News & Analysis

Buffalo Bills 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

Tennessee Titans outside linebacker Harold Landry (58) chases down Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) for a sack during the second quarter at Nissan Stadium Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn. Gw44587

Leading up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the 2021 NFL Draft in April, I’ll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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The Buffalo Bills finally ended the reign of terror in the AFC East last season, advancing to the AFC championship game where they lost 38-24 to the Kansas City Chiefs. It was the first time that the New England Patriots weren’t AFC East champions in over a decade and just the second time New England hadn’t come in first since the turn of the century.

There is a new sheriff in the division heading into 2021. And there’s no reason Buffalo can’t top the division again next year with a solid offseason. 

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $-1,822,851 (21st in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 30, 61, 94, 145, 158, 189, 200

Buffalo Bills Projected 2021 Offense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB Josh Allen 7 / 32 $6.9 million
RB Zack Moss 30 / 70 $1.0 million
WR Stefon Diggs 4 / 127 $13.5 million
WR Cole Beasley 17 / 127 $7.4 million
WR John Brown 82 / 127 $9.5 million
TE Dawson Knox 45 / 71 $1.1 million
LT Dion Dawkins 10 / 38 $11.4 million
LG Cody Ford N/A $2.0 million
C Mitch Morse 22 / 37 $10.3 million
RG ?
RT ?

Much has been made about the Bills potentially adding another running back into the fold this offseason, but the team spent third-round picks on running backs in each of the last two drafts. Neither Singletary nor Moss has played poorly, either. I gave Moss the starting nod after his 72.6 PFF grade as a rookie last season, which is higher than Singletary’s overall grade in either of his first two years.   

If the Bills want to improve their running game, they should look to beef up their offensive line rather than add another running back. Feliciano and Williams — the two offensive linemen who finished the year on the right side of the offensive line — are both free agents this offseason, and Ford hasn’t exactly solidified his starting role with sub-55.0 PFF grades in each of his first two years across multiple positions. 

Brown is a potential cap casualty to watch out for. His release could save the Bills nearly $8 million against the 2021 cap, and his 2020 season was impacted heavily by his availability. Meanwhile, Gabriel Davis is coming off a rookie season where he showed he could have an impact as a deep threat. His 338 receiving yards on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield were over 100 more than any other player on the team.  

How confident should the Bills be in Josh Allen’s improvement from 2019 to 2020?

Historical data made a very strong case that Josh Allen was never going to be a high-level starting quarterback in the NFL. His 60.0 PFF passing grade across the 2018 and 2019 seasons ranked dead last among 32 qualifying quarterbacks, and traditional passing statistics didn’t paint him in a much better light. Then, one of the greatest third-year breakouts from a quarterback in modern NFL history completely flipped all that data on its head. 

Allen finished the 2020 season ranked seventh among all quarterbacks in PFF grade, coming in second in MVP voting on the year. Much improved accuracy was the driver in that success. As you surely saw on a television broadcast at some point this year, Allen’s 68.4% completion rate on the season was over 10 percentage points higher than his 2019 total. His accuracy numbers per PFF’s ball-charting data indicate that there was no fluke there, either. 

For that reason, I believe that Allen's improvement in 2020 was real. It is hard to fake that kind of leap in accuracy, and his career year wasn’t built on unsustainable success in volatile areas like the now-cautionary tale of Carson Wentz’s 2017 season. An early extension this offseason could make sense for both parties.     

Why is offensive line a bigger need for Buffalo than running back?

It appears as if a major story entering this offseason for the Bills will be a need to improve the running game. In head coach Sean McDermott’s end-of-season press conference, he said, “I can start off by saying we’ve got to be able to run the football better.”

Of course, that set off the usual online arguments that follow any time a coach mentions emphasizing the running game. McDermott’s comment is a valid one. Every team should strive to run the ball effectively — including teams like Buffalo that only ran the ball on 35% of their early down plays in the first three quarters last season (31st in the NFL ahead of only the Kansas City Chiefs). The issues begin to come if those comments result in the Bills thinking that spending a premium draft pick, say the 30th overall pick, on a running back is the answer to their problems. 

Buffalo just invested a Day 2 pick in the running back position in each of the last two drafts, and neither Singletary nor Moss has looked incompetent as a runner with their opportunities. Both forced missed tackles at a high rate in the collegiate ranks and with their NFL opportunities thus far. 

