The Buffalo Bills have not won the AFC since 1994 and the AFC East since 1995. I don’t say this to pour salt in old wounds. Rather, I want to introduce an opportunity for our great purveyor of chicken wings up north. Tom Brady has moved onto Tampa Bay. The door has been opened in the division for the first time in 12 years. Buffalo nearly took the reigns last year and is now in pole position to take the division now and moving forward.
Let’s take a step back for a minute. I’ve always enjoyed and followed the NFL draft and wanted to truly test myself this year. With the lockdown in place and NFL Game Pass open for business, I decided I wanted to do a little project for myself. Being an Eagles fan, it’s easy for me to identify their team needs and pinpoint their targets for this week’s draft. On top of my hours of Birds watching, I also regularly consume any and all Eagles-related content. My opinions are fully backed and formed on that front, so I wanted to move on and provide a fresh perspective.
I’ve spent the last week-and-a-half re-watching the Buffalo Bills’ 2019-20 season and diving into their offseason transactions. Now I’m ready to provide you with my fresh-eyed, unbiased, Buffalo Bills draft guide. First, let’s break down the 2019 performances by side of the ball and determine what this team really needs.
The first position that we will look at is the most important and the most confounding. The things that makes Josh Allen the butt of jokes are also the same traits that make him special. He often overthrows receivers and has poor deep-ball accuracy. But, he has, perhaps, the best arm talent in the league. He holds onto the ball too long and takes unnecessary risks that often hurt the team. But, his escapability and mobility are truly the traits that pop the most from his game. He’s really accurate on short and intermediate routes, but can’t hit the broad side of a barn down the field.
The roster around Allen is built to maximize his success. The Bills are loaded with a stout and cohesive offensive line and surrounded by one of the better receiving cores in the league. Everything centers around whether he can take advantage of the situation and use the weapons that he has been blessed with. As Allen matures, he must walk the fine line of cutting down on his mistakes while maintaining the bravado and confidence that make him who he is as a player. I believe that he will take steps in the right direction this year and in the years following. He is the type of player that the Bills can win with, particularly with the way the team is being built. Oh, and Matt Barkley stinks and they should invest in a true backup in the draft.
You will notice that I will be professing my love to a multitude of players across this Bills roster. I think they have done a brilliant job assembling talent across this team over the last few years. Among those players who I enjoyed dearly was Devin Singletary. There is a lot of buzz online about the long-term need for a workhorse running back in Buffalo to accompany Singletary. I think that strategy is pretty misguided. Singletary showed the ability to move the chains consistently in 2nd and 3rd down situations. I enjoyed the hell out of watching the ageless Frank Gore. But, I think Singletary can step up and take an even higher percentage of offensive snaps with his departure.
Singletary has the ability to hit the home run in the pass and run games, breaking multiple long runs and runs after the catch with his explosive play style. More importantly, he can continue to hit those singles and doubles to move the chains as a 3-down back needs to do. They can consider additional weapons and support for Singletary moving forward. But I’m comfortable sitting on that and de-emphasizing it as a long-term need.
The Tight End position and offensive line really mirror each other in terms of long-term outlook. Both are set up to succeed in the present and in the future. Brian Daboll does a great job of getting his interior lineman in space. Spain, Morse, and Feliciano absolutely bury opponents clearing the way for easy, clean runs for their backs. Dawkins is a starting-level Left Tackle who can hold it down for at least a few more years. Cody Ford showed some glimpses of success. I’d like to see more from Ford in year 2 to solidify that Right Tackle position, as he gave up a fair amount of pressure. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt as a rookie and an offseason to become a better and stronger football player.
I’m a bit concerned at the depth, particularly with the tackles, as Ty Nsekke was one of my least favorite players on the roster. He consistently gave up pressure and was called for a number of timely penalties. I could see the Bills taking a swing at a depth swing tackle in the middle rounds.
