but they haven’t really made the splash signings other teams have, instead opting for quantity over quality. On offense, the Bills had just 2 players, quarterback Josh Allen and left tackle Dion Dawkins, that started in the same position in 2019 as 2018.

On the offensive line, the Bills started 7 different players last season and only Dion Dawkins, who made all 16 starts at left tackle, was on the roster in 2018. Dawkins was the best of the bunch and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle overall, his third straight season with an above average grade since being taken in the 2nd round in 2017. This off-season was very different for this offensive line, as all 7 players who made a start in 2019 will return. If nothing else, they should benefit from continuity.

Mitch Morse was the big free agent prize on this offensive line last off-season, coming over from the Chiefs on a 4-year, 44.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 2nd highest paid center in the league in average annual salary. Morse wasn’t as good as his salary would suggest, as he was PFF’s 17th ranked center on the season, but he was still a welcome addition. Now going into his age 28 season, Morse is unlikely to ever develop into a top level center and has never finished any higher than 14th at his position on PFF, but he should remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons.

At guard, veterans Spencer Long, Jon Feliciano, and Quinton Spain will compete for the starting roles. Long and Feliciano were signed last off-season to contracts worth 12.6 million over 3 years and 7.25 million over 2 years respectively, while Spain was signed to a 1-year, 2.05 million dollar deal and then re-signed for 15 million over 3 years this off-season. Long saw the least action last season, limited to 173 snaps, and that will likely remain the case in 2020 unless he has a big off-season. He was a solid starter earlier in his career, but hasn’t been the same since missing significant time in 2017 with knee injuries, finishing 38th out of 39 qualifying centers in 2018 and then barely making an impact last season. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s best as a versatile reserve, but he’s very experienced and you can do a whole lot worse than him if you have to turn to someone off your bench to fill a hole on the interior.

Feliciano and Spain, meanwhile, played 947 snaps and 1,063 snaps respectively last season and will likely remain locked in as starters in 2020. Spain was the more proven player going into last season, as he was a solid starter in Tennessee for the first 4 years of his career, while Feliciano had just 8 career starts and struggled mightily in his first extended action as an injury fill in with the Raiders in 2018. However, Feliciano actually had a significantly better 2019, having a mini breakout year with a 35th ranked finish on PFF, while Spain fell to a career worst 66th out of 89 qualifiers. Feliciano is a one-year wonder who could easily regress in 2020, but Spain has bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, so those kind of cancel out. With Long waiting in the wings if either player struggles, the Bills have a solid situation at the guard position.

The Bills also have great depth at right tackle, adding free agent Daryl Williams to the mix this off-season, after bringing in Cody Ford with the 38th overall pick and Ty Nsekhe on a 2-year, 10 million dollar contract last off-season. Nsekhe technically only made one start, but he averaged 35.8 snaps per game in the 10 games he played, as the Bills went with the unorthodox approach of rotating him and Ford at right tackle in the games they were both healthy. 

The Bills may continue that approach in 2020, though it’s unclear how Williams would figure into it. Ford also could take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league, after finishing 78th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF last season, while Nsekhe is going into his age 35 season and, though he’s flashed in limited action as an injury replacement in his career, he’s never been a full-time starter (17 career starts). Given that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ford became a traditional every down starting right tackle in 2020.

Ford will have to compete with that role though, not just with Nsekhe, but with Williams, who wasn’t a needed addition, but joins the growing contingency of former Panthers players on the Bills rosters. Williams might not end up playing much, but he could prove to be a steal on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal if he needs to see action. A 4th round pick in 2015, Williams seemingly had a breakout 2017 season, finishing as PFF’s 14th ranked offensive tackle in 16 starts on the right side, but he missed all but 1 game with injury in 2018 and saw his replacement Taylor Moton keep the job long-term, which forced Williams to play out of position when he returned from the injury in 2019. 

Possibly still hampered by the injury, Williams received a below average grade from PFF last season, while making 3 starts at left tackle, 6 starts at left guard, and 3 starts at right guard. Williams is still an injury concern and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the caliber player he was in 2017, but still only going into his age 28 season, so he was a worthwhile flyer on a cheap one-year deal. He might not see much action though on a solid offensive line that is one of the deepest in the league, with up to 8 guys who could legitimately start elsewhere.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Bills also overhauled their receiving corps last off-season, most notably adding wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley on deals worth 27 million over 3 years and 29 million over 4 years respectively. Both players had impressive slash lines in their first season in Buffalo, 72/1060/2 and 67/778/6 respectively and finished in the top-37 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but this passing game was a little too dependent on them, as they accounted for 43.1% of the Bills targets and 53.7% of their receiving yards on the season. They needed to find a reliable third target this off-season.

