There was one area where the Bills’ hierarchy felt it had to improve upon after last season’s crushing overtime playoff loss at Houston. In the words of general manager Brandon Beane, “We have to score more points.”
His reference wasn’t merely to that 22-19 defeat by the Texans that Buffalo led 16-0 with 21 minutes to play in regulation, but rather to the whole season. In 17 games, including the playoff loss, the Bills scored a mere 35 offensive touchdowns, or barely two a game. Indeed, in their seven losses they scored six, 10, 13, 16 (twice) and 17 (twice) points.
Given that in 2019 Buffalo was second in the NFL in fewest points surrendered and third in least yards given up, it already had a playoff-quality defense in place.
So, this offseason, the Bills focused on upgrading their offense.
First came the trade for Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The expensive deal cost Buffalo four draft picks – a first, fifth and sixth last spring and a fourth-rounder in 2021 – but gave the Bills a genuine No. 1 wideout for the first time since Sammy Watkins.
Then came the draft and the selection of power back Zack Moss in the third round, two wide receivers with size and speed – Gabriel Davis (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) in the fourth round and Isaiah Hodgins (6-3, 200) in the sixth – and also in the sixth, place-kicker Tyler Bass, who wrestled the job from veteran Stephen Hauschka.
Little else changed on offense and the Bills’ defense needed only one new starter.
Here’s a look at Buffalo’s 2020 roster, unit-by-unit, with its grade:
The game’s most important position is also the Bills’ biggest question mark.
Josh Allen, heading into his third season, has been an enigma. In 27 starts over his first two years he’s 15-12 with 30 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions plus 22 fumbles. On the run, Allen has been fantastic, rushing for 17 touchdowns, his nine a year ago the most of any NFL quarterback. But, his decision-making has been inconsistent and his inaccuracy, particularly on the deep ball, has been an ongoing issue. He has an impressively loyal following among the fan base, but Allen still has to prove it on the field.
Matt Barkley is an experienced backup and rookie fifth-round pick Jake Fromm made the team in order to prevent another franchise from claiming him.
It could be argued that Buffalo has its best running back tandem since LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee combined for 23 touchdowns, 21 on the ground, in 2016. Second-year pro Devin Singletary has some ball security issues but is incredibly elusive, and Moss, a tackle-breaking power back, would seem to be the perfect complement. Veteran T.J. Yeldon becomes the third-down back.
Diggs elevates this entire unit which was already reasonably strong with John Brown and Cole Beasley while Davis and Hodgins increase the depth which already includes kick-return specialist Andre Roberts. It would be a major disappointment if only two Bills have more than 30 receptions (Brown 72, Beasley 67), which was the case last year.
The Bills love starter Dawson Knox, who caught 28 balls with two touchdowns as a rookie. But he had a galling 10 drops of Buffalo’s 26, second-worst in the league last season. Tyler Kroft, acquired a year ago as a free agent but who missed most of the campaign with a foot injury, is the backup with blocking specialist Lee Smith – who had an unacceptable eight penalties in limited action last season – in reserve.
There’s something to be said for continuity, especially on this unit. The left side is set with Dion Dawkins at tackle, Quinton Spain at guard and Mitch Morse at center. It would seem Cody Ford, who started at right tackle last season, might move in to right guard until Jon Feliciano (injured reserve) returns in three weeks or so, with Ty Nsekhe taking over the tackle spot. Brian Winters is also in the mix at right guard. Last year the Bills were in the middle of the league in sacks surrendered at 2.5 per game.
The Bills lost end Shaq Lawson to Miami in free agency but starters Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy remain and are backed by free agent pass-rush specialist Mario Addison, second-round draft pick A.J. Epenesa and rising youngster Darryl Johnson. Two tackles are also gone, Jordan Phillips, who signed with Arizona, and Star Lotuleilei, who took the Covid-19 opt-out. But back are last year’s first-round pick, Ed Oliver, and third-year pro Harrison Phillips, coming off knee surgery, with free agents Quinton Jefferson and Vernon Butler in reserve.
Tremaine Edmunds, in his third year, is already among the NFL’s elite middle linebackers. Matt Milano, who sometimes struggles against the run, has proven to be a playmaker from his outside position with 26 tackles for loss, 18 defensed passes, five fumble recoveries and four interceptions in his career. A.J. Klein, a free agent from New Orleans, takes over for the retired Lorenzo Alexander on the other side.
Depth is the real problem with journeymen Del’Shawn Phillips and Tyler Dodson the only reserves as free agent Tyler Matakevich is almost strictly a special teams standout.
This is the Bills’ best unit, top-to-bottom. The safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer is one of the NFL’s best with solid Dean Marlowe in reserve. Tre’Davious White is one of the league’s top cornerbacks and his opposite number, Levi Wallace, had a solid season a year ago. Even so, free agent Josh Norman, currently nursing a hamstring problem, has been bidding for that spot. Taron Johnson proved to be a dependable nickel back last year with Siran Neal providing depth.
Tyler Bass, who beat out veteran placekicker Stephen Hauschka mostly due to his kickoffs, still has to prove his accuracy, as does any rookie in that high-pressure position. Punter Corey Bojorquez held off two challengers in training camp but you get the idea the Bills aren’t totally sold on him.
Reid Ferguson is one of the NFL’s premier long-snappers and the veteran Roberts is still a quality returner. Buffalo’s coverage teams are much-improved, especially with the addition of Matakevich.
The minute Tom Brady left New England for Tampa Bay, in many observers’ eyes, Buffalo became the AFC East favorite. One reason, of course, is that the Bills have been a Wild Card playoff team two of the past three years. But, last season, Buffalo went 10-6 against a generationally weak schedule, a privilege it doesn’t enjoy this year.
Indeed, the Bills were 4-4 at home a year ago and, in 2020, likely will not have the benefit of home fans for some, if not all, of the season. Then, too, visiting Orchard Park this season will be the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, the Patriots, who have won 17 of the past 19 division titles including a live streak of 11 straight, plus the Seahawks. On the road, which features four games in the Mountain or Pacific time zones – NFC champion San Francisco, Las Vegas, Arizona and Denver – there will also be the annual visit to New England and a game at Tennessee, a surprise playoff team in 2019.
Buffalo has six games against last year’s postseason teams and a brutal December stretch where it visits San Francisco, hosts Pittsburgh, then travels to Denver and New England.
In short, it’s not a friendly schedule. For a long time it appeared to me that the Bills might be improved, but still finish 8-8. I’ve since amended that to 9-7, but with reservation and uncertainty that it will get them into the AFC playoffs, even with the expansion to seven teams.