The Bills’ season is over. They were utterly dominated by the Bengals in the Divisional Round, capping off a season that didn’t live up to the Super Bowl hype and fell short of their goals. Despite all of the adversity this team faced during the year, it still felt like they had the talent to make a late-season push, but they could never get it together and that push never materialized.
After three straight playoff losses, the Bills are in jeopardy of wasting the prime of one of the top quarterbacks in the league. They have major salary cap decisions that are going to loom large in the next few years, and the pressure to win is mounting.
So what will it take to get the Bills over the hump? We dig into seven keys on their off-season to-do list.
1. Re-sign Tremaine Edmunds
I covered this a bit when we discussed how the Roquan Smith extension might hurt Buffalo’s chances of re-signing Edmunds, but the team needs to make it a priority. The inside linebacker had his best season ever as a pro and is just 24 years old. He and Matt Milano form one of the better linebacker duos in football, and the defense has been significantly worse when either player misses a game, which should give the team every incentive to bring Edmunds back.
Plus, given how Buffalo has struggled with the production from some of their early-round draft picks, the fact that they seem to have hit on a 1st rounder means they should do what they can to lock him up. Especially since Edmunds’ understudy, Terrel Bernard, who was a third-round pick this last draft, appears to be fifth on the linebacker depth chart and was a healthy inactive for the Bengals game. That doesn’t bode well for what the team thinks of his ability to replace Edmunds in the starting lineup.
2. Move on from Ken Dorsey
I’ve been harping on Dorsey’s playcalling and offensive scheme all year, so this should come as no surprise, but I think Buffalo needs to move on from their first-year play caller, despite how fond Josh Allen is of him. Dorsey simply wasn’t good enough this year. He had one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL running his offense, but too often the Bills seemed to simply rely on Josh Allen to make something out of nothing. The playcalling didn’t set him up for success, and Allen regressed in terms of turnovers and sometimes reverted back to his early-year tendencies of “hero ball.”
The Divisional Round was a perfect example. The Bengals had a great scheme to get the ball out of Joe Burrow’s hands quickly to negate the injuries on his offensive line and also take advantage of the poor footing for the defensive backs in the snow. Meanwhile, Dorsey kept dialing up deep passes for Josh Allen behind his poor offensive line.
Joe Burrow limited the effectiveness of the Bills pass rush with quick passes; the opposite held true for Josh Allen and the Bengals pass rush.
Time to Throw vs Pressure Rate:
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 22, 2023
Allen was pressured on nearly 40% of the dropbacks after being pressured on nearly 50% against Miami. It’s a clear inability to adjust on Dorsey’s part, and it was an issue all season. The offense was frequently disjointed, and there were too many games where the Bills couldn’t get the ball to Stefon Diggs for long stretches and didn’t even attempt to use pass-catching backs like Nyheim Hines and James Cook out of the backfield.
The Bills don’t have the luxury of patience. This is a team that is built to win now while their star quarterback is in his prime. As a result, they need to find somebody who can maximize the talent on this offense, and it’s not Dorsey. McDermott let go of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison after only one season in 2017, and that allowed Buffalo to sign Brian Daboll. They need to take the same chance this offseason.
3. Revamp the offensive line
We mentioned above that Dorsey failed to adapt his playcalling to the offense he had, but general manager Brandon Beane also deserves his fair share of the blame for failing to address the offensive line issues. The Bills’ offensive line was among the worst in the league all season, and Beane did nothing to improve it.
They were ranked 23rd in the NFL this year by Pro Football Focus, with only Jacksonville’s line recording a worse PFF run-blocking grade than the Bills over the course of the season. The team whiffed on the one-year deal for Rodger Saffold, who was their worst-graded lineman and was forced to start Greg Van Roten and David Quessenberry too often due to a lack of depth. Add to that a clear regression for second-year right tackle Spencer Brown, and you have a problem.
Saffold, Quessenberry, Van Roten, Ike Boettger, and Bobby Hart are all free agents, so the Bills have the opportunity to rebuild the majority of their offensive line through the draft and free agency. Dion Dawkins and Mitch Morse should be the only starters locked into jobs.