Needing a third target, the Bills instead shot for the moon and acquired a legitimate #1 receiver in Stefon Diggs, who comes over from the Vikings. Diggs wasn’t cheap, as the Bills gave Minnesota the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (among lesser picks) and are picking up the remaining 47.5 million over 4 years left on his contract, but the Bills can afford to be aggressive with Josh Allen on a cheap rookie deal and, without many pressing needs this off-season, it made sense for the Bills to package together a few draft picks to bring in one of the better wide receivers in the league. Even with this being a deep wide receiver draft class, Diggs is better immediately than anyone the Bills could have gotten with #22 overall and the Bills are in win now mode. 

Diggs might not have come cheap, but he’s the kind of player it makes sense to give up a premium pick for in the right situation, as a player of his caliber in the prime of his career rarely would come available in free agency and, if they did, they would command a much bigger contract than what the Bills are picking up. Still only going into his age 27 season, Diggs is actually coming off the best year of his career. The only reason he was traded is because the Vikings are a run heavy team with cap problems that couldn’t justify paying top dollar for quarterback Kirk Cousins and both of his top targets Adam Thielen and Diggs.

Diggs’ 63/1130/6 slash line in 2019 was a career high, but he played even better than that suggests, given that he played on a team with other passing targets and that had more run attempts than pass attempts. Diggs had that yardage (17th in the NFL) on just 94 targets (45th in the NFL) and he finished the season only behind Michael Thomas in yards per route run with 2.69. Last year might have been his career best, but he’s hardly a one-year wonder, averaging 1.83 yards per route run for his career and finishing in the top-30 among wide receivers on PFF in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league. He’s joining another run heavy offense in Buffalo so I wouldn’t expect huge numbers from him, especially with Beasley and Brown still around to take targets away, but he should be the clear #1 receiver.

Brown’s addition will obviously take targets away from Beasley and Brown, who ranked 33rd and 26th in the NFL in targets last season, both ahead of Diggs. Brown probably stands the lose the most as Diggs now becomes their primary outside receiver. Brown is also coming off of a career best year, but it wasn’t his first thousand yard year, as he topped the mark with a 65/1003/7 slash line way back in 2015. In between, Brown dealt with illness and injury and hardly made an impact in 2016 and 2017, but he got healthy for 2018 and was on pace for a 60/1048/7 slash line through 9 games before the Ravens benched Joe Flacco for a raw Lamar Jackson, who barely looked his way. That allowed the Bills to snatch him up on a good value contract. He’s going into his age 30 season already, but he’s now the clear #2 receiver, a role he should still be well qualified for, even if he has a significant statistical drop off when fewer balls go his way.

Beasley should see fewer balls as well, but he remains locked in as this team’s primary slot receiver. He may see his snaps decrease slightly from the 729 he played last season, but he ran 74.2% of his routes from the slot last season and doesn’t have any real competition for slot snaps. Like Brown, his age is becoming a concern, going into his age 31 season, but he’s averaged a solid 1.43 yards per route run from the slot over the past 4 seasons and could easily remain an reliable slot option for at least another couple years. With Brown and Diggs on the outside around Beasley, this is one of the better top wide receiver trios in the NFL and they have adequate depth to boot, with 4th round rookie Gabriel Davis and gadget speedster Isaiah McKenzie (7.81 yards per catch after the catch on 27 catches last season) being the most intriguing of the bunch.

The Bills are also expecting more from tight end Duke Dawson, a 2019 3rd round pick who had an underwhelming 28/388/2 slash line as a rookie. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but there won’t be a lot of balls for him as the 4th receiving option at best on a run heavy team. Fortunately, he’s an adequate blocker, which should allow him to see significant playing time. Veteran blocking tight ends Lee Smith and Tyler Kroft remain as depth, though they caught just 10 passes combined last season. This is a talented receiving corps overall, with the addition of Diggs.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

As mentioned, the Bills are a run heavy team, with 465 run attempts (6th in the NFL) to 513 pass attempts (24th in the NFL) last season. Part of that is Josh Allen’s propensity to take off and run, something he did on 109 occasions last season, and the addition of Diggs may cause the Bills to open up their passing game more, but the selection of Utah’s Zack Moss in the 3rd round to replace Frank Gore as the backup running back suggests there are still plenty of carries for running backs on this offense. Running back is one of the easiest positions for rookies to have an immediate impact at and Moss will team up with last year’s third round pick Devin Singletary to potentially form a two headed monster at the running back position.

How the carries will be divided between the two is yet to be determined. Singletary was limited to 20 carries in the first 8 games of the season by a combination of injury and veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, but he rushed for 603 yards and a score on 131 carries (4.60 YPC) in the final 8 games of the season as essentially a feature back, significantly out-carrying veteran Frank Gore (60 carries). Moss’ draft status suggests he could take more carries away than that, but he could be primarily used as a passing down back, as he has much more ability in those situations than Singletary (4.73 yards per target as a rookie), and if Singletary continues running like he did last season it will be hard to take carries away from him. 

