The Buffalo Bills weren’t supposed to be in this position—at least not yet. After hiring head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane in 2017, Buffalo set out on a rebuild that was expected to take multiple seasons. Though they stumbled into the playoffs in McDermott’s first year thanks to some Week 17 heroics from Andy Dalton, that postseason trip felt like an aberration. Buffalo’s plan was always to make its serious run further down the road.
Beane started his tenure by instituting a gradual teardown of the team’s roster. He traded away franchise fixtures like Sammy Watkins, Marcell Dareus, and Cordy Glenn during his first two years on the job. He purged Buffalo’s cap of its bigger contracts. He traded up in the 2018 draft to select his franchise QB: polarizing Wyoming prospect Josh Allen. In year one, Allen’s weaknesses from college bled into his pro career. The top-10 pick struggled with accuracy. The offense lacked weapons and badly needed some reinforcements up front. Buffalo finished 6-10, and fielded one of the worst offenses in recent memory.
So it was a shock when, this season, McDermott’s team cruised to a 10-6 record, the no. 5 seed in the AFC, and a wild-card matchup with the Texans. The Bills are a playoff team—a year before anyone, including Buffalo’s brass, probably expected. Now it’s a question of how far Allen and this core can take the franchise, both this season and in the future.
Some aspects of Buffalo’s 10-6 record are misleading. The Bills had the luxury of facing one of the league’s easiest schedules, and only one of their 10 wins came against a playoff team: the Tennessee Titans, when Marcus Mariota was still the team’s starting quarterback. But there’s also plenty of evidence that this group belongs in the postseason. McDermott’s defense has been one of the best for the past couple of seasons. The Bills finished fifth in Football Outsiders’ pass-defense DVOA this year and consistently gave opposing quarterbacks fits. Buffalo’s secondary is a nightmare, and this remains one of the best-coached groups in football.
The offense finished below average (22nd in DVOA), but it’s hard to overstate how much of an improvement that was from Allen’s rookie season. Since 2010, only five offenses have finished with a worse passing DVOA than the 2018 Bills: the 2010 Panthers (quarterbacked by Jimmy Clausen), the 2010 Cardinals (who give significant snaps to John Skelton), the 2011 Jaguars (led by rookie Blaine Gabbert), the 2016 Rams (during the disastrous Jeff Fisher–Jared Goff season), and the 2018 Cardinals (who fired their coach and traded Josh Rosen away after one season). Buffalo’s offense still has plenty of issues, but this group took a monumental step forward in 2019.
Tracing that progress is fairly easy. After a cautious approach to free agency in his first two offseasons, Beane made an aggressive foray into the market last spring. He spent big on center Mitch Morse (four years, $44.5 million with about $20.4 million guaranteed) before filling out the rest of the line with relatively inexpensive free agents (guards Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano) and a second-round pick (right tackle Cody Ford). A year after finishing with the second-highest pressure rate in the NFL, Allen ranked 13th in 2019, and only four of his 38 sacks came in 2.5 seconds or less. Along with completely rebuilding the line, Beane brought in free-agent receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley on team-friendly deals. Brown finished the year with 1,060 receiving yards (good for 21st in the league despite playing only 15 games), and Beasley came on strong late in the season, with at least six catches and 75 yards in three of his final five games. Buffalo has also gotten contributions from multiple 2019 midround draft picks. Devin Singletary emerged as the lead option in the Bills’ backfield in the second half of the season, and third-round tight end Dawson Knox has added 28 receptions.
The most important part of the Bills’ offensive improvement, though, has been Allen’s step forward in his second season. A year after finishing as the worst intermediate passer in the NFL, he’s completed 61.7 percent of his passes between 10 and 20 yards and has thrown only two interceptions since Week 7. Allen still has his faults. He’s been abhorrent on deep passes this year; his 30.9 adjusted completion percentage on throws 20-plus yards down the field ranks 23rd out of 24 qualified quarterbacks. Only Kyle Allen was worse. And he has also continued to struggle when pressured. With a clean pocket, Allen has completed 65.8 percent of his passes this season and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. When pressured, those numbers drop to an abysmal 41.2 percent and 5.8 YPA.
