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Exit Interview: Buffalo Bills

A year after the Bills’ surprise playoff run, the team was sent packing in Week 14. The defense looks strong, and Josh Allen can run, but how can Buffalo get better for 2019?

Josh Allen Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s that time of year, when some NFL teams have started looking toward next season. As each club is eliminated, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Up next is the Buffalo Bills, who will play out the string after Sunday’s 27-23 to the Jets.

What Went Right

Josh Allen has been brilliant at times in his rookie season. His rushing has been a welcome aspect of Buffalo’s offense, highlighted Sunday, when he broke Michael Vick’s record for rushing yards by a rookie quarterback over a three-game span.

Allen is averaging 54.4 rushing yards per game, 26th in the league and 10 more yards per game than Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (and almost 15 more yards per game than Bills teammate LeSean McCoy). Through the air, Allen has also lived up to his pre-draft reputation by showing off the biggest arm in football this side of Patrick Mahomes II.

Even more surprising than Allen has been Buffalo’s defense under second-year head coach Sean McDermott. Entering Week 14, the Bills had the third-best unit by DVOA and also boasted the third-best pass defense. They’ve allowed the fewest passing yards in the league and the second fewest-pass yards per attempt. Pass rushers Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander are the 13th- and 14th-graded edge defenders by Pro Football Focus, and Hughes is fourth in the league in quarterback pressures, behind only L.A.’s Aaron Donald, Kansas City’s Dee Ford, and Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox. Tre’Davious White leads all cornerbacks with 20.5 coverage snaps per reception allowed and is the second-least-targeted cornerback with 11 coverage snaps per target. All of this has paid dividends. After allowing 78 points in the first two weeks of the season, the Bills have allowed just 21.1 per game since. A Week 3 humiliation of the Minnesota Vikings established Allen as America’s hurdler-in-chief and showed that the Bills are not a laughing stock.

What Went Wrong

It took one 47-3 loss to Baltimore in Week 1 to remind America that last year’s heartwarming playoff run was one of the great football anomalies of our lifetime. The offense flirted with finishing as the worst unit adjusted for era in NFL history but will likely have to settle for being the second-worst offense this season. In what is shaping up to be the best year for passing in NFL history, the Bills have eight passing touchdowns and 20 interceptions with an appalling 166.7 passing yards per game, which is 31st in the league. Their average yards per pass attempt is so bad (6.0) that it’s almost on par with Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay’s league-leading yards per rush (5.8). The Bills have passed for more than 200 yards in a game four times in 13 games, giving them fewer 200-yard passing performances and total passing touchdowns than San Francisco quarterback Nick Mullens, who has five career starts. Buffalo’s quarterback situation was so bad this year with Allen hurt and Nathan Peterman healthy that it asked a quarterback who had been with the team fewer than two weeks to start a game—twice. The only wide receiver with more than 15 receptions on the roster is Zay Jones; Kelvin Benjamin, who was released last week, had a whopping 23 for the team. The Bills offensive line is ranked 27th in run blocking per Football Outsiders, outdone only by their pass blocking, which is ranked 28th. And cornerback Vontae Davis retired from football at halftime of a game.

Free Agency

The Bills don’t have too many difficult decisions to make for 2019. Defensive tackle (and team soul) Kyle Williams is a free agent, but if he wants to play in 2019, the team would almost surely offer him another one-year deal. Alexander has had an exemplary season, but he is also 35 years old, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he moved to a more competitive team in 2019. Receiver Robert Foster has developed enough of a rapport with Allen that he is worth re-signing, and otherwise the Bills’ roster is fairly stable (perhaps because they have so few players worth holding onto).

Buffalo will have the third-most cap space in 2019, with more than $90 million, according to projections from Over the Cap, but the question is whom the team would bring in. If the Eagles don’t retain wide receiver Golden Tate, he could add an element that Buffalo’s offense lacks, thanks to his route-running and elusiveness after the catch.

Draft Targets

The Bills may have gotten it right at quarterback (fingers crossed!), but they still need help at every other position. This year’s draft is heavy on defensive linemen, but the Bills may be wise to zag when everyone else is zigging and grab one of the top offensive linemen off the board. Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams started for the Crimson Tide as a freshman and has a connection to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who used to have the same role under Nick Saban. If they opt for a playmaker instead, Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry and Ole Miss’ A.J. Brown might be the two most talented receivers in this year’s class.