After a strong 2019 season, it looks like the Buffalo Bills are on the precipice of a successful rebuild. Buffalo had not made the postseason since the 1999 season before Sean McDermott came aboard. The head coach has guided them to two playoff appearances in his three seasons. The foundation has been constructed.
The 2020 season can mark the dawn of a new age for the Bills. What’s been unthinkable for almost two decades is now well within reach: The Bills can be the team to beat in the AFC East.
With Tom Brady leaving New England and no clearly good successor in place, the long-time Patriots dynasty is vulnerable. The timing is right for the Bills to take that good foundation and build upon it to become one of the best teams in the conference.
In order for this to become reality, for Buffalo to jump a tier in the AFC, the gamble McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane made two years ago must pay off.
When the Bills went to the playoffs in McDermott’s first season on the job, it was under the watch of quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Years earlier, amid the rough Rex Ryan years, Taylor rose from the ranks of total obscurity to become the starting quarterback. The former Baltimore Ravens sixth-round pick displaced former first-rounder E.J. Manuel and Patriots castoff Matt Cassel, all while boasting an $888,333 salary and zero career starts. Taylor gave Buffalo three solid years as the starter, all of which featured hyper-careful passing and strong rushing production.
And yet, after being ousted from the playoffs following a misery-inducing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo looked itself in the mirror and decided that as good as Taylor was, the team had a capped ceiling with him at quarterback. No matter what you think of the evaluation of the move that came afterward, it’s clear that was the calculation.
In the following months, the Bills shipped off Taylor for a third-round draft pick, and to solidify their quarterback position, they traded up from the 12th overall draft spot to select Wyoming prospect Josh Allen at No. 7 in 2018. By making that move, Beane, McDermott and the entire Bills brass said, “Damn the risk — this is the guy to take us to a higher tier than a safe starter like Taylor ever could.”
Now, as the 2020 season arrives, this is the time for that calculation to prove correct. Frankly, the task shouldn’t be that hard for Allen.
He can make the Bills look smart because they’ve done everything possible to make him look good.
Bills have given Josh Allen a solid foundation
Smart teams in today’s NFL have gone all-out to build resources around their young quarterbacks. It sounds intuitive, yet time and time again in the last decade, we’ve watched teams ask their highly drafted passer to operate with stale offensive minds at the helm surrounded by subpar supporting casts. You can look right at the team Beane and McDermott came from, the Carolina Panthers, as a chief culprit in Cam Newton’s early years.
It’s different these days. Even within the 2018 draft class, most of the quarterbacks drafted with Josh Allen in Round 1 have been given a ton of resources. The Browns selected Baker Mayfield and then got Odell Beckham Jr., Austin Hooper, Jarvis Landry and Round 1 left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. in the course of three offseasons. Baltimore has constructed a whole offense designed around Lamar Jackson, in addition to drafting Marquise Brown in last year’s first round.
As for the Bills and Josh Allen, they might have helped their young passer more than any other team.
The Bills have completely reconstructed their pass-catching corps in the course of two years. The top-three targeted players in Allen’s rookie season were Zay Jones (102), Kelvin Benjamin (62) and LeSean McCoy (46). Not great. That crew will stand in stark contrast to the crew Buffalo will roll out this season.
One can easily argue that the Bills have one of, if not the best, wide receiver duos in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers corps is right with them at the top. The Falcons have an elite receiver and an up-and-comer in Calvin Ridley. Even Seattle, despite its infatuation with the running game, has a top-level duo in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. However, at the very least, few wide receiver duos get open at the rate of Stefon Diggs and John Brown:
Here are the Top-35 WR seasons I've charted in #ReceptionPerception's success rate vs. man coverage metric through its six year history (2014-2019).
Get full access to 2019 RP data in the UDK here: https://t.co/xDBZweVsXq pic.twitter.com/T9qCHjhsag
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) June 16, 2020
Diggs is a true No. 1 wide receiver. He changes the complexion of this offense from the jump. He dictates coverages as an outside receiver and is the best route runner in the league. Brown functioned extremely well as the Bills’ No. 1 wideout in 2019. That has always been within his skills even in prior years; he just needed to stay healthy.
The Bills have a 1A receiver in Diggs and 1B in Brown. Their stats from last year and their resumes back that up.
Beyond Diggs and Brown, Buffalo has gifted Allen a solid slot receiver in Cole Beasley, an intriguing athletic tight end in 2019 third-rounder Dawson Knox and a pair of skilled running backs taken in each of the past two drafts. The Bills are loaded with a perfect mix of veterans in their prime and youthful skill positions on the rise.