Not only did Singletary have long carries (10th in the NFL with 36.4% of his rushing yards coming on carries of 15+), but he also ranked above average with a 50% carry success rate, keeping this offense on schedule. Having Allen as a threat to take off and run makes finding running room much easier and that is something that should benefit both Singletary and Moss this season, even if Allen’s propensity to run limits the amount of carries running backs get. They should remain an effective running team this season, with Singletary going into his second year in the league and a talented running back replacing the aged Frank Gore (3.61 YPC in 2019).

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Bills’ offense was underwhelming last season, finishing 23rd in first down rate at 34.18%, their defense was much better, finishing 3rd in first down rate allowed, although that’s kind of misleading. Not only did they face one of the easiest schedules in the league, but they also were closer to the 17th ranked Cowboys than the 1st ranked Patriots with a 32.66% first down rate allowed. Still, this is a deep defense without obvious flaws and, while they had some off-season losses, they did a good job adding replacements. Much like on offense, the Bills have gone with a quantity over quality approach on defense, with few standouts but great depth.

On the edge, the Bills are replacing free agent departure Shaq Lawson and retired hybrid linebacker/defensive end Lorenzo Alexander. They combined for just 8.5 sacks last season, but Lawson’s 6.5 were second on the team and combined they had a 13.8% pressure rate, so those aren’t small losses. The Bills replaced them by signing ex-Panther Mario Addison to a 3-year, 30.45 million dollar deal in free agency and then using a 2nd round pick on Iowa’s AJ Epenesa. Epenesa might not make a big impact as a rookie, but Addison and incumbent starters Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy are all heading into their age 30 season or later, so Epenesa was an important pick for the long-term, and the Bills like to rotate their defensive linemen, so he’ll have at least a small role in the short-term as well.

Addison is the oldest of the bunch, going into his age 33 season. Originally undrafted in 2011, Addison was a very late bloomer, not becoming a productive rotational player until 2015 and not becoming a starter until 2017, but he has somewhat remarkably seen his snap total increase in each of the past 4 seasons, from 392 to a career high 729 last season. Unfortunately, he seems to be on the decline, as his Pro Football Focus grade has fallen in each of the past 3 seasons, from an 11th ranked finish among edge defenders in 2016 all the way to a 71st ranked finish out of 118 qualifiers in 2019. Given his age, that’s not all that surprising. He still wasn’t bad last season though and had a 11.4% pressure rate, down from the 13.1% pressure rate he has since 2015, but still solid. He could have another couple seasons left in the tank as a solid player, especially if the Bills scale his snaps back in a rotational role, but he was a slight overpay, given that the Bills could have re-signed the much younger Shaq Lawson for around the same price.

Hughes is probably the best of the bunch, assuming his abilities don’t totally fall off in his age 32 season. He’s finished in the top-37 among edge defenders on PFF in 6 of 7 seasons with the Bills (12.7% pressure rate over that stretch), including a 11th ranked finish as recently as 2018, so even if he does decline, he should remain a high level rotational edge defender at the very least. He might see his snaps scaled back from the 663 snaps he played last season, but he’ll still have a significant role.

Murphy is the youngest of the three, by default, as he doesn’t turn 30 until December. Murphy had a 13.9% pressure rate in 2016, but hasn’t been the same since missing all of 2017 with a torn ACL. In two seasons since, he’s only missed 3 games, but he’s had a 8.6% pressure rate and has earned middling grades overall from PFF. Given his age, it’s likely his best days are behind him, but he’s not a bad rotational player and could have another couple decent seasons left in the tank. Even 2019 7th round pick Darryl Johnson, who played 224 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, could see a small rotational role on the edge. This is a deep position, even if it lacks a standout player.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Bills also lost defensive tackle Jordan Phillips in free agency, but they signed Quinton Jefferson from the Seahawks and yet another ex-Panther Vernon Butler in free agency and they’ll get Harrison Phillips back from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season after 3 games, so they have plenty of depth at the position. Phillips did lead this team with 9.5 sacks, but he didn’t play nearly as well as that suggests, as he added just 5 hits and a 7.7% pressure rate and didn’t make much of an impact against the run. The Bills were wise not to get into a bidding war for his services with the Arizona Cardinals, who signed him to a 3-year, 30 million dollar contract.

The 2-year, 15 million dollar deal they gave Butler isn’t better though. Butler was a first round pick in 2016, but averaged just underwhelming 322 snaps per season in 4 seasons in Carolina and made 9 starts total, all of which came down the stretch last season as an injury replacement on an awful Carolina defense. It’s not a surprise the Panthers didn’t pick up his 5th year option for 2020 (which would have guaranteed him 7.69 million for injury only) and made little effort to bring him back as a free agent. Still only going into his age 26 season, he still has theoretical upside, but the Bills fully guaranteeing him 7.8 million just seems like the brain trust, led by former Panther assistants Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, overvaluing one of their former guys.

