Whether you noticed them or not, the Bills’ problems were there all season long. The continued excellence of Josh Allen and successful regular season campaign masked a lot of those issues, but they all unraveled in front of our faces in the Bills’ 27-10 loss to the Bengals. Everyone across the NFL is starting to take notice of something that many of us already knew: Buffalo just isn’t there yet. That Super Bowl window was open last year, but now? Most would say it’s just about closed.
As long as Josh Allen is in Buffalo, he’ll at least keep that window cracked. An uber-talented and freakishly athletic QB that stands at 6’5″ will always put you in contention. His turnovers were one of my aforementioned problems, but let’s be honest; is any quarterback carrying as big of a load as Allen?
The Bills didn’t lose to Cincinnati because Allen was turnover prone. They didn’t lose because of it last year either. Buffalo loses because they just can’t seem to build a strong enough roster to compete with the juggernauts of the league. How do they get on par with the Chiefs and Bengals, and what set them back?
Before I get into the negative side, Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott deserve all the credit in the world for turning a bottom feeder like the Bills into one of the best teams in football. Through big name signings like Von Miller and the presence of a franchise quarterback, Buffalo has become a place players want to play. It’s never been easy to attract star players to come to Buffalo, and for that, I applaud them. They’ve brought a winning culture to a losing franchise in a small market. This praise aside, there’s many mistakes that have been made in the process that may just cost the Bills their shot at winning it all with Josh Allen.
The Bills have not provided enough playmakers around their superstar quarterback in order to win the Lombardi. Picking up one of the game’s best receivers in Stefon Diggs was a phenomenal move and a turning point in Allen’s development, but what else is there? Buffalo put way too much stock into Gabe Davis, a player who flashed a lot as the team’s third outside receiver, but he never really got it going this year as a starter. His incredible inconsistency made him an unreliable pass catcher for Allen. With an 11.1% drop percentage, he led NFL receivers (minimum 50 targets) in that category. It doesn’t stop with Davis, though. McKenzie and Knox both dropped 5 balls, while their 10.6% and 9.4% drop percentages ranked 7th and 15th in the NFL, respectively. Overall, Allen’s receivers dropped 34 passes, with 8.7% of his passes resulting in a drop, which are both good for first in the NFL. Outside of Diggs, which of Allen’s pass catchers will strike fear in NFL defenses? It’s become evident in the playoffs: teams are content with letting anyone but Diggs beat them, and it’s working. Just look at any of the four teams that made the conference championship, and you’ll see that Allen needs a better supporting cast. It should’ve been addressed coming into this season, and it really wasn’t. The solution was to bring in Jamison Crowder to start in the slot, but the result was a career backup in McKenzie becoming one of Allen’s most targeted receivers once Crowder went down with an injury. I can’t confidently say Crowder does enough to put the Bills over the top either, though. I liked what I saw in limited action from Khalil Shakir, but you can’t rely on winning a Super Bowl if you’re thrusting a late round receiver with a small sample size into a crucial role. The Bills have to make a splash at the position, and they should look to start in the slot. Cole Beasley and Josh Allen enjoyed the best seasons of their careers when the Bills fed Beasley in the slot. He was always a reliable safety blanket for Allen underneath, especially on third downs. However, in recent years, the Bills have become infatuated with the deep ball, straying from the short passing game that’s worked so well. James Cook and Nyheim Hines were brought in to provide a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, but were seldom used in that role. A rejuvenation to the Bills’ group of playmakers is a necessity to make the next step.
Brandon Beane’s biggest criticism of Allen is his post-season presser was that the quarterback is taking far too many hits. While he’s right in the sense that Allen should be sliding and protecting his body more on scrambles, it starts with the offensive line, which was a disaster again for the Bills. The Bills offensive line allowed the most hurries and the fourth most total pressures in all of football this year, headlined by very poor play from Spencer Brown and Roger Saffold. Saffold, a 34 year old vet and former All-Pro, was expected to become a key cog in the trenches for Buffalo. While Saffold started in all 17 games for Buffalo, his PFF pass blocking and run blocking grades (in both zone and gap schemes) were all bottom 11 in the NFL. He allowed the 15th most total pressures, and he was tied with his teammate Spencer Brown for the 5th most QB hurries allowed. Brown, who is in just his second year in the NFL, also gave up the 5th most QB hits, and he was credited with 50 total pressures allowed, putting him at 8th in the NFL. Brown graded out as an average run blocker via PFF. He has to step it up big time in a make or break year 3 in Buffalo. Overall, the Bills offensive line was graded as the 21st best against the pass, and 28th against the run. Point fingers at the running backs or Allen all you want, but the Bills struggles continue in the trenches.
The Bills have found themselves in a difficult place financially. They are currently about $20M over the cap according to Spotrac. With Allen’s lucrative deal set to kick in this season, Beane will have to make a ton of moves to get the Bills under the cap while trying to maintain and increase on-field success. Buffalo would love to return crucial impending free agents such as Tremaine Edmunds and Jordan Poyer , but retaining both might not be feasible. I think ultimately, the Bills will opt to re-sign Edmunds and let Poyer hit the open market. At just 24 years of age after 5 years of NFL experience, Edmunds just had his best season of pro football. His PFF coverage grade was 2nd best in the NFL behind only Sauce Gardner. He’ll be more expensive than Poyer, but given his age and positional value, you have to give Edmunds what he deserves. Once Edmunds went down with an injury, I think most Bills fans finally realized how crucial Tremaine is to the success of our defense. He’s grown into a phenomenal leader in the middle of the Buffalo defense. A starting point for Beane would be restructuring the deals of players like Matt Milano or Josh Allen by converting their base salary to a signing bonus in order to free up more cap space. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nyheim Hines and Isaiah McKenzie are looking for a new home this off-season, becoming a victim of the Bills unfortunate salary cap scenario. It’s a really bad place to be, especially with the Bengals and Chiefs well below the limit.
Overall, I don’t love where the Bills are at right now. Aside from the three biggest issues I listed above, Buffalo has other problems going on too. The defensive line struggled mightily against the Bengals patchwork OL, which is an issue the Bills have tried to fix for years. Disappointing free agent signings and mediocre early-round draft selections have been the biggest culprit there; outside of Greg Rousseau, Von Miller, and DaQuan Jones (2 of which missed the Bills playoff loss to Cincinnati). Ed Oliver could even be a trade candidate, considering his $10.7M cap hit and relatively disappointing play for a 9th overall pick. It’s hard to look back on this season without mentioning the Bills brutal injury luck. They were a big story this season, with many key players missing multiple games, including Greg Rousseau, Von Miller, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Jamison Crowder, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Kaiir Elam, Damar Hamlin and Tre White. Despite the fact that the Bills will likely have those key contributors returning healthy next season, it’s difficult to envision this team winning a Super Bowl in the near future, but with Allen, anything is possible.