Dawson Knox has clearly solidified himself as the starter moving forward, making numerous highlight plays for Buffalo. I did notice he had some issues with dropped passes throughout the year, but he deserves the chance to clean those up. He fits the mold and mentality of the city and will be a weapon in Allen’s arsenal for this year and years to come. He provides not only a safety blanket for Allen on short and intermediate routes, but downfield upside and big play ability, as well.
Outside of Knox, the tight end position was pretty barren. It is certainly time to move on from Lee Smith, who committed a penalty almost every time he was on the field. I would like them to use one of their later round picks on taking a swing at TE2. It would be highly beneficial to have a tight end who can spell Knox and cover for him if he’s out of the game.
Finally, the wide receiver position, which is subsequently the strength of Buffalo’s offense and has only gotten stronger this offseason. I’m particularly fond of John Brown, who quickly rose up my personal power rankings for favorite players to watch. Brown seems to have picked up every 3rd-and-15 from Allen throughout the season. He is effective in the short, intermediate, and long games for the Bills. The only plays he’s not making are the ones where Josh Allen overthrows him by 10 yards on a 50-yard Go route. He’s a player I would die for on the Eagles and would be their #1 receiver the first day he steps onto the field.
Cole Beasley is as sure-handed a prototypical slot as you can get. He consistently makes plays in traffic and does all the little things to move the chains. I really like him as a slot, but could see Buffalo looking into a long-term replacement at this spot with the depth in the draft at the position. He’s signed through the next two seasons, but the value might just be too good for some of these slot receivers in the draft. I also really enjoyed Isiah Mckenzie. He started out the year as primarily a gadget guy, but his regular targets increased steadily as the year went on. He might be lost in the fold with there not being enough targets to go around, but he has a lot of juice and is someone I would keep an eye on here and elsewhere moving forward.
The Bills decided to build onto the strength of their team by adding Stefon Diggs, one of the 10-15 best receivers in the league. I believe he has performed even below his potential in the past. Diggs has been stuck with a quarterback with a noodle arm and a scared mentality in ‘The Office’ super fan Kirk Cousins. His skill set is a bit redundant with John Brown. But, it doesn’t hurt to have guys with the quick release and downfield catch radius and ability that those two have. Does Buffalo have the best receiving core in the league right now? With Tampa Bay and Cleveland, it’s pretty close. But they certainly can make the argument. I’m very excited to see if Allen can hone his deep accuracy issues and finally put a smile on Diggs’ face (and maybe draft his brother??).
Let’s move on to the defensive side of the ball.
Buffalo’s defensive line, and line overall, is and was the strength of the team in 2019. Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson both had career years. They finished in the top-25 for Tackles for Loss and accumulated significant sack production. Throughout the year, Phillips looked just as good as a Fletcher Cox or a younger Gerald McCoy. He was in the backfield constantly, and, in tandem with Oliver, rarely provided any space to run through the center of the defense. Lawson had his best year as a pro and ripped off the edge in both run and pass situations. He consistently pressured the QB in long 3rd down situations and ran down backs on early downs. He took a big leap.
Unfortunately, both of these players departed this offseason. Phillips signed a nice deal with the Cardinals and Lawson jumped ship to sunny Miami after a particularly successful season. This doesn’t mean the Bills are completely bereft of talent and cannot fill the holes in production provided by these departures.
The Bills signed both Mario Addison and Vernon Butler, who should both start immediately and fill some of that need. I don’t think either player has the ceiling of Phillips or Lawson, but other players on the roster should round out those holes. I believe that Ed Oliver is ready to step up to be at least as productive as Jordan Phillips was last year. According to Next Gen NFL Stats, Oliver had the 4th fastest sack in the NFL last year at 2.04 seconds. That burst shows on film. He was effective early in the year, but only continued to get better and better as the year went on. I’d be really excited to watch this #91 for years to come if I were a Bills fan.
Otherwise, the interior of Buffalo’s line is solidified with Star Lotulelei and Quenton Jefferson (signed from the Seahawks). Lotulelei didn’t really pop through the season for me, but as a depth early-down tackle, he’s a good chess piece to have. Jefferson was also an effective player for the Seahawks over the last few years and a good sneaky signing for the Bills. I don’t think they need to add anything else on the interior.
