BUFFALO, NY – This off-season feels different.
Last year, the Buffalo Bills narrowly missed the AFC Championship Game for the second year in a row and appeared to be a player or two away from making a Super Bowl run. But this offseason, there are big decisions and problems to solve in order to keep up with the AFC’s top teams, especially the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals.
First, the Bills need to figure out how to get below the cap that the NFL told teams would be $224.8 million for the 2023 season, leaving the Bills about $18.4 million above . (The bills total $243.2 million, according to Roster Management.)
“We’re going to have to get under the cap through moves, there could be roster cuts, and that’s all the free agents you know aren’t on the books,” GM Brandon Beane said. “… There will be no Von Miller contract or anything [magnitude]. We need to work to get below the cap so we can operate next year.”
The Bills’ 20 unrestricted free agents include a few key players, most notably on the defensive end with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Jordan Poyer. But their biggest questions could come on the offensive side.
How can Buffalo take some responsibility off Josh Allen?
The Bills quarterback accounted for 76.8% of the team’s net yards (fourth) and led the league with 84% of the team’s touchdowns. Here’s how they can be less dependent:
passing game: The Bills need to give Allen more weapons in the passing game, especially at the No. 2 wide receiver position against Stefon Diggs. The team tried 2020 fourth-round Gabe Davis there, but he finished with just 13 more receptions than last year and led the team in drops (nine) with a career-low catch percentage (51.6%).
The team’s plan as a slot receiver also didn’t work out in 2022. Wide receivers Isaiah McKenzie and Jamison Crowder were set to fill that role, but Crowder broke his left ankle in Week 4 and never returned.
The Bills brought back wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley late in the season to bolster the receiving corps. Her time off offense showed, although Beasley did contribute five catches in two playoff games.
“[The] Offense is changed to a better color [the other players’] skills,” Beasley said. “So it’s difficult, you know, if just one guy shows up, it automatically switches back to something else? That doesn’t really work. Things take time, they need repetition, so it’s not really something we could really do.
The lack of a consistent slot receiver hampered the offensive’s use of screen passes, with Allen rising from eighth in 2021 to 21st in 2022 on screen pass attempts. His quarterback rating for screen passes also dropped from sixth to 27th.
One of the things that makes the Chiefs offense so good is their use of screens. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the league in QBR on screen passes this season. Accordingly, the Chiefs also led the league in yards by catch (2,797) while the Bills were 25th (1,621) month after Allen said improving YAC was a focus for 2022 (19th in 2021 with 1,775 ).
The Bills need to add guns through the draft and/or free agency that Allen can trust in the middle and downfield.
“You see speed on the field,” said coach Sean McDermott. “…I have faith in our players and who we have and will try to continue to add to that mix.”
Protect everyone/let the ball go: Beane said last week the only thing he’ll piss Allen about is getting too many hits. Despite being contacted less this season than in 2021 (from 201 to 178 in one game down), Allen played more games designed as passes than last year — 57 in 2022 versus 48 in 2021 — which often resulted in more hits, if he didn’t slip. How can you limit this? Part of this is that Allen slides more when running. But it’s also about being able to trust the offensive line in front of him and the talent around him. Getting more help inside the line this offseason could be a priority.
It’s no coincidence that both teams ranked in the top 10 for pass block and run block win odds in this year’s Super Bowl.
“I think this year there have been a few times and a few games where [Allen] felt for some reason maybe in the passing game we weren’t rolling like we wanted and he said I’ll put it in my hands and he trusts himself,” Beane said. “… He has to trust our playmakers and then our playmakers have to play. I think if they do that and he does his part, hopefully he feels less obligated that he has to plug it in and direct it. “
The other part of this is improving the team’s running game, after the line ranked 22nd in run block win rate (71%) and finished last in rushes per game (18.2) by running backs. Devin Singletary is ready to hit free agency, and the Bills need to add more talent up front and in the running back group les Allen isn’t the only runner team to worry about.
How can an injury-plagued defense improve this offseason?
The Bills lost safety to Micah Hyde due to a neck injury in Week 2. Miller, the team’s top pass rusher, was out for the season at Thanksgiving with an ACL injury in his right knee. Cornerback Tre’Davious White, the team’s No. 1, returned from a cruciate ligament tear in his left knee on Thanksgiving and didn’t look like himself until the end of the season.
Every team has injuries, but the heavy rotation of players in the defensive backcourt hampered continuity. The Bills had five players rotating on points at cornerback throughout the season, and the defense was prone to big plays and gave up six touchdowns from 20 or more air yards (tied eighth) after being the only team to win in 2021 gave up zero .
Now the Bills must figure out how to further improve the defense with limited money to invest in top free agents like Edmunds and Poyer. It will matter that those players are healthy for 2023 – Miller’s expected return timetable is around training camp – will matter.
Edmunds, the 24-year-old linebacker who gets the on-field calls from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, seems like a logical option to bring him back.
“I thought [Edmunds] had his best year, I really think so,” said McDermott. “I think you’ve seen him grow from a leadership perspective, you’ve seen him grow from a performance perspective and I know he just has that attitude that he wants to keep improving.”
The other big question mark is the pass rush. After Miller’s injury, the team needed their young pass rushers to make a step forward, but outside of Greg Rousseau (8 sacks), first-round pick in 2021, it didn’t really happen. McDermott called the 2022 line “inconsistent”.
Former second-round picks AJ Epenesa and Boogie Basham combined for four sacks, excluding Miller. Those high-draft picks that don’t work make a big impact. Veteran Shaq Lawson has played well at times, but Lawson is not signed for 2023. Adding depth throughout defense could be a defensive priority.
“We want to be strong up front. We do,” Beane said. “Both sides of the ball. You know, if we think there are players – whether draft, free agency, whatever – that are better than what we’ve gotten upfront, then we definitely won’t hesitate to add them.