Jefferson’s 2-year, 13.5 million dollar deal is a much better value. Originally a 7th round pick in 2016, Jefferson broke out in 2019 with a 32nd ranked finish among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. In addition to his 3.5 sacks, he also had a 9.7% pressure rate and played above average run defense. Jefferson is primarily a defensive tackle, but has the versatility to play some defensive end in certain situations. He’s a one-year wonder, as he was underwhelming in the first significant action of his career in 2018 and played just 151 snaps total in his first 2 seasons in the league prior to that, but he was still a worthwhile addition given the contract he received. It’s possible he’s turned a corner as a player and will continue playing well going forward. Only going into his age 27 season, he could prove to be well worth this contract. 

Harrison Phillips is like a free agent addition, given that the Bills got just 77 snaps out of him before he got hurt. Phillips’ season was off to a good start before the injury and he earned an above average grade from PFF on 389 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018, so he has the potential to be a big re-addition, still only going into his age 24 season. He won’t have a huge role at a very deep position, but he’s a good run stuffer who showed improvement as a pass rusher in limited action last season.

Incumbents Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei also remain as the likely starters at a position that legitimately goes five deep when healthy. Lotulelei is arguably the worst of the five, despite his status as a starter. Also a former first round pick by the Panthers, Lotulelei is a solid run stuffer, but little else, with 13.5 career sacks in 108 career games and a 5.0% career pressure rate. The Bills gave him a 5-year, 50 million dollar contract in free agency as one of their first former Panther additions but, like Butler, that was a case of overpaying for a familiar player. The Bills restructured his contract this off-season and he may see fewer snaps than the 482 he saw last season at a position that looks even deeper, but they still guaranteed him 7 million for 2020, so he’ll still have a role. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him.

Oliver, meanwhile, should be the best of the bunch and should lead the position in snaps, assuming he doesn’t miss time with a suspension after an off-season incident. The 9th overall pick in 2019, Oliver earned an average grade from PFF on 557 rookie year snaps, but he is just scratching the surface on his potential. He could easily take a step forward in his second year in the league and in a few years he could be one of the best players in the league at his position. He leads a solid, if unspectacular group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Not much has changed at linebacker for the Bills this off-season. They did lose hybrid player Lorenzo Alexander, who played some linebacker in base packages, but they bring back their top-2 linebackers, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, both of whom play close to every down and stay on the field in nickel packages. Milano is actually one of the better coverage linebackers in the league, finishing 14th and 4th on Pro Football Focus in 2018 and 2019 respectively in coverage grade among off ball linebackers. 

The 6-0 223 pounder is unsurprisingly not as good against the run, missing 35 tackles over the past 2 seasons, but he has still finished 11th and 32nd among off ball linebackers overall on PFF in the past 2 seasons respectively. Still only going into his age 25 season, Milano may still have untapped potential and could take another step forward in 2020. Now going into the fourth and final year of his rookie deal, the former 5th round pick will be expensive to keep, whenever the Bills try to re-sign him.

Edmunds was a higher pick, going 16th overall in 2018, but he has yet to break out in the way that Milano has. Edmunds has filled up the stat sheet with tackles, but more than half of his tackles have been assists, and he’s also missed 35 tackles over the past 2 seasons, despite being much bigger than Milano at 6-5 250. Unlike Milano, who has made up for his missed tackles with his coverage ability, Edmunds has been unremarkable in coverage and has earned below average grades overall in both seasons in the league, though his 51st ranked finish out of 100 qualifiers in 2019 was a noticeable improvement from his rookie year. He’s also still somehow only going into his age 22 season, meaning he’s younger than many rookies, so he still has plenty of upside long-term.

With Alexander retiring, the Bills brought in yet another former Panther to play the 3rd linebacker role, signing AJ Klein, a 7-year veteran of the Panthers and Saints, to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal in free agency. It’s a lot of money for a player of Klein’s caliber, especially since he isn’t likely to play more than half of the snaps in a purely base package role. Klein has been close to an every down player in 43 starts for the Saints over the past 3 seasons, averaging 48.6 snaps per game, but he’s earned mediocre grades from PFF. He may be better in a pure base package role, but to be worth his salary, he’ll have to excel in that role. Even if he was an overpay though, he’s still a capable third linebacker in a solid overall position group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Bills also added help to their secondary this off-season, signing, you guessed it, yet another ex-Panther, Josh Norman, most recently of the Redskins. Adding a veteran cornerback to the mix made sense because the Bills lost Kevin Johnson (335 snaps) in free agency and needed competition for young cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson, who finished 2nd and 3rd among Bills cornerbacks with 785 snaps and 495 snaps respectively. Norman’s contract, 6 million over one year, suggests he’s more than just competition though, which could prove to be a mistake.

During his time in Carolina, Norman developed into one of the better cornerbacks in the league, earning above average grades in his final 2 seasons with the team, including a career best 3rd ranked finish among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015. That season landed him a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal with the Redskins that made him the highest paid cornerback in the league for years, but Norman never finished higher than 26th among cornerbacks in any of his 4 seasons in Washington and he bottomed out in his final season, ranking 128th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks and getting benched down the stretch. 

