BUFFALO, N.Y. — This offseason feels different.
Last year, the Buffalo Bills came up just short of reaching the AFC Championship Game for a second straight season and seemed a player or two away from making a Super Bowl run. But this offseason there are big decisions and problems to solve to keep up with the top teams in the AFC, specifically the Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals.
First, the Bills have to figure out how to get under the cap, which the NFL told teams would be $224.8 million for the 2023 season, leaving the Bills about $18.4 million over. (The Bills are at $243.2 million, per Roster Management).
“We’re gonna have to get under the cap by moves, could be roster cuts, and that’s all the free agents that you guys are aware of not on the books,” GM Brandon Beane said. “… There’s not gonna be a Von Miller signing or somebody of that [magnitude]. We’re gonna have to work to get under the cap so that we can operate next year.”
The Bills’ 20 unrestricted free agents include some key contributors, most notably on the defensive side with linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Jordan Poyer. But their biggest questions might 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 reliant:
Passing game: The Bills need to give Allen more weapons in the passing game, especially at the No. 2 wide receiver position opposite Stefon Diggs. The team tried 2020 fourth-round pick Gabe Davis there, but he finished with only 13 more receptions than the year before, and he led the team in drops (nine) with a career-low catch percentage (51.6%).
The team’s plan at slot receiver also did not work out in 2022. Wide receivers Isaiah McKenzie and Jamison Crowder were supposed 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. Their time away from the offense showed, although Beasley was able to contribute five catches across two playoff games.
“[The] offense is changed to better suit [the other players’] skills,” Beasley said. “So it’s hard to, you know, just one guy shows up, it automatically changes back to something else? It doesn’t really work like that. Things take time, they take reps, so it’s not really something that we could really do.”
Not having a consistent slot receiver took away from the offense’s use of screen passes with Allen going from eighth in screen pass attempts in 2021 to 21st in 2022. His quarterback rating on screen passes also decreased from sixth to 27th.
One of the things the Chiefs offense does so well is use screens. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes led the league in QBR on screen passes this season. The Chiefs, correspondingly, also led the league in yards after the catch (2,797), while the Bills finished 25th (1,621) months after Allen said improving YAC was a focus for 2022 (19th in 2021 with 1,775).
The Bills have to add weapons through the draft and/or free agency that Allen can trust in the middle of the field and downfield.
“You’re seeing speed on the field,” coach Sean McDermott said. “… I’m confident in our players and who we have and will look to continue to add to that mix.”
Protecting Allen/running the ball: Beane said last week the only thing he will get on Allen about is taking too many hits. Although Allen was contacted less this season than in 2021 (down from 201 to 178 in one fewer game played), he scrambled on more plays designed as passes than the previous year — 57 in 2022 vs. 48 in 2021 — often leading to more hits when he did not slide. How can they limit those? Part of it is Allen sliding more when he runs. But it’s also being able to trust the offensive line in front of him and talent around him. Getting more help on the interior of the line this offseason could be a priority.
It’s not a coincidence both teams in the Super Bowl ranked in the top 10 in pass block and run block win rates this year.
“I think this year there was some times and some games where [Allen] felt for whatever reason, maybe we weren’t rolling the way we wanted to in the passing game and he was like, I’m going to put it in my hands and he trusts himself,” Beane said. “… He’s got to trust our playmakers and then our playmakers have to make plays. I think if they’re doing that and he’s doing his part, then hopefully he feels less obligation that he’s got to tuck it and run it. “
The other part of it is improving the team’s running game after the line finished 22nd in run block win rate (71%) and was last in rushes per game (18.2) by running backs. Devin Singletary is set to hit free agency and the Bills need to add more talent up front and to the running back group, so that Allen isn’t the only runner teams need to worry about.
How can a defense dogged by injuries improve this offseason?
The Bills lost safety Micah Hyde to a neck injury in Week 2. Miller, the team’s top pass-rusher, went down for the season with an ACL injury in his right knee on Thanksgiving. Cornerback Tre’Davious White, the team’s No. 1 corner, returned from a torn ACL in his left knee on Thanksgiving and only started to look like himself at the end of the season.
Every team has injuries, but the heavy rotation of players in the defensive backfield hurt continuity. The Bills had five players rotating at cornerback at points throughout the season and the defense was susceptible to big plays, giving up six touchdowns of 20 or more air yards (tied for eighth-most) after being the only team to give up zero in 2021.
Now the Bills have to figure out how the defense can continue to improve with limited money to invest in top free agents like Edmunds and Poyer. Having those players healthy for 2023 — Miller’s expected timeline to return is around training camp — will be significant.
Edmunds, the 24-year-old linebacker who receives the calls on the field from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, seems like a logical option to bring back.
“I thought [Edmunds] had his best year, I really believe that,” McDermott said. “I think you saw him grow from a leadership standpoint, you saw him grow from a performance standpoint, and I know he’s just got that attitude that he wants to continue to improve.”
The other big question mark is the pass rush. After Miller’s injury, the team needed their young pass-rushers to take a step forward but but outside of 2021 first-round pick Greg Rousseau (8 sacks) it didn’t really happen. McDermott called the line “inconsistent” in 2022.
Former second-round picks AJ Epenesa and Boogie Basham combined for four sacks with Miller out. These high draft picks not working out is having a big impact. Veteran Shaq Lawson played well at times, but Lawson isn’t signed for 2023. Adding depth all over the 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’s players — whether it’s draft, free agency, whatever it is — that are better than what we got up front, then we’ll definitely not hesitate to add there.”