An NFL quarterback’s career trajectory isn’t necessarily linear. It’s possible that Allen’s improvement on short and intermediate throws may be an aberration, and that his issues with footwork and consistency in his mechanics will ultimately prevent him from being a much better passer than he is right now. But it’s hard to fault Bills fans for getting excited about the tangible progress Allen has made this season—and about the flashes of ability he’s shown. He made some jaw-dropping throws in Buffalo’s 24-17 loss to the Patriots in Week 16, and he’s consistently been able to keep drives alive with his legs. He isn’t always a reliable passer, but for the Bills to knock off the Texans and notch their first playoff win in 25 years, he may not have to be. Buffalo’s excellent defense and a few splashy plays from its offense might be enough to beat the talented but flawed Texans, who have consistency issues of their own.
Even if the Bills do upset Houston on Saturday, though, it’s hard to see this team advancing much further. A win would likely mean a trip to Baltimore in the divisional round, and though Buffalo played the Ravens close in a 24-17 Week 14 loss, it’d be tough to beat the league’s best team on the road. If the Bills were to miraculously pull out a win, their reward would probably be a trip to Kansas City to face Patrick Mahomes. Winning three road games en route to the Super Bowl isn’t impossible, but in this era, it’s pretty damn close. It’s undoubtedly been a magical season for Bills fans, but this team isn’t a serious Super Bowl contender—yet.
The moves that Buffalo’s front office has made during the past two seasons have positioned this team to make a real run in 2020 and beyond. Nearly every member of the Bills’ stout defense is set to return next season: Cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Kevin Johnson and 36-year-old linebacker Lorenzo Alexander are the only starters primed to hit free agency this spring. The situation on offense is similar. Spain is the only Buffalo starter expected to hit the open market. The belief that a team will improve without substantial additions or tweaks is a fallacy that burns franchises all too often, but the most encouraging part of the Bills’ future is that they have the resources to do more than just keep this group intact: Buffalo is projected to have nearly $90 million in cap space next season.
Unlike some other teams that have built around a highly drafted rookie quarterback, the Bills have been fairly patient with how they’ve spent their money. Morse’s $11.6 million cap hit is the largest on the team, and only one other player makes more than $10 million. Building a team’s foundation via free agency can be dangerous, but successful franchises throughout the league often use it as a way to add finishing touches to a contending roster. Buffalo may lose Wallace in free agency, but Beane has the money to chase a player like 30-year-old Chris Harris Jr. to replace him and turn the Bills secondary into arguably the best in football. Beyond big-name options, though, Beane has also shown that he’s capable of finding value and depth in key areas. An ocean of cap space is often overrated in NFL team-building, but that’s mostly because teams that have it tend to use it in the wrong ways (lookin’ at you, Jets). So far during Beane’s tenure, the Bills don’t seem to be one of those teams.
Beyond restocking the secondary and continuing to build depth across the roster, Buffalo’s most glaring offseason need will be to add another pass catcher. Beane doesn’t believe that a team needs a true no. 1 option (given that so few prototypical ones exist); he thinks that the most important part of assembling a receiving corp is finding players with varied skill sets. The Bills already have a reliable slot option in Beasley and a dangerous vertical threat in Brown. The goal now is to add a bigger outside option to use opposite Brown in three-receiver sets. Luckily for Buffalo, the 2020 draft is projected to produce the best receiver class in recent memory. The Bills could easily find an impact player in the second round while using their top pick to snag a promising young edge rusher or interior offensive lineman. More than anything, Buffalo’s full arsenal of draft picks and huge chunk of cap space will give Beane flexibility as he tries to finish off a championship-caliber roster.
It’s easy to make the case that with the right moves this offseason, Buffalo will take another step forward in 2020. But their ultimate ceiling will still likely be determined by Allen’s development. If Buffalo adds another quality option on the outside, the receiving corps could absolutely ascend next season. Beasley told me last week that he and Allen are still ironing out their timing on the option routes (a staple of coordinator Brian Daboll’s Patriots-influenced offense), and that it’s taken longer to adjust to each other’s preferences after Beasley missed spring practices following core muscle surgery. Timing has also been an issue for Brown and Allen’s deep-ball connection. If Allen can recalibrate his deep-ball accuracy and improve his rapport with Beasley this offseason, it would unlock a new dimension for this offense.
All of this optimism requires a healthy amount of projection, but it’s impossible to argue with how Beane and McDermott have positioned this team for the long term. Their young quarterback still has his flaws, but he’s progressed in his second season. The elite defense will be intact for at least another season, and could add a couple more young pieces for 2020. And Beane has the resources to keep tinkering with an offense that’s made considerable strides in its second season together. The Bills may not be ready to make a deep playoff run right now, but this franchise has set itself up for success moving forward.