It was an easy decision for the Redskins to move on from Norman this off-season rather than pay him his non-guaranteed 12.5 million dollar salary in 2020 and it’s surprising he even got the kind of contract the Bills gave him. He comes with some bounce back potential, but he’s already going into his age 33 season, so he may be coming to the end of the line and his best days are definitely behind him. Unless he has a strong off-season, he shouldn’t have a significant role in this secondary ahead of the younger cornerbacks.

Norman’s biggest competition for a starting job is likely incumbent Levi Wallace, who started all 16 games last season. Wallace wasn’t bad, earning a middling grade from PFF, but obviously the Bills feel they may be able to upgrade him with Norman. Wallace was undrafted two years ago, but flashed a lot of potential in 7 rookie year starts, earning PFF’s 3rd highest cornerback grade from week 10 on. He wasn’t as good over his first full season as a starter, but he’s proven himself now over 23 starts and has earned the right to keep his starting role.

Taron Johnson is likely locked in as the primary slot cornerback again, as Norman’s lack of slot experience (he’s never exceeded 100 slot snaps in a season) means he’s not a real threat to his job. He’s been a middling slot cornerback since entering the league as a 4th round pick in 2018, but he was slightly better when healthier on 405 rookie year snaps and could have his best year yet in his third year in the league 2020 if he can avoid injuries. Still, if the Bills were going to try to upgrade one cornerback spot this off-season, finding competition on the slot would have made more sense than adding competition for Wallace outside.

Tre’Davious White is locked in as the other outside cornerback, as he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the league and has the upside to get even better. A first round selection in 2017, White finished 5th among cornerbacks on PFF as a rookie and 17th among cornerbacks last season. While he did have a down 2018 season in between, he’s still only allowed 54.2% completion, 7.06 YPA, and 5 touchdowns, as opposed to 12 picks and 24 passes broken up. Cornerback is arguably the toughest position in the NFL to be consistently dominant at, but White has the potential to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL for a long time, still only going into his age 25 season. He has two years left on his rookie deal, but he won’t become cheaper with time, so the Bills should be trying to lock him up long-term as soon as possible.

In addition to having one of the better #1 cornerbacks in the league, the Bills also have one of the better safety duos in the league and will bring back Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer for their fourth season together in 2020. Both were under the radar signings, Hyde coming in on a 5-year, 30.5 million dollar deal and Poyer coming in on a 4-year, 13 million dollar deal, but both have been much better on their second contract than they were with their previous teams on rookie contracts. 

Hyde went from playing 651 nondescript snaps per game as versatile defensive back depth in 4 seasons with the Packers to starting all 47 games he’s played in 3 seasons in Buffalo and finishing 7th, 9th, and 12th among on PFF safeties over the past 3 seasons respectively. Poyer, meanwhile, made only 10 starts in 4 seasons prior to joining the Bills, with 6 of them coming in his injury plagued final season in Cleveland, but he has finished 9th, 49th, and 22nd respectively among safeties on PFF in 3 seasons with the Bills. Hyde still has two years left on his bargain deal, while Poyer was given a deservedly massive pay raise with a 2-year, 19.5 million dollar extension this off-season. Still relatively young, with Hyde going into his age 30 season and Poyer going into his age 29 season, they should have another strong season together in 2020. Along with top cornerback Tre’Davious White, they lead this talented secondary.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Bills made the playoffs as a wild card last season against an easy schedule, but they really struggled against tougher competition, especially young quarterback Josh Allen, which is a big concern as they’re set to face one of the tougher projected schedules in the league this season. The same is true of the rest of their division, which became a lot more winnable when Tom Brady left New England, but the Patriots don’t seem likely to just disappear and, even if the Bills are able to win arguably the weakest division in football, it’s hard to see them going on a big run in the playoffs, unless they get a third year breakout year from quarterback Josh Allen. The Bills have given him a big help by adding a #1 wide receiver to what now looks like one of the better receiving corps in the league, but Allen has a big jump to make against tougher competition, so I think this team is probably at least a year away. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Bills lose Star Lotulelei to an opt out, but they’re deep enough at defensive tackle that they arguably might be better off without the aging Lotulelei. I still have them slightly behind the Patriots in the worst division in football, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bills were able to win the division.

Projection: 8-8 (2nd in AFC East)

Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans: 2019 AFC Wild Card Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (10-6) at Houston Texans (10-6)

The Bills and Texans both went 10-6 in the regular season, locking in their seeding at 10-5 with a week left to go in the season and resting starters in an eventual meaningless week 17 loss. The Texans faced a much tougher schedule though, with an opponents winning percentage of 53% (6th in the NFL) vs. 47% (28th in the NFL) for the Bills, who didn’t fare well against tougher competition in general. 