Everything is there for Allen to produce big-time numbers and make this one of the best offenses in the NFL. All he has to do is ... not screw it up.
What offensive adjustment can make Josh Allen better?
The fact that we’re asking that question isn’t altogether comforting. If you take an objective look at Allen’s career, it needs pondering, even if you aren’t ready to write the answer in pen one way or another.
Allen has been excellent in fantasy because of his rushing ability. In 2019 he ranked second in rushing attempts, third in yards and first in touchdowns among quarterbacks. As a rookie, he ranked fourth, second and first, despite playing just 12 games. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous to say Allen hasn’t had some passing problems to start his career.
Much of Allen’s problems start when the play breaks down. While these moments bring on some of his best rushing stat lines, if he throws, the results are usually bad. Allen was the third-most inaccurate quarterback when under pressure last year (56.4 percent) according to Sports Info Solutions. He can be too frenetic in the pocket and gets antsy when the play isn’t clear from the jump. This causes him to run into pressures and sacks. The longer the play goes on, the more Allen is likely to make a mistake. According to Sports Radar, Allen was the worst quarterback last year on plays with a time-to-throw of at least 3.5 seconds. His 37.9 passer rating in those situations ranked dead last among relevant starting quarterbacks. Much of that is his fault, as his catchable pass rate of 45.2 percent was sixth-worst.
On the other hand, when Allen got the ball out of his hands relatively quickly, the results were much more solid. On plays with a 2.8-second or less time-to-throw, Allen had 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions with a 95 passer rating. There’s room for growth there, no question, but there is something to build on.
All of this lines up with some of the research CBS writer Chris Trapasso noted in his recent piece that Allen was quite poor as a deep passer but showed out really well in the intermediate areas (10-19 yards).
It has taken us some digging to get here but there is some hope Josh Allen can execute this newly designed offense with its wealth of skill-position talent into high gear. It will require the Bills to take yet another step to make Allen’s life easier.
The coaching staff needs to make this a quick-strike offense, largely based on layup throws that get the ball out of Allen’s hands quickly. With the ball safely away and into the hands of one of his great receivers, Allen won’t find himself in situations to panic and run himself into trouble.
That could be why the Bills have made it a priority to acquire highly gifted route-runners and separators each of the past two offseasons. Rather than lean in to the temptation to be a wild, high-variance, deep-passing offense with a strong-armed passer, give him resources to grow into something more stable.
Allen is capable of doing the work in this style of aerial attack. According to SportsRadar, Allen posted a catchable pass rate of 79.2 percent — ranking top-20 in the league — when throwing the flat, slant, curl, dig, crossing and screen routes (short, intermediate, mostly in-breaking). John Brown and Stefon Diggs can dominate on those routes, as shown in Reception Perception:
Stefon Diggs and John Brown scored in the top-15 in both success rate vs. man AND press coverage last year in #ReceptionPerception. The Bills are just one of two teams with a duo of WRs who did this.
Get full access to 2019 RP data in the UDK here: https://t.co/qRCH0apWrm pic.twitter.com/9AWBjsL7QY
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) June 24, 2020
Of course, this is all easier to write in digital ink than put together in practice. In order to fully remake this offense to fit this image, much of it will require Allen to fundamentally change who he is as a player. While you can find numbers to show he can be this type of passer, at least to an average degree, Allen’s instincts have led him into a “hair-on-fire” style. Allen ranked fourth in scrambles last year and second in 2018. A problematic internal clock will likely always be part of his game. And it would be unreasonable to expect him not to default to trusting his rocket arm in those instances.
The Bills may always lean toward the aggressive side of high-variance with Allen under center. All we’re looking for is the team to make a few more adjustments to the system, along with the elite route-runners they’ve brought in, to minimize the negative impact those plays will naturally invite. Some of the deeper numbers in Allen’s game would show he can be that player.
If that comes to pass, Allen may well become a more stable passer than we’ve seen before. In that situation, the consensus opinion that Diggs and Brown must drop precipitously down fantasy rankings may not be founded. We just covered a layer of “ifs.” And for it to happen, the Bills and their newly acquired wide receivers will have to do the heavy lifting to get Allen there.
However, there is, at least, hope. Whether Allen does it or not will be a crucial story of the season. The time is now for the Buffalo Bills. It would be a massive disappointment if the player they staked their ability to “take the next step” two years ago ... is the one to squander it.