4. Find a number two wide receiver
This was supposed to be Gabe Davis’ breakout season. The Bills let Emmanuel Sanders, John Brown, and Cole Beasley go in part because of age but also because they thought Davis would be a great complement to Stefon Diggs, but the consistency just wasn’t there.
Davis may have set a career-high in receiving yards and tied his career-high in touchdowns but he also leads the team with nine drops and has a career-worst 51.6% catch rate. In eight of the team’s 16 games this year, Davis failed to total 40 yards receiving, and that inconsistency has become a real problem as defenses key on Stefon Diggs and dare Buffalo to beat them with other weapons.
Davis is still a good playmaker and can be a real field-stretching option for this offense, but he’s become a little bit too much of a Marquez Valdes-Scantling type of player and not a reliable number two wide receiver. Buffalo needs to find one, preferably through the draft where the cost would be easier to manage. If Davis were to be the WR3 with Khalil Shakir and Isaiah McKenzie rounding out the wide receiving corps, this could be a vastly improved unit.
5. Move on from Jordan Poyer
Sadly, I think Poyer’s time in Buffalo has come to an end. He’s been a leader and a tremendous player for this team for six years but injuries and a salary cap crunch make it seem likely that he will not be back.
Poyer will be 32 years old entering next season and had to play through six different injuries this year. He’s likely set for a few off-season surgeries on his elbow and his knee, so the team needs to think long and hard about investing money in an aging veteran coming off a litany of injuries. Especially when they also need to find the money to re-sign their 24-year-old linebacker.
If it comes down to a question of Edmunds or Poyer, the Bills would be wise to choose the younger player who could provide years of peak performance. It also appears the team is aware of that since Sean McDermott said in his postseason press conference that the team would look to try Chrisitan Benford out at safety this offseason. It was a conversation they had when they drafted the cornerback this year, and his size and physical style of play could lend itself to the change. That would give the Bills a young and cost-controlled player to play next to Micah Hyde for a few years.
6. Decide if the defensive end failures are on the players or the coaches
The Bills have spent a lot of resources to try to rebuild their defensive line over the years. They spent big money to bring in Von Miller and also signed veteran defensive tackles DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle Jr., and Jordan Phillips.
However, they also have used key draft resources taking Ed Oliver in the 1st round (9th overall), drafting Gregory Rousseau in the 1st round, selecting A.J. Epenesa in the 2nd round, and taking Boogie Basham in the 2nd round. So to see the defensive line’s performance fall off so drastically after Von Miller got hurt is a real concern. The team spent far too many prime resources on this unit for all of these guys to fail to meet expectations.
The team needs to decide if this is the fault of the players or defensive line coach Eric Washington. Both Oliver and Rousseau have flashed difference-making upside but the production has not been consistent enough and both Epenesa and Basham have proven to be nothing more than rotational linemen. That lack of production is costing the Bills dearly, and fixing the line needs to be a priority over the offseason, if that means moving on from young players or switching up the coaching staff.
7. Find a power back to complement James Cook
The Bills look like they may have hit on the selection of running back James Cook in last year’s draft. As the season went on, Cook was given more opportunities and, for the most part, took advantage. He finished the year with 507 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 5.7 yards per carry and added 180 yards receiving.
He is a tremendous receiver who can quickly turn and accelerate upfield, and the Bills needed to utilize him more in that regard. There is no doubt that he can be a game-breaking option given his speed and ability to slice through a defense, but he’s on the smaller end at 5’11” and 190 pounds, and his game is built on speed, which can be an issue in harsh weather conditions, as we saw in the Bengals game where Cook was slipping on the snowy turf.
With Devin Singletary all but a lock to sign a decent-sized contract elsewhere in free agency, the Bills need to prioritize bringing in a physical between-the-tackles runner who can complement Cook. They thought Zack Moss was that player, but he never materialized so they need to go back to the well. Luckily for them, physical runners can often be found in the later days of the NFL Draft, but Beane has a rough track record with his Day Two picks, so the team will have to hope he can correct that or the perfect running back fit falls to Day Three, which is also possible.