Adding more talent to the offensive line should not only improve the running game, but it should also improve Allen’s protection on one of the pass-heaviest offenses in the NFL. With multiple starters set to hit free agency, the offensive line should be Buffalo’s focus on offense this offseason rather than the running back position. 

How important is it for Buffalo to bring back Daryl Williams at right tackle?

Williams was a home-run free agent signing for Buffalo last offseason on his one-year, $2.25 million contract. Williams started all 19 games at right tackle for the Bills in 2020, and he ended the year ranked eighth out of 38 qualifying right tackles in PFF grade. The only negative to take away from the signing for Buffalo is that it was only for one year, and now Williams will command a significantly larger contract on the open market. 

Buffalo was able to get that deal on Williams because he came into the 2020 season off the back of several down years. He played in just one game in 2018 for the Carolina Panthers before injuring his knee and missing the remainder of the season. Williams followed that up with a down year in 2019, starting multiple games at each of left tackle, right guard and left guard. 

The last time Williams was a full-time starting tackle before this past year, he had another strong showing, though. Williams earned a 78.0 PFF grade as the Panthers’ starting right tackle in 2017 and garnered second-team All-Pro recognition for that performance. 

Keeping a reliable pass-protector in place opposite Dion Dawkins should be a priority for the Bills this offseason, even if it means using the franchise tag on Williams should the two sides not agree on a multi-year extension.     

Potential targets at open spots

Guard: Jon Feliciano, Ben Cleveland 

If the Bills really want to emphasize the run game this offseason, it makes sense to bring back Feliciano, who was one of their better run-blockers in 2020. Feliciano also gives them positional versatility on the interior with his ability to play center and guard. Buffalo can certainly do better from a pass-blocking perspective at right guard if they opt for an upgrade there, though. Feliciano’s 46.4 pass-blocking grade last season ranked 70th out of 80 qualifying guards on the year.

Cleveland, a draft prospect out of Georgia, could give them that improved pass protection. He has posted pass-blocking grades of 90.9, 78.5 and 86.2 in his last three seasons with the Bulldogs. Those grades are impressive given his 6-foot-6, 335-pound frame and should interest the Bills come late April.

Tackle: Daryl Williams, Mike Remmers  

I won’t spend too much time here discussing Williams since I just hit on why he should be the Bills’ top option at right tackle. If they decide to go cheaper in free agency, Remmers is a player who could make some sense.

Remmers’ stock isn’t exactly at its high point after a dismal 40.9 pass-blocking grade in the Super Bowl, but he actually put forth a solid performance for much of the year for Kansas City at right tackle. Remmers ended the season with a 71.3 overall grade, and that ugly Super Bowl performance came at left tackle after being forced to change sides thanks to Eric Fisher’s injury. Even if it’s just for depth, Remmers is a cheaper target Buffalo could target in free agency.

Buffalo Bills Projected 2021 defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
EDGE Jerry Hughes 18 / 109 $9.5 million
DI Ed Oliver 115 / 126 $5.4 million
DI Star Lotulelei N/A $7.6 million
EDGE Mario Addison 78 / 109 $10.2 million
LB Tremaine Edmunds 74 / 83 $4.0 million
LB ?
LB A.J. Klein 66 / 83 $6.4 million
CB Tre’Davious White 32 / 121 $14.4 million
CB ?
CB Taron Johnson 60 / 121 $2.3 million
S Jordan Poyer 21 / 94 $7.9 million
S Micah Hyde 25 / 94 $6.7 million

Buffalo rarely plays base defense with three linebackers on the field, so the third linebacker spot that is left up in the air right now isn’t a huge concern. Over 90% of their snaps this past season came in nickel, the most in the NFL. The Bills would likely prefer not to go into the 2021 season with Klein as their second linebacker, though. Klein has earned PFF grades of 45.7 and 47.5 in the past two years with the New Orleans Saints and Bills. The guy who has been that second linebacker for Buffalo, Matt Milano, is a free agent this offseason.

Some may expect the Bills to use their franchise tag to keep Milano in town, but PFF’s salary cap expert Brad Spielberger wrote recently that he doesn’t see that being the case with how the NFL groups together positions for the franchise-tag numbers. Off-ball linebackers like Milano are grouped with the pricier 3-4 outside linebackers for franchise tag purposes. 

The other free agents of note are unrestricted free agent Josh Norman and restricted free agent Levi Wallace at cornerback. Wallace makes some sense as a candidate to be re-signed after several years of solid play, but the Bills could also look to add competition this offseason with a lack of proven depth behind White.  

