The most highly anticipated Buffalo Bills season in 30 years kicks off on Sunday at Highmark Stadium, where a capacity crowd of screaming fans is expected to fill the stands for the first time since the 2019 season.
Expectations for the Bills have peaked entering the ‘21 campaign. Many throughout the media have picked Buffalo to win the Super Bowl, and Josh Allen enters the season on a shortlist of favorites to take home the MVP.
The fifth season of the Sean McDermott/Brandon Beane era is expected to be an exciting one for the Bills and their fans, who have thirsted for a Super Bowl title since the team reached four straight championship games in the 1990s.
Buffalo took a significant leap last season, transforming itself from a playoff contender into a championship contender. Can the Bills get over the hump this season and bring home the franchise’s first-ever Lombardi Trophy?
It all starts Sunday at 1 p.m.
The stadium is going to be lit up in a way we’ve never seen before.
Where else would you rather be?
Allen propelled the Bills’ offense to great heights last season, helping Buffalo finish second in the league in points and total yards.
Still, after throwing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns and earning a six-year, $258 million contract extension in the offseason, the Bills’ franchise QB enters the year with plenty to prove.
The progression Allen put on display during his historical ‘20 campaign was just that — historic. Now, the question becomes, can he follow it up with a repeat performance? Many QBs throughout the league’s history have put forth transcendent seasons, only never to be heard from again. Robert Griffin III, Steve Beuerlein and, yes, former Bills quarterback Rob Johnson come to mind. The true challenge for a player lies in parlaying a quality year into a quality career, and that’s the opportunity Allen has in front of him beginning Sunday afternoon.
Plenty is working in Allen’s favor as he hopes to back up his phenomenal run in 2020 and make another MVP push.
Beginning with one of the league’s deepest wide receiving corps, which retained the NFL’s top pass-catcher from a year ago in Stefon Diggs, the Buffalo offense has maintained much of what propelled it a season ago, and then some. Allen is entering his fourth season under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the ‘20 Associated Press Assistant Coach of the Year, with five returning offensive linemen, two returning running backs, and new additions WR Emmanuel Sanders and RB Matt Breida, which have helped bolster an already impressive roster.
For many reasons, this season will be far different from last, when Allen entered far down the list in terms of the league’s top signal-callers. Now an established talent, the pressure is on for Allen to continue his ascent and live up to the lofty expectations he’s generated following his breakthrough performance a year ago.
He has all the right ingredients at his disposal. Now all that’s left for Allen to do is cook the five-star meal everyone is ready to eat.
And in their return to the stadium, Bills fans will be hungry.
BATMAN AND ROBIN
If Allen was the most important player for the Bills in 2020, Diggs was a close second.
A first-team All-Pro, Diggs led the league with 127 receptions for 1,535 yards to go with eight touchdowns, the best season ever for a Bills wide receiver.
His ability to beat man and zone coverage provided a security blanket for Allen that he had not been afforded until last season.
Before Diggs’ arrival, Allen’s top target was John Brown. With the the former Minnesota Viking leading the way, the selection of WR Gabriel Davis in last year’s draft, and the addition of Sanders, Buffalo’s wide receiving corps is now among the best in the NFL.
Along with his on-the-field production, Diggs has quickly grown into a team leader and was recently announced as one of the team’s eight captains.
Thus far, Diggs’ addition has been a boon for the Bills. But now, with the spotlight on Allen, Diggs and the entire Bills’ offense entering the season, Daboll and company are tasked with finding new, creative ways to get Diggs open, likely often through double coverage. If anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Daboll, who has experienced a rapid rise in the assistant coaching ranks and is now considered one of the league’s most coveted offensive minds.
It wouldn’t be wise to doubt a player of Diggs’ caliber when it comes to reinventing himself and continuing to add to his repertoire. But, much like Allen, whether or not Diggs can enjoy the same level of success that he enjoyed last season is certainly something to watch.
HOLD THE FORT
If the Bills offensive line has anything going for it, it’s continuity.
Buffalo returns the entirety of its starting front this season, whoever that may be as guards Jon Feliciano, Cody Ford and Ike Boettger continue to battle it out for two spots in the starting lineup. We may see a rotation of the three in Week 1 and perhaps beyond, but all three have experience playing in the Bills’ system, which does inspire a bit of confidence.
With that said, Buffalo’s front five is not a finished product by any means and is one of the team’s most significant question marks entering the regular season.
