Our annual NFL Preview heads north to West New York, where the Bills look to put yet another disappointing postseason exit behind them in their latest bid to secure the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy. For the third year in a row, Buffalo reigned atop the AFC East, only to see their Super Bowl hopes shattered in cruel fashion; this time, they were thoroughly outplayed at home by the Bengals in the Division Round of the playoffs. Other than asking for better fortune, what else is there for this team to do? (General Manager) Brandon Beane and (Head Coach) Sean McDermott have done an excellent job of turning a floundering franchise into a perennial powerhouse, though this is the National Football League, and the margins are always thin, with a few storylines to be found that could ultimately make or break the 2023 campaign for the Bills. So, with that said, let’s take a trip through Orchard Park and see how Buffalo is preparing to finally get over the hump…
Trouble in Paradise
When Beane and McDermott drafted Josh Allen seventh overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, few envisioned the relatively anonymous Wyoming product would develop into an All-Pro Quarterback so quickly. Of course, after struggling through his first two seasons in Buffalo, he enjoyed a wellspring of improvement in 2020, logging career-highs in completion percentage (69.2%), passing yards (4,544), touchdowns (37), and QBR (76.6) that still stand to this day. A major reason for such a significant leap was the addition of (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Stefon Diggs, who immediately hit it off with Allen, leading the NFL in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535), with that combination helping propel the team to their first AFC Championship Game in well over two decades. Over the past three campaigns, Allen and Diggs (pictured together above) have cemented their status as one of the elite QB/WR combinations in the league, though there could be trouble ahead with the latter appearing to be unsatisfied with his star teammate. Then again, losing on the biggest stage can fray even the closest of relationships, as we saw in their 27-10 loss at home to Cincinnati last January in which Allen completed just 25-of-42 attempts for 264 yards and an interception, while Diggs hauled in four catches for a meager thirty-five yards. Not one to mince words or hide his feelings (see his comments on former teammate Kirk Cousins), the 29-year-old was seen demonstrably criticizing his Quarterback on the sideline and has done little to walk back that outburst when questioned about it by the media. There was a point in the offseason where there were growing rumors that Buffalo was indeed shopping the three-time Pro-Bowler prior to Free Agency and the Draft, though nothing materialized. Keep in mind that these are two of the most expensive players on the roster, with Allen’s six-year, $258 million contract extension set to really inflate over the next few seasons, while Diggs’ recent deal will increase his annual salary from nearly $15 million to over $27 million next season, which would make it rather difficult to move the soon-to-be 30-year-old. With that said, these two are pillars of not just the offense, but the team as a whole, and it is hard to envision them achieving their goal of winning a Super Bowl without each other.
One of the biggest themes heading into last season was the transition from (former Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll, who was credited for the bulk of Allen’s ascension, to Ken Dorsey, who spent much of that time working directly with the Quarterback as his positional coach. While they were certainly a prolific unit during Daboll’s last two years running the offense, if there was a criticism to be had, it was the lack of overall balance and a worrying reliance upon Allen in the run game. Case in point: in 2021, Buffalo ranked ninth in passing offense (261.8) and sixth in rushing offense (129.9) with their Quarterback nearly leading them in that latter category (763 yards and 6 touchdowns). A year later under Dorsey (pictured above with Allen), they once again ranked in the top-ten in both categories, though Allen finished just fifty-seven yards behind (Tailback) Devin Singletary for the team lead with 762 yards. Given that they have so much future money invested in him and the fact that he suffered an elbow injury that lingered throughout the latter stages of the campaign, relieving the QB of such a burden has become Dorsey’s mandate. So, how do you go about diversifying an offense, you ask? Simple, just add more weapons. And so, Beane and McDermott went about adding different pieces and varying skillsets to the attack, acquiring (veteran Tailbacks) Latavius Murray and Damien Harris in Free Agency, while shocking many by selecting Utah product, Dalton Kincaid, with the twenty-fifth pick in last April’s NFL Draft. Adding what many thought to be the top Tight End in the draft class and pairing him with a productive veteran like Dawson Knox, who has totaled ninety-seven catches, 1,104 yards and fifteen touchdowns over the last two seasons, could be signaling Buffalo’s intent on utilizing more two Tight End sets, which generally allows teams to run the football with more success. And speaking of running the football, the Bills also selected O’Cyrus Torrence out of Florida with their second-round pick, adding a massive (6′-5″, 347 lbs) road-grading Guard to beef up the Offensive Line. One can never have enough weapons in the NFL, with Beane, McDermott, and Dorsey banking on quantity being just as valuable as quality…
The Missing Piece?
While a lot of the talk around the Bills centers upon Allen and the offense, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that their defense has been one of the league’s best for a few years now. Indeed, McDermott is a former Defensive Coordinator through and through, with his unit ranking first in the NFL in total defense (272.8) and points allowed (17.0) in 2021, only to follow that up with the sixth-fewest yards (319.2) and second-least points allowed (17.9) in 2022. However, he and Beane placed an emphasis on finishing, and what better way is there to do so then by getting to the Quarterback? Hence the reason they swung for the fences and signed (two-time Super Bowl Champion) Von Miller to a whopping six-year, $120 million contract, with $51.4 million in total guarantees. Granted, this was quite the gamble from Buffalo, who were committing a lot of money to a 34-year-old Edge-Rusher who had previously missed all of the 2020 campaign with a broken ankle. However, he remains an elite pass-rusher, with his NINE sacks in twelve games following a trade with the Rams helping lead them to a Lombardi Trophy just eighteen months ago. Miller (pictured above) proved to be every bit a threat off the edge last season, compiling eight sacks, twelve QB hits, and twenty-seven pressures in eleven games before unfortunately tearing his ACL on Thanksgiving Day. The eight-time Pro-Bowler has stated that he plans to be ready for the season opener against the Jets, though that didn’t stop the club from going out and adding an insurance policy in the form of his former teammate in Los Angeles, Leonard Floyd, who has totaled nine or more sacks in each of the three previous seasons. Buffalo also re-signed (Defensive Tackle) Ed Oliver to a four-year, $68 million contract, while adding underrated (Nose Tackle) Poona Ford in Free Agency on a modest one-year pact for $2.25 million. Interestingly enough, McDermott will have the responsibility of utilizing these pieces directly, as he will be assuming defensive play-calling duties following the departure of longtime collaborator, Leslie Frazier, who has opted to take a year off from coaching after being passed over for multiple Head Coach vacancies, though he has expressed his desire to return to the NFL in 2024, albeit not necessarily with the Bills.
Projected Finish: 11-6
Over the last three seasons, the Bills have been knocking on the door of Super Bowl glory, putting together a stellar 37-12 record over that period with three AFC East titles to their credit. However, they’ve run into misfortune in each of the last three postseasons, where they were outplayed by the Chiefs in back-to-back years, before getting run off their own field by the Bengals last January. There is a case to be made that they are formidable enough as presently constituted to challenge for the Lombardi Trophy, though minor improvements in the run game and pass-rush could very well turn this group of contenders into full-fledged juggernauts. With that said, they’ll find that their competition within the AFC is likely to be much stiffer this season, particularly in their own division, where the Dolphins, Patriots, and Jets have all gotten noticeably better. Winning thirteen games for the third time in four years may be a tough task at this point, but we still consider them the class of the AFC East and would be shocked if these Bills weren’t among the last teams standing come January.