News & Analysis

2020 NFL Team Preview Series: Buffalo Bills

It's an offseason of optimism in Buffalo, as the Bills are coming off three straight years of strong defensive performances while continually adding new pieces to the offense. The result is one of the strongest rosters in the league and the potential to win the AFC East for the first time in several years.

After revamping the offensive line and skill position groups over the last two seasons, the Bills' 2020 NFL season will be all about quarterback Josh Allen taking the next step in his development. And if you combine that potential third-year breakout with a defense that has three straight years of top-10 coverage grades, the Bills have the requisite pieces to contend in the AFC.

ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS

Additions/players brought back:

WR Stefon Diggs (via trade)
Edge Mario Addison (signed for three years, $30.45 million, $15.25 million guaranteed)
DI Vernon Butler (signed for two years, $18 million, $9.3 million guaranteed)
DI Quinton Jefferson (signed for two years, $13.5 million)
CB Josh Norman (signed for one year, $6 million)
G Quinton Spain (re-signed for three years, $15 million)
LB A.J. Klein (signed)

Losses:

Edge Shaq Lawson
Edge Lorenzo Alexander
CB Kevin Johnson
DI Jordan Phillips

 QUARTERBACK

Here's what I wrote about Josh Allen at the end of the 2019 season:

“Allen made strides in key areas, as he graded among the league's best on passes up to 19 yards downfield, but he still had issues with 20-plus-yard throws and avoiding turnover-worthy plays. The Bills did a fine job of passing on early downs and finding short-area playmakers to get open for Allen, and that led to his improved completion percentage. The deep ball was an issue for Allen, though, and he had the highest percentage of uncatchable passes on 20-plus-yard throws. And even though he cut down on his interceptions, Allen was still among the league's worst in turnover-worthy play rate, in large part due to fumbles. The good news for Allen is that the short and intermediate passing game is more stable from year to year, while deep passing is often wide-receiver dependent, so the 2019 season was a step in the right direction in his development.”

The Bills have done a great job of building the offense around the former first-round pick since drafting him in 2018, and he's in position to have a big statistical season.

The Wyoming product has proven to be difficult to defend, as his 1,141 rushing yards rank second to only Lamar Jackson among quarterbacks over the last two seasons, while he leads the way with 17 touchdowns on the ground. As a passer, there's room for both concern and optimism heading into the season. He still misses too many throws and last season ranked last out of 38 qualifiers in negatively graded throw percentage, which is one of the most stable measures of quarterback play. However, Allen finished 12th in percentage of positively graded throws, a measure that is heavily driven by the quality of the supporting cast, particularly the receivers.

Given the weapons at his disposal, Allen should benefit from more open throws at all levels of the field. And when you combine that with his rushing ability, he could be in line for a big statistical leap, even if his actual throw-for-throw accuracy doesn't improve.

RUNNING BACK

The Bills have spent a third-round pick on a difficult-to-tackle running back in each of the last two years. The team drafted Devin Singletary in 2019 and Zack Moss in 2020, two players who rank among the best we've ever seen when it comes to breaking tackles. 

Singletary's 76.6 rushing grade tied for 14th last season, and he forced 0.25 missed tackles per attempt, second-best in the league. Moss has a similar college profile as Singletary, ranking just above him with 0.30 missed tackles forced per attempt during his college career.

Both Singletary and Moss ran in the 4.6-second range, so while the big plays may not be there, they could become one of the league's best tackle-breaking duos. T.J. Yeldon is also in the mix, though his rushing grade has regressed every year after a promising start to his career in 2015.

Most forced missed tackles per Attempt among college players, 2014-19
Player Missed tackles per attempt
David Montgomery 0.33
Zack Moss 0.30
Devin Singletary 0.27
Kareem Hunt 0.27

WIDE RECEIVER

The Bills' receiving weapons have improved drastically over the past two years, and they may boast the best trio in the league in 2020. An offseason trade for Stefon Diggs completed the trifecta, as Buffalo added one of the league's best route runners who also leads the league with a contested-catch rate of 60.0% since 2016. He's capable of winning at all levels of the field, and his presence helps John Brown and Cole Beasley play to their respective strengths.