The Bills went just 1-4 against playoff qualifiers and that one win came over the Marcus Mariota led Titans back in week 5, a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals in a 7-point loss. All in all, the Bills had just a -2.05% first down rate differential against opponents who finished with a .500 or better record. The Texans, meanwhile, went 3-3 against playoff qualifiers (3-2 if you exclude a meaningless week 17 loss to the Titans), including wins over the Chiefs and Patriots.  

The Texans have been underwhelming in recent weeks, but they get a much needed boost on defense with JJ Watt returning from an 8-game absence. With Watt back in the lineup, I have the Texans 3 points better in my roster rankings than the Bills, so we’re getting good value with the Texans being favored by just 2.5 points at home. The Bills are also starting a first time playoff starter under center in Josh Allen. First time playoff starters are 14-32-1 ATS since 2002. 

Houston’s Deshaun Watson is in just his 2nd playoff start after losing at home to the Colts in his playoff debut last season, but even that one game of experience seems to matter, as there isn’t a similar trend for a quarterback’s second start. Watson struggled in his debut last season and could watch Josh Allen, a lesser quarterback, do the same this year. I would expect the Texans to win and it might not be close depending on how badly Allen struggles, so the Texans are worth a large bet in a game they basically just need to win to cover.

Houston Texans 24 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Houston -2.5

Confidence: High

New York Jets at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

New York Jets (6-9) at Buffalo Bills (10-5)

I’m going to do the rest of my picks this weekend as normal, but I want to get a couple quick ones out of the way. There are four games this week where a team is expected to rest starters with their seeding locked in or all but locked in. Two of those games (Baltimore/Pittsburgh and Houston/Tennessee) have one team playing for their playoff lives, so at least one side will be highly motivated in those matchups. In the other two games, the other side is eliminated from the post-season and might not care much about a game against an opponent who is playing a lot of backups. 

This game falls into the latter category (Minnesota/Chicago is the other). With the Bills getting eliminated from the division after their loss in New England last week and both the Titans and Steelers losing last week, the Bills are now locked into the 5th seed in the AFC and will rest key players for all or most of the game to keep them fresh for the wild card round. The Jets may play hard for pride, but I’m skeptical that they’ll take the Bills’ backups seriously, with the off-season right around the corner.

If neither of these teams are going to put much effort into this game, I’m not going to put much effort into this write-up. I would have this line calculated at Buffalo -6 under normal circumstances, so this line at Buffalo -1.5 doesn’t seem like it’s swung enough. In the Minnesota/Chicago matchup, there are 8 points of difference between my calculated line under normal circumstances and this actual line, but in this one the difference is just 4.5 points. I have no desire to wager anything of significance on this game, but I’m taking the Jets for pick ‘em purposes.

Buffalo Bills 17 New York Jets 16

Pick against the spread: NY Jets +1.5

Confidence: None

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (10-4) at New England Patriots (11-3)

The Bills got a huge win last week, not only clinching a playoff spot in the process, but giving them their first double digit win total since 1999 and keeping them alive in the battle for the division with the New England Patriots, who they play this week in the first meaningful late season matchup between the Bills and Patriots in decades. The Bills rank 11th in first down rate differential at +2.25%, which more or less lines up with their 10-4 record, but that’s partially inflated by an easy schedule. Even with some tougher games in recent weeks, the Bills still rank tied for last in the NFL in opponents record at 43%. My roster rankings have the Bills 17th, which is I think is more in line with how they would play against an average schedule.

The Patriots had an easy schedule earlier in the year, but they’ve had a tough schedule over the past several weeks and overall have a 48% opponents record. Because these two teams are in the same division, they’ve had pretty similar schedules, but the Patriots have faced a first place schedule because they won the division last year and those first place teams (Ravens, Texans, and Chiefs) are the only teams they’ve lost to. Against teams that the Bills have also faced, the Patriots are 10-1 with a +18.00 points per game margin. The Bills are 8-3 against those teams, but with just a +7.00 point per game margin. The Patriots have also been significantly better statistically on the season than the Bills, ranking 3rd in first down rate differential at 32.59%, despite facing the Chiefs and Texans instead of the Broncos and the Marcus Mariota led Titans.

Given that, I don’t expect the Bills to be able to keep this game within a score in New England. The Patriots are almost an automatic bet at home when favored by less than a touchdown, going 47-19 ATS with Tom Brady under center, as they almost always manage to find a way to win by at least a touchdown at home. Brady and this Patriots offense could have a hard time putting points on the board, with Brady playing at less than 100% with a receiving corps that he hasn’t been able to get in rhythm with due to missed practice time, against a Bills defense that ranks 3rd in first down rate allowed, but the Bills’ offense ranks just 20th in first down rate, despite an easy schedule, and young quarterback Josh Allen is almost a guarantee to make at least a couple mistakes against a well-coached Patriots defense that ranks first in first down rate allowed by a wide margin at 28.66% (2nd place ranked team is 31.56%). Even if it’s not pretty, I expect the Patriots to win by at least a touchdown.

