Teams that have invested a majority of their capital on the defensive side of the ball can still succeed when they have great offensive coordinators, capable offensive lines and a quarterback who can make plays with his legs. Despite the wild optimism in upstate New York surrounding Josh Allen, he is functional at best right now—but that is still good enough. The Sean McDermott/Brandon Beane regime has not only produced some quality draftees but the ability to maximize many of the veteran players they’ve peeled from other rosters. Now, they come into 2020 taking their most significant swings yet at turning a team from accidental playoff contender to perennial playoff contender.
The brilliant design of Buffalo’s offense, and the acquisition of receivers who were more tailored to Josh Allen’s skillset, allowed the Bills to have one of their best seasons in recent memory in 2019. Cole Beasley caught as many passes as Mike Evans last year during Jameis Winston’s 30-30 season. John Brown had a better statistical season than Odell Beckham. Now, you add into the fold Stefon Diggs, a legitimate No. 1 NFL wide receiver who can further diversify what the Bills are able to offer opposing defenses on a given down. In a lot of ways, this feels like both a lifeline for Allen and a direct challenge. The former first-round pick out of Wyoming had one of the worst plus-minus ratings on his expected completion percentage in the NFL last year, meaning that he was hitting receivers about 4% less than he should have while, on the other hand, Ryan Tannehill was hitting almost 10% of passes that he statistically should not have.
Should Allen rise to the occasion, it gives Buffalo a tremendous advantage in their ability to plan for the next five years around an ascending quarterback. Should Allen continue to hover around replacement level (for reference, Football Outsiders had Allen as one of seven qualifying starting quarterbacks last year who posted a negative Defensive Yards Above Replacement rating, meaning that they performed below the rate of your average player) then we might have a Mitch Trubisky-type situation on our hands. As we’ll get into later, the defense is playoff-caliber and likely will be for another year or two. Will the Bills throw that away in order to dig their heels in on legitimizing Allen? We will see.
In theory, this team is good enough to challenge the Patriots for the best defense in the division. New England’s defense was on pace for best of all time through the beginning of 2019, so that’s important to keep in perspective. Having lost several key players this offseason, there is some leveling off that might inevitably take place.
There aren’t many weaknesses for opponents to exploit in Sean McDermott’s defense. Their linebackers are vulnerable in coverage situations, which puts Buffalo in the same hole as nearly every other team in the league save for a lucky few. When viewed as a unit, their combination of top two cornerbacks and safeties might be among the best in football; a group that is only deepening in their familiarity with a solid scheme. Up front, a stable of pass rushers should benefit from the rise of second-year defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a player who should not have dropped as low as he did in the 2019 draft to begin with. Last year, Oliver posted five sacks and eight quarterback hits, along with 12 pressures. He missed just three tackles. These numbers should grow in 2020 despite some significant offseason losses the Bills sustained across the defensive line.
When looking at the schedule in totality, it’s hard to be too confident. An overly optimistic look at the divisional slate has the Bills splitting with both the Patriots and Dolphins and sweeping the Jets. That leaves you at 4-2 with out-of-conference games against the Steelers, 49ers, Chargers, Cardinals, Seahawks, Chiefs, Titans, Raiders and Rams. Where are the wins going to come in bundles there?
Expected Depth Chart
QB: Josh Allen, Matt Barkley, Jacob Fromm
RB: Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, T.J. Yeldon
WR: Stefon Diggs
WR2: John Brown
WR3: Cole Beasley
TE: Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft
LT: Dion Dawkins
LG: Quinton Spain
C: Mitch Morse
RG: Brian Winters
RT: Cody Ford
DE: Mario Addison, Trent Murphy
DE: Jerry Hughes, AJ Epenesa
DT: Vernon Butler
DT: Ed Oliver, Quinton Jefferson
LB: AJ Klein
LB: Tremaine Edmunds
LB: Matt Milano
S: Jordan Poyer
S: Micah Hyde
DB: Tre’Davious White, Isaiah Brown
DB: Levi Wallace, Josh Norman