Brown's 4.34 speed makes him a downfield threat, but he's done his best work at the intermediate (10-19 yard) level, where his 57 receptions rank 16th in the league since 2017. Beasley is one of the best slot receivers in the league, and he's been open on 77.1% of his targets over the past two years — the best rate in the league. The top three should have distinct roles, as should Isaiah McKenzie, who ranked third in the league with 120 yards on screens last season. He adds the change-of-pace/jet sweep option that many NFL offenses covet. The Bills have one of the most well-rounded receiving units in the league.

TIGHT END

The Bills got only 46 receptions from their tight ends last season, tied for 26th in the league.

They were led by rookie Dawson Knox, who caught 28 passes during the regular season. Knox is an athletic tight end who can move around the formation, and he should have opportunities to shine given the attention the Bills' receivers will be getting from opposing defenses.

Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith round out the group, and they're two of the better run-blocking tight ends in the league. Kroft is more of a receiving threat, while Smith is a glorified offensive lineman who stayed in to pass protect more than he ran routes last season.

The trio of Knox, Kroft, and Smith all ranked in the top 16 among tight ends in positively graded run blocks last season, making them one of the best run-blocking units in the NFL.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Nov 19, 2017; Carson, CA, USA; Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins (73) looks on during the second quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center. Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo has attacked the offensive line with volume over the last two years, and the team has made strides back toward the middle of the league. Last year, they finished 21st in our final rankings, as the pass-blocking grade was almost identical to 2018 while the run blocking improved dramatically (ranked 31st in 2018, 17th last season).

Left tackle Dion Dawkins is the anchor after grading at 73.1 overall last season, good for 24th among 82 qualifying tackles. Dawkins has been an above-average option in his three years in the league and doesn't make many mistakes in the run game, posting the seventh-lowest percentage of negatively graded plays last season. On the other side, Cody Ford had common rookie struggles, finishing just 78th out of 89 qualifying tackles with a 52.4 grade. He must improve in all areas.

On the interior, it's a solid group with center Mitch Morse and right guard Jon Feliciano ranking right in the middle of their respective position groups, while left guard Quinton Spain has been an average guard over the last three years. The Bills also have two intriguing backups, starting with Ty Nsekhe —one of the better swing tackles in the league who has quietly graded at 72.0 overall since 2015, 51st out of 109 tackles with at least 1,000 snaps. Daryl Williams struggled to a 56.1 grade last season coming off injury and seeing time at every position besides center. Williams still has his excellent 2017 season to hang his hat on, as he finished 15th among all tackles that season and third among right tackles, making him a low-risk gamble and perfect depth player at a modest price.

The Bills have mid-tier options across the board on the offensive line but strong depth — they're a couple of rebound seasons away from cracking the top 12 lines in the league.

DEFENSIVE LINE

A season ago, Jerry Hughes led the Bills in pressures for the seventh straight year since joining the team in 2013, finishing with 54. He produced a 73.7 pass-rush grade that ranked 28th in the league, and he'll be counted on to lead the pass rush once again in 2020.

However, the Bills have added plenty of pieces around Hughes, including veteran Mario Addison and second-rounder A.J. Epenesa. Addison has recorded at least 45 pressures in each of the last five seasons, while Epenesa is a powerful hands-winner who ranked among the top 32 on the PFF Draft Board.

Trent Murphy also returns after his 74.9 grade against the run led all front-seven players for Buffalo last season. On the interior, the Bills are hoping for a Year 2 breakout from 2019 first-rounder Ed Oliver, who graded at 65.1 overall as a rookie, tied for 72nd at the position. Oliver has the quickness and college production to make a bigger impact, but development is still needed.

Harrison Phillips' strong run defense is back in the equation, too, after he was limited to just 77 snaps last season. Vernon Butler is also in the equation after peaking with a 68.7 overall grade in 2017. Star Lotulelei, also returns, but he's graded above 60.0 just one time since 2014.

The one name who could surprise is Vincent Taylor, who has performed well when given an opportunity but has only seen the field for 437 snaps in his three-year career. The Bills are throwing many options at the wall along the defensive front, but this unit's success will be determined by Hughes staying on top of his game while Oliver raises his to the next level.