New England Patriots 20 Buffalo Bills 10

Pick against the spread: New England -6.5

Confidence: Medium

Buffalo Bills at Pittsburgh Steelers: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)

The Bills only lost by a touchdown at home last week to the AFC leading Ravens and they even had a shot to tie the game at the end, getting stopped on 4th down on the Ravens’ 18-yard line to end the game, but the Bills weren’t quite as competitive in that game as the end result suggests. The Ravens held a 15 point lead into the middle of the 4th quarter and won the first down rate battle by 10.59%. The Ravens had more first downs (18 to 16) and more offensive touchdowns (3 to 1), despite running 9 fewer offensive plays (68 to 59). The Bills’ defense was impressive in holding the Ravens to just 4.4 yards per play, but their offense managed a pathetic 3.1 yards per play.

Even with last week’s game against the now 12-2 Ravens included, the Bills are still tied with the Jets for the easiest schedule in the NFL at 42% and they haven’t fared well against average or better opponents. In their 6 matchups against opponents that are currently 6-7 or better, they are just 2-4 with a -2.18% first down rate differential, as opposed to 7-0 with a +6.28% first down rate differential in their other 7 games (combined opponents record of 22-70).

With that in mind, the Bills could have some real trouble this week on the road in Pittsburgh against the 8-5 Steelers. The Steelers looked dead in the water after a 1-4 start, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberer out for the season, but those four teams they lost to turned out to be 4 of the best teams in the NFL (Patriots, Seahawks, 49ers, and Ravens) and they’ve won 7 of 8 games since, including wins over competent opponents like the Colts, Rams, and Browns. 

Their defense leads the way, ranking 8th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 33.41%. Since their week 7 bye, they’ve been even better defensively, ranking as the 2nd best defense in the league in first down rate allowed over that stretch at 30.23%. Their offense has been a different story, as they rank 27th in first down rate at 32.16% on the season, but they’ve played significantly better with Devlin Hodges under center than they did with Mason Rudolph under center. Not only does Hodges have a QB rating about 23 points higher than Rudolph, but he’s led the Steelers to a 36.53% first down rate in his 3 starts (3-0), as opposed to a 30.94% first down rate in their other 10 games. 

Hodges was supposed to be getting running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back from injury this week and I was considering the Steelers as my Pick of the Week as a result, but Smith-Schuster had a setback in practice and will not return this week. Still, the return of Conner should help this offense and with wide receivers James Washington and Diontae Johnson showing more in recent weeks, the absence of Smith-Schuster isn’t as big of a deal.

The Steelers will not be my Pick of the Week this week, but I do think they’re worth betting on. At the very least, these two teams should be considered about even, but I give the slight edge to the Steelers because they’ve shown more competence in tough games and because they’ve been a better team since changing quarterbacks. This line, favoring the Steelers at home by just one point, suggests the Bills are the better team. My calculated line is Pittsburgh -3.5 and with about 20% of games decided by 2-3 points, we’re getting pretty significant line value with the Steelers at -1. This isn’t a huge play, but this spread definitely seems off.

Pittsburgh Steelers 17 Buffalo Bills 13

Pick against the spread: Pittsburgh -1

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (10-2) at Buffalo Bills (9-3)

The Bills got a statement win on Thanksgiving in Dallas, but that wasn’t as impressive as it seemed, so the Bills are a little overrated right now. Not only have the Cowboys since been beaten rather easily by the Bears, but, while the Bills won that game by 11, they lost the first down rate battle by 7.54%. The Cowboys picked up 32 first downs in the game and got into Buffalo territory on 8 of 10 drives, but managed just 15 points because they missed a pair of field goals, turned it over twice, and got stopped on 4th down twice late in the game when they were forced to go for it. 

The Bills have a first down rate differential of +3.44% on the season, 6th in the NFL, but they’ve faced the easiest schedule in the NFL by far, with their opponents having a combined winning percentage of 38%. No one else has faced a schedule easier than 42%. Aside from last week, their only win over a team with more than 4 wins came against the Titans by 7 in a game in which the Titans missed 4 field goals. Excluding the Cowboys and Titans, the Bills have 7 wins against teams that are a combined 20-64.

The Bills’ schedule gets much tougher this week, as they host the Baltimore Ravens, arguably the top team in the league right now. The Ravens beat another top team candidate last week, the San Francisco 49ers, but this line still shifted from Baltimore -7 on the early line last week to Baltimore -6 this week, as a result of Buffalo’s win over Dallas. About 10% of games are decided by exactly a field goal, so that’s a significant one-point shift. 

I was hoping for an even better line with Baltimore, but I like the Ravens a good amount this week. They’ve blown their competition out of the water for about two months, ranking 1st in first down rate differential since week 7 at +11.83% (no one else is higher than +5.65%), despite facing teams that are 7-5 or better in 5 of 6 games. The Ravens got off to a relatively slow start, but still rank 2nd in first down rate differential on the season at +7.28%. The Bills, meanwhile, are going in the opposite direction, with just a +0.02% first down rate since week 7, 18th in the NFL over that time period, despite facing opponents with a combined 29-56 record. Everyone knows the Ravens are good so it’s hard to get value with them, but we’re getting some this week (Baltimore -8.5 is my calculated line) because the Bills are overrated, so the Ravens are worth betting this week. 

