BUFFALO, N.Y. — It’s been the theme of the offseason for the Buffalo Bills — “run it back.”
With a roster comprised of young, foundational talent and depth at essentially every position, the Bills had little reason to do anything other than make minor tweaks after reaching the AFC Championship Game in 2020.
But that’s not where Buffalo sees its ceiling; it believes it’s on the cusp of a Super Bowl run. To get there, the Bills need a few players at critical positions to take that next step.
Last season’s playoff push was fueled by an MVP-caliber season from quarterback Josh Allen, who made a huge leap in production in his third year. Allen passed for for 4,544 yards with 37 touchdowns and rushed for eight more.
Which players can make a similar leap this fall? Three of Buffalo’s top four picks from the 2019 draft would be a good place to start:
Bills GM Brandon Beane traded up to draft Knox in the third round, despite his lack of involvement in Mississippi’s offense. Knox proved why it was worth it in spurts throughout his rookie season.
Among qualified tight ends in the NFL in 2019, Knox ranked third with 25% of his receptions gaining 20 or more yards, and in yards per catch (13.86 yards). However, he also led all tight ends with a drop rate of 10%.
Knox never got going in 2020, battling a series of injuries and testing positive for COVID-19. Buffalo isn’t ready to move on from him, but wants more production out of the position.
“At the end of the year … Dawson started to get his groove, but it was never where the opposing defense was like, ‘man, we’ve got to stop their tight ends from going off,'” Beane said. “… We’d love to have a guy like (Travis Kelce) — they don’t come very often. But that’s what we want. We’ve got some guys here we want to continue to develop and see what happens.”
Beane said in March that the Bills have “big expectations” for Knox entering his third season, and the team does have an excellent recent track record of developing players in their third year. Besides Allen, who was the MVP runner-up last season, cornerback Tre’Davious White was named a first-team All-Pro in his third season (2019).
Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2019 had a strong rookie season, but wasn’t as impactful statistically in 2020 without Star Lotulelei lined up next to him.
Sacks don’t tell the full story and the Bills insist Oliver was better than his three-sack performance last season.
“Ed’s playing really well, and if people want to just look at sack numbers, he doesn’t have those,” Beane said. “But he impacts the game — not only the pass game but the run game, and he’s growing, he’s learning. But at the end of the day, the sacks will come I think as he continues to learn the game and learn how people are playing him and blocking him.
“Ed faces a lot of doubles, too, so it’s not the easiest road for him, but I thought he definitely took a step up from year one to year two.”
With Lotulelei returning after opting out of the 2020 season, the sacks will need to come in 2021 for Oliver, who was a prolific pass rusher at Houston. As Beane said, Oliver was often the focal point of the Bills’ interior defensive line for opposing offenses — but he was double-teamed more frequently as a rookie in 2019 (60.1% of snaps vs. 57.8% in 2020) and was more successful against them (14.7% pass rush win rate vs. double team in 2019 vs 12.4% in 2020).
Buffalo watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers put frequent pressure on Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes during last season’s Super Bowl, and if it wants to emulate that success, it will require with players like Oliver and 2020 second-round pick A.J. Epenesa continuing to develop as pass-rushers.
Ford is not on this list necessarily because he needs to step up, but rather because he needs to find his place on the offensive line and stay healthy to make the impact expected of him. The Bills traded up to draft him in the second round in 2019 and he started 15 games as a rookie, splitting time with Tyler Nsekhe at right tackle and often facing opponents’ best pass-rusher.
Buffalo loved Ford’s versatility at both tackle and guard when it drafted him, and put it to the test last season. He played right guard throughout training camp after an injury to Jon Feliciano, and transitioned to left guard when the team moved on from Quinton Spain in Week 3.
Ford had shoulder surgery last offseason and missed nine games in 2020; he was placed on injured reserve with a torn meniscus in late November.
“He’s played probably as many games hurt as he has healthy in fairness to him, and he doesn’t say a word,” Beane said. “He’s a young player still. We like it that he can play guard or tackle, so I’m not going to slot him in as a guard only or a tackle only. But I would be surprised if he’s not a starter [in 2021]. I’m not saying he is — he’s got to come back and show he’s healthy and earn it. But talent-wise, yeah, he’s probably one of our best five.”
With Daryl Williams returning to Buffalo on a three-year contract, it’s unlikely Ford returns to right tackle in 2021, and if both he and Feliciano are healthy to start offseason workouts, Ford could focus on one position (left guard) for the first time in his professional career.