Lastly, Buffalo’s defensive line is full of guys who are still under contract in 2021 but may have played their last snap with the Bills. Vernon Butler, Quinton Jefferson and even Addison could offer significant salary cap relief if released. As for now, though, I left Addison in the starting spot opposite Hughes. 

Will Star Lotulelei’s return benefit the rest of the defense?

A lot of analysis out there on individual Bills defenders this past season comes back to the fact that Buffalo missed Lotulelei following his opt out of the 2020 campaign. 

Bills general manager Brandon Beane spoke to exactly what they missed in his season-ending press conference, stating, “Star opted out and I think we all saw — you know, I know he’s not a 10-sack guy and things like that — but what he provides, not only the run game but just the ability for our linebackers to roam free. I think it took those guys a little time.” 

Lotulelei’s PFF grading profile doesn’t stand out. His highest grade from 2015 through 2019 sits at just 62.9, but many reports point to the idea that his absence this past season was felt and contributed to down years for various members of Buffalo’s front seven. It’s something to watch for in 2021, as the Bills need better performances out of young players like Oliver and Edmunds. 

How much is too much when it comes to contract negotiations for Matt Milano?

Milano is PFF’s 38th-ranked free agent entering the offseason. The former fifth-round pick is coming off a down 2020 season in which he dealt with injuries, but his 86.8 coverage grade across the 2018 and 2019 campaigns ranked fourth among all linebackers, behind only Lavonte David, Cory Littleton and Luke Kuechly. That skill set complements Edmunds, a player who has been better defending the run downhill than in coverage throughout the early stages of his career.   

The issue for Buffalo is that Milano won’t be retained cheaply. PFF’s current contract projection for him sits at four years, $50 million. It will be tough for the Bills to shell out over $10 million per year for multiple off-ball linebackers, and the Bills still have a decision to make on a potential Edmunds extension over the next year. 

If a team does offer Milano something in that range, the Bills would likely be better suited to look for his replacement elsewhere this offseason.

Is Levi Wallace “good enough” as the CB2 opposite Tre’Davious White?

There is a decent argument to be made that the answer to this question is yes. Even if you remove a rookie 2018 season where Wallace picked up an 85.3 coverage grade, his 68.5 coverage grade over the past two years ranks among the top 50% of qualifying cornerbacks across the league. The Bills should have interest in bringing him back as a restricted free agent this offseason. 

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look to add another cornerback, too. We’ve seen in recent years that it pays to continually invest in your secondary, even if you think you have three quality starting cornerbacks. It’s how a team like the Baltimore Ravens have built one of the better secondaries in the NFL, and it’s how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were able to be one of the few teams able to say they shut down the Kansas City Chiefs’ high-powered offense. 

Bring back Wallace, Buffalo. But take a cornerback early in the 2021 NFL Draft or add another free agent cornerback option. 

Potential targets at open spots

Linebacker: Matt Milano, Jabril Cox, Kevin Pierre-Louis

I already broke down why Milano might not make sense to bring back for the Bills at the price point he’ll command, but there is still a good chance that he does return in a Bills uniform in 2021. Other options at the position include a cheaper free agent option like Pierre-Louis and a linebacker that the Bills can pick up after Round 1 in Cox.

Pierre-Louis has shown in his time on the field over the last two seasons that he can cover, earning a 91.0 coverage grade in 2019 and an 83.9 coverage grade in a larger role with the Washington Football Team this past season. His addition would help mask some of the coverage ability lost at the position with Milano.

Similarly, Cox projects as one of the better coverage linebackers in this draft class. He has smooth movement skills and the ability to man up against tight ends. He would be a strong fit next to Edmunds if Buffalo were to move on from Milano.   

Cornerback: Levi Wallace, Greg Newsome, Richard Sherman

Wallace is the incumbent, having spent much of the last two seasons starting outside opposite White. As I mentioned before, it makes sense to bring him back, even if it’s merely to compete for a starting job with another offseason addition. 

Newsome is a junior cornerback out of Northwestern who has picked up some hype as of late. It’s not hard to see what is to like after a 2020 season in which he allowed just 12 of the 34 passes in his coverage to be completed for 93 yards across six games. His experience and feel for zone coverage make him a nice fit in Buffalo. 

Sherman needs no introduction. Injuries limited the 32-year-old to five games in 2020, but he was the league’s highest-graded cornerback during San Francisco’s Super Bowl run the prior year. He would give the Bills two very strong options outside in the short term as they push for a Super Bowl.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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