I do think they need to add some juice on the outside. Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes were both great last year. Murphy provided significant pressure and Hughes fit the mold of Brandon Graham, playing the run phenomenally throughout the year. Unfortunately, they’re both aging players and have expiring contracts after the 2020-21 season. They will be effective for the Bills this year, but it’s important to find some young talent to plug into one of those starting roles moving forward opposite Addison. I’m not a huge fan of Daryl Johnson and think they can make a substantial improvement there.
Loaded at Linebacker
There isn’t much to say for this linebacking core outside of this may be the best unit in the league. It’s tough to lose a guy like Lorenzo Alexander, who was a captain and heart of the defense. But, his effectiveness resided in the blitz and run defenses. Tremaine Edmunds should fill those shoes from an emotional standpoint. Edmunds has already shown out as one of the best young linebackers in football. He’s all over the field and can cover tight ends and running backs with ease. He has a nose for the ball and is involved in almost everything. It’s really fun to watch a great linebacker, particularly in a blitzing defense like the Bills run.
I think Matt Milano and newbie A.J. Klein, as run-stuffing linebackers, will fill more of the hole left by Alexander’s retirement. Milano flashed a ton through the season and is a fun player to pair with Edmunds. Klein has been a solid pro for New Orleans and should help solidify this defense.
The secondary is likely the unit that needs the most work outside of its top talent. Tre’Davious White is clearly a shut down #1 corner. He finished with 6 interceptions last year and was 4th in Passes Defended with 17 last season. The funny thing about having a #1 corner is you go through large blocks of time without seeing anything going on with the player. Either the ball is not thrown in their direction or they’re draped all over their targets. White is a great example of this, as you rarely see the ball thrown in his direction. He still shows on the tape a lot, though. He’s a physical and strong tackler in the run game and makes plays when the ball is thrown in his direction.
Lots of Gray Outside of White
Buffalo’s other corners are question marks. I like the physicality of Levi Wallace, but it’s very clear that the opposition game plans to attack him in the passing game. He’s a bit slow to recover back to the ball and is subjected to a lot of intermediate catches. They added Josh Norman, but that’s really only a swing at his past success, as he hasn’t really been the same player over the last few years.
The Johnsons were solid, but won’t really ever be starting-level corners. Kevin moved onto the Browns, but they should be able to piece-meal his production with guys on the roster and through the draft. I think getting a playmaker across the field from White can really solidify this near perfect defense, but that’s really nit-picking. There are not really any major holes on this defense, particularly for this upcoming season, and I think they’ll repeat as one of the 5 best units in the NFL.
Both of their safeties are effective in coverage and are great in blitzing situations. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde will both be stalwarts of this defense for years to come. They fill the needs and desires of a Jim Johnson-style defense, being able to hold their own in coverage while also providing a significant amount of pop with strong tackling and speed ripping off the edge on blitz. Both are signed through the next year and beyond and I don’t think there is a significant need to add depth unless the right value presents itself on draft day.
I’m also comfortable with both of Buffalo’s specialists, and think that they should give Isiah Mckenzie another chance at that return job because, if he can find gaps on end-around plays, he can find gaps on returns.
After watching their 19-20 film and looking at their off season moves, there aren’t too many glaring holes in the Buffalo Bills’ roster. Beane has done some of the best work in the NFL in building and sustaining a top-end roster, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. The biggest question mark for this team is the development and growth of Josh Allen. He is surrounded by everything and anything a young quarterback could want and supported by one of the best defensive units in football. If Allen can go from a 50/50 player to a 70/30 player in terms of his big play/big mistake ratio, this team should, at least, compete in the AFC for the next 3-5 years.
Let’s all hope that we see some growth, as the passionate city of Buffalo truly deserves sustained team success. Their crowds are electric and the devotion is tangible and I believe that this team will give them a lot to love for next season and beyond.
Tier 1: Corner Back, Defensive End
Tier 2: Swing Tackle, Running Back, Tight End 2, Backup Quarterback, Slot Receiver, Safety Depth