7 things we have learned about the Buffalo Bills so far this offseason
At the conclusion of Wednesday afternoon’s practice inside Highmark Stadium, Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott determined that enough was enough.
Pleased by the strong attendance of his players during the “voluntary” organized team activities, the near 100% participation in this week’s “mandatory” minicamp, and the good work his players put in, McDermott blew his whistle and essentially shouted, “Class dismissed.”
He canceled what was supposed to be Thursday’s final session of the offseason, then a few hours later headed downtown to watch the Toronto Blue Jays host the New York Yankees at Sahlen Field. Rumor has it he left midway through the game and missed the dramatic finish.
Oh well. McDermott is allowed to make the occasional questionable decision, especially given what he’s accomplished in Buffalo since he arrived in 2017.
As the Bills head into their summer vacation – which ends July 27 when they return to One Bills Drive for the start of training camp – they look very much like a team poised to defend their AFC East division title and perhaps take the next step and get to the Super Bowl. Maybe even win it.
McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane did a fine job in the months following the AFC Championship Game loss to Kansas City of retooling the roster. Barring injuries or unforeseen events, they will have almost the entire starting group in all three phases intact when the regular season kicks off Sept. 12 against the Steelers.
Here are my observations of what took place during the offseason:
1. Josh Allen should be a happy man
The quarterback may become a very rich young man in the coming weeks if the Bills and his agents reach an agreement on a contract extension. But even if that doesn’t happen – if not right away, it will eventually get done – Allen still has plenty to smile about.
Beane’s re-signing of offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams means Allen will have the starting group – which also includes Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse and Cody Ford – that the Bills intended to have in 2020 before injuries sabotaged the plan.
And when the Bills said goodbye to wide receiver John Brown, they replaced him with versatile veteran Emmanuel Sanders, so there should be no drop-off in that spot. Sanders joins an already stacked group of Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis, giving the Bills as good a top four as any team in the league.
Can Allen match his 4,544-yard, 46-touchdown performance from 2020 that left him second in the NFL’s MVP balloting? That’s a big ask, especially now that he and the Bills are going to be the hunted, but it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility for two reasons: Most importantly, it looks like Allen is the real deal, but also, having so many returning teammates, not to mention a fourth year in Brian Daboll’s system, gives him a tremendous chance to succeed.
2. It’s a big year for TE Dawson Knox
With a top four receiver corps like Buffalo’s, the Bills don’t need a superstar tight end. Sure, it would be nice if they did, but there’s only one ball to go around.
What they need is for Knox to get past his inconsistency and become a viable threat that defenses have to respect, which in turn would open up even more lanes for the receivers. If Knox does just that, he’ll be a valuable part of the offense.
He has the size and athleticism, and now in his third season, it’s time for him to step up. If he doesn’t, then free agent signee Jacob Hollister will need to do it, and while he’ll never be confused for Rob Gronkowski, Hollister caught 66 passes combined the last two years in Seattle, which is 14 more than Knox had with the Bills.
3. Running back by committee is fine
Rumors were running rampant leading up to the draft that the Bills were going to take a running back in the first round. Wisely, they didn’t because they have two young backs in Devin Singletary and Zack Moss who shouldn’t be given up on just yet.
Last year, their struggles were directly attributable to below average run blocking by the line, yet still, they combined for more than 1,100 rushing yards as they shared the duties.
If the line gets it together and wins more often at the point of attack, Singletary and Moss are both capable of being productive runners. Not gamebreakers, but decent players.
As for speedy Matt Breida, it will be interesting to see if he gets a chance on game day, something T.J. Yeldon rarely had in his two seasons with the Bills. Breida was a promising player when he was with the 49ers, but things went off the rails the past couple years and he was a non-factor with the Dolphins in 2020.
4. More comfort at backup QB
Look, Matt Barkley was a nice guy, a terrific teammate – particularly to Allen as he served as his mentor in the QB meetings and on the sideline on game day. But if Allen had missed any significant time last year, I don’t think the Bills would have had the same success and very well might not have reached the AFC title game.
The signing of Mitchell Trubisky was one of the best under-the-radar moves in the NFL over the offseason. Trubisky’s greatest mistake in Chicago was that the Bears way over-drafted him at No. 2 overall in 2017, and he was never able to live up to the enormous expectations that he faced.
But then you look at his stats and the guy had a 29-21 record with the Bears. True, Chicago’s usually stout defense played a big role, but we judge QBs all the time on their won-loss record, so why not Trubisky? There are plenty of guys who wish they had a 29-21 record.
God forbid Allen gets hurt this year, but if he does, I think Trubisky would be a much better alternative than Barkley to keep the train moving.
5. Cornerback is a position to watch
I’m still not sure why the Bills went back-to-back edge rushers in the draft with Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham and ignored cornerback. Sorry, but picking Rachad Wildgoose in the sixth round didn’t move me.
The Bills are showing an awful lot of faith in incumbent starter Levi Wallace and 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson. That’ll be the most hotly contested camp battle, but regardless of who wins, are the Bills going to be OK at that spot?
Also, there’s not very much depth at the position, including the slot where Taron Johnson continues to be an inconsistent player, someone who can make big plays as we saw last year with his two humongous pick sixes against the Steelers and Ravens, but also someone who was benched early in the season.
6. Young edge rushers need to produce
Rousseau and Basham will add depth to the line and they have two veterans in Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison to learn from, but how much can they be counted on this year?
Rousseau is a particular concern since he hasn’t played in a game since 2019 after sitting out 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. Basham is probably more ready to contribute this year, so the rotation will be interesting to watch.
Not to be forgotten is 2020 second-round pick A.J. Epenesa who was getting rave reviews from McDermott and Leslie Frazier, both of whom think Epenesa can really make a leap forward now that he has one season, plus a full and normal offseason, under his belt.
7. Competition to return kicks is wide open
The Bills didn’t bring back Andre Roberts who was one of the league’s best return men during his time in Buffalo. His departure has left a gaping hole and chances are that whoever fills it, won’t fill it completely.
Wide receiver is the position group being leaned on here, and Isaiah McKenzie seems like the leading candidate to take over. Brandon Powell was signed as a free agent, and rookie fifth-round pick Marques Stevenson will have a chance to compete, but there could be a numbers game problem with that.
The Bills typically had six receivers active last year: When all were healthy, it was Diggs, Brown, Beasley, Davis, McKenzie and Roberts. This year you sub out Sanders for Brown.
If McKenzie wins the return battle, that would allow the Bills to perhaps go with five active WRs and save a game day roster spot to use somewhere else because he could pull double duty. Remember, Roberts was the sixth receiver active, but he was rarely used on offense.
If McKenzie ends up just being part of the top five receivers on offense, Powell and Stevenson, or perhaps another candidate, has a path to the 48-man gameday roster like Roberts did.
Here’s a thought out of left field. Even though he has rarely returned kicks in college or the pros, maybe Breida can be groomed to do it. If he’s active as the returner, that would allow the Bills to also use him in the backfield in certain situations to take advantage of his breakaway speed.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.