Baltimore Ravens 27 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -6

Confidence: Medium

Buffalo Bills at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (8-3) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

People seem to be souring on the Cowboys as a result of their loss in New England last week, but I don’t really understand why. The Patriots are one of the top few teams in the league once again this season and have been borderline impossible to beat at home over the past two decades. They have just 26 home losses since 2001 and prior to last week they were 51-20 ATS at home in games in which they were not favored by a touchdown or more. The fact that the Cowboys were able to play the game close and cover the 6-point spread is impressive, losing 13-9 in a game they played about even in first down rate (-0.15%) and lost primarily as a result of a blocked punt. 

The common narrative is the Cowboys can’t beat good teams and in fact they are 0-4 against teams that currently have winning records right now, but all of those losses have been close, decided by 20 points combined, and the Cowboys actually won the first down rate battle in two of those losses. All in all, their 5 losses have come by a combined 22 points, while their 6 wins have come by a combined 107 points, giving them a +85 point differential that ranks 4th in the NFL. They also rank 4th in first down rate differential at 5.34% and 4th in my roster rankings.

The Cowboys haven’t faced a tough schedule overall (46% opponents winning percentage), but that’s significantly tougher than the Bills’ schedule, as the Bills’ opponents have a combined 35% winning percentage, 8% less than any other team in the league. Their 8-3 record is a complete farce as the 8 teams that have defeated are a combined 21-67, with their one win against a team that currently has more than 4 wins coming against a Titans team that was starting Marcus Mariota at the time and that missed 4 makeable field goals in a 7-point loss. The Bills’ strength of defeat isn’t all that impressive either, as their 3 losses have come against teams that are a combined 20-13.

The Bills enter this game 6th in first down rate differential at +4.70%, but that’s still behind the Cowboys, despite facing such an easy schedule. My roster rankings have the Bills as a middle of the pack team, ranked 18th overall. The Bills are also in a horrible spot, having to play on the road on a short week against a superior opponent who they aren’t familiar with. Short weeks are tough enough as they are, but they’re easier when you’re at home, when you’re facing an inferior opponent, and when you’re facing a divisional opponent you’re familiar with. Non-divisional road underdogs are 17-36 ATS over the past 30 years on Thursdays, including 9-20 ATS as road underdogs of 4 or more. 

Given the Bills’ disadvantage on a short week and the talent gap between these two teams, I have this line calculated at Dallas -10, so we’re getting good line value with the hosts, especially with the line shifting off of the full touchdown it was at on the early line last week to -6.5 this week, as a result of the public souring on the Cowboys a little bit. About 1 in 10 games are decided by exactly a touchdown, so that’s a big half point. The Cowboys have 6 wins by more than a touchdown this season and should be able to make it seven this week against a Bills team that has barely been tested this season. I like them a lot as favorites of less than a touchdown. I’m also locking in Cincinnati +3.5 early in case in moves and I will have a full write up for that game this weekend with the others as usual.

Dallas Cowboys 27 Buffalo Bills 16

Pick against the spread: Dallas -6.5

Confidence: High

Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Denver Broncos (3-7) at Buffalo Bills (7-3)

At first glance, the Bills are having a strong season, going 7-3 and ranking 6th in first down rate differential at +4.18%. However, they’ve played by far the easiest schedule in the NFL so far. Their seven wins have come against teams that are a combined 15-55 and their only win against a team with more than three wins came by a touchdown in a game in which the now 5-5 Titans missed four makeable field goals. Even the record of the teams that have defeated the Bills is not overly impressive, at 18-12. My roster rankings have the Bills 18th, which is think is a much more accurate representation of how the Bills stack up against the rest of the league. 

That’s just one spot ahead of where I have the Broncos, who also rank 19th in first down rate differential at -0.80%. Denver is 3-7, but four of their losses have come by four points or fewer on last-second drives, so they could easily have 5 or 6 wins right now. They’re down to third string quarterback Brandon Allen, but he hasn’t been much of a dropoff from Joe Flacco. The Broncos have compensated for their offensive issues all season with a defense that ranks 5th in the NFL in first down rate at 32.46%. 

Unfortunately, we’re not really getting line value with the Broncos, as this line has been bet down from Buffalo -6 on the early line last week to Buffalo -4 this week. I have this line calculated at Buffalo -3.5, which isn’t much different than the actual line. I still like the Broncos chances of keeping this game close, with the Bills having to turnaround and play again in 4 days on Thursday Night Football (a 44% cover spot all-time for favorites), but not enough to bet on it.

Buffalo Bills 20 Denver Broncos 17

Pick against the spread: Denver +4

Confidence: Low