LINEBACKER

The Bills have revamped their linebacking corps over the last three years, with Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano slated for much of the work once again in 2020.

Edmunds is an outstanding athlete who continues to improve and just last year ranked 14th in run-stop percentage. But while he made a plethora of tackles, Edmunds also missed 17 during the regular season — sixth-most in the league — and posted a poor coverage grade of 52.2. Milano was outstanding in coverage last season, though, as his 83.3 grade ranked fourth among linebackers. He also allowed just 6.6 yards per reception, fifth-best in the league. Unfortunately, Milano had his tackling issues, too, missing 16 during the regular season en route to a run-defense grade of just 39.5, the sixth-worst in the league.

A.J. Klein also comes over from the New Orleans Saints to add depth, though he's graded in the 40s in three of the last four years.

The Bills have a solid linebacker unit that is capable of matching up with running backs and flying around the field; they just need to cut back on their missed tackles to take the next step in 2020.

SECONDARY

Dec 24, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre' Davious White (27) warms up before the start of the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Bills have done a fantastic job covering on the back end over recent years, and they've had success with several different cornerbacks in their zone-heavy scheme.

Tre' Davious White has earned a coverage grade of 85.6 since 2017 — 13th-best in the NFL — to go with the second-lowest passer rating allowed, at 60.9. White has tracked opposing No. 1 receivers at points in his career, allowing the Bills to play more man coverage and add flexibility to their scheme.

Buffalo signed Josh Norman to compete on the other side, though he's coming off a career-low 43.4 coverage grade and allowed a passer rating of 133.3 into his coverage in 2019. Norman is worth a look, though, as he was one of the better zone corners in the league during his Panthers days, but the Bills still may be better off with Levi Wallace starting opposite White, as Wallace has earned a solid coverage grade of 78.0 in his two years in the league.

In the slot, Taron Johnson has provided mid-level play over the last two years, but just like the Bills linebackers, he must clean up his tackling problem after missing 21 tackles on just 909 career snaps. The other name to watch is E.J. Gaines, who has played only 181 snaps over the last two years but returns to the Bills after an impressive 79.0 coverage grade with the team back in 2017.

When head coach Sean McDermott took over in 2017, he overhauled the safety position with Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer taking over as starters, and they've been one of the best duos in the league ever since. Hyde had the 12th-best grade in the league during the 2019 regular season at 79.5, marking his third straight season in the top 12. Poyer ranked 22nd at 74.2 while tying for eighth in the league with 30 defensive stops.

The Bills have aligned in a two-deep-safety look at one of the highest percentages in the league, and both Hyde and Poyer have earned 90.0-plus grades when lined up at free safety over the last three years. Their ability to work as interchangeable parts in Buffalo's defense is one of the key reasons the Bills have had one of the best coverage units in the league.

DEVELOPMENT NEEDED: ED OLIVER

Coming out of the University of Houston, Oliver was a highly graded run defender who lacked the pass-rush production of other first-round picks. However, the Houston scheme did not put him in a position to get after the quarterback, and he looked like a project who may take time to develop as a pass-rusher. Oliver's rookie year backed that up, as he notched just 31 pressures on 374 rushes, good for a 62.4 pass-rush grade that ranked sixth among rookie interior defensive linemen. Oliver has all of the necessary tools to take a big step in 2020.

DRAFT CLASS REVIEW

Buffalo traded their first-round pick for wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who is a potential game-changer at one of the most valuable positions on the field. They still managed to get a first-round-caliber player in Epenesa while adding one of the most difficult running backs to tackle in Zack Moss. It was a strong draft for the Bills, though it will likely be remembered based on Diggs' production in the coming years. 

BEST BET

Our simulation results are lower than the current betting consensus because of our delicate relationship with Josh Allen.

The AFC East looks like the front-runner for the worst division in 2020. Still, despite the roster losses experienced by the Patriots, the Bills have flipped from the favorites to an expected second-place finish, according to current division odds. Our expected win total is slightly above 7.5 wins, which makes the current under 8.5 an enticing bet.

Given the current state of the market, the best bet on the Bills would be a no to make the playoffs, at +108 odds. Our simulation would price that outcome closer to -135, though, giving significant value on the cost associated with this bet.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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