Starting center Mitch Morse has proven to be a reliable option. But injuries, particularly concussions, are always a concern with the veteran lineman, who has suffered at least five documented concussions throughout his seven-year career.
On the outside, starting left tackle Dion Dawkins is as close to a sure thing that the Bills have up front. But on the other side, Daryl Williams, who the Bills extended in the offseason, has yet to prove himself as a consistent option at the tackle position. Injuries have also been a concern for Williams in the past.
In addition, as previously stated, the guard position is anything but solidified entering Week 1.
The Bills also lack depth along the line of scrimmage, which could prove costly if they encounter any injury trouble.
For a team with so few roster questions, the Bills’ group up front on offense draws a bit of cause for concern.
When a team pays a quarterback hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s critical to ensure he is protected with a top-tier offensive line. At this point, the Bills’ front has not performed at a level that coincides with that of Allen and the price tag that’s attached to him.
Bills fans have been waiting for either Devin Singletary or Zack Moss to assert themselves as the Bills’ starting running back, but what’s more likely to occur this season is Buffalo employing a two, or three-back committee throughout the year.
The Bills brought in Breida for a reason, his elite speed, and he is also likely to play a role in how Buffalo’s backfield looks moving forward.
Even with Allen’s 421 rushing yards and eight rushing TDs, last season was a disappointing one for the Buffalo running game. If the passing game is as prolific as last season, the Bills might not need a potent running game. But if Allen and the aerial attack struggle, it will be interesting to see if the running game can come through with a big performance or two to bail out the offense.
KNOXING ON THE DOOR
Dawson Knox has a massive opportunity in front of him this season.
After the Bills cut Jacob Hollister, Knox suddenly became far and away the team’s best option at tight end. Buffalo does have Tommy Sweeney on the roster, but he is a block-first TE. Also, Reggie Gilliam can play tight end, but he is more of a fullback-TE hybrid. That leaves Knox in line to receive a high volume of snaps in Week 1 and beyond.
Knox has struggled with dropped passes in the past, and those struggles continued to crop up during the preseason. But with his cons, there are also several pros with Knox, one of the elite athletes at his position.
Plenty remains unproven for Knox, but he will be given ample opportunity to change that this year.
SPECIAL TEAMS TALK
Coming off of a solid rookie season, Tyler Bass has put himself in a position to vault into the conversation of the best kickers in the league.
Bass certainly has the talent to do it and has proven he can come up big with the game on the line — the most recent example being, albeit a preseason game, the game-winner against the Lions.
Matt Haack is a different story, as the Bills should hope to get at best above-average play from their new punter. Haack performed inconsistently during the preseason and will need to be more reliable during the regular season if he hopes to hold down the starting job throughout this year and into the future. Haack has been lauded for his ability as a holder, and while that’s all good and well, if he can’t punt, he can’t play.
In the return game, Isaiah McKenzie showed well throughout the preseason, except for one muffed punt. With Marquez Stevenson currently on IR, McKenzie will get a prime opportunity to cast aside any doubt relating to him as the team’s starting returner.
The Bills pride themselves on their ability on special teams, but with a few moving pieces at key positions, there is a bit up in the air for this group.
There is plenty to discuss when it comes to the Bills’ defensive line, as Buffalo added several new pieces to a group that produced little in terms of a pass rush last season.
Two rookie defensive ends, Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, and free agent signing Efe Obada bring added depth and raw ability to a group that includes second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who is hoping for a coming-of-age season after his contributions were limited as a rookie.
At the top of the depth chart sit steady veterans Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes. Hughes missed time early in training camp with a calf strain, while Addison missed practice on Friday for personal reasons. Both will play in Buffalo’s season opener.
Inside, Ed Oliver returns for his third season with high expectations and a heap of responsibility. Oliver has performed adequately through two professional campaigns but has yet to deliver the type of season expected from a top-of-the-first-round defensive tackle.
Rejoining Oliver this season will be veteran Star Lotulelei, who will miss the Bills’ Week 1 game with a calf injury. Lotulelei missed the entirety of last season after opting out due to concerns regarding COVID-19. Once he returns from injury, Buffalo hopes Lotulelei is the strong presence on the interior that this group was missing last season.
Another storyline among the Bills’ defensive front is the emergence of the previously unknown Justin Zimmer. After coming up with several big plays last season, namely the forced fumble in the Bills’ Week 16 victory over the Patriots, Zimmer has forced his way into the Bills’ defensive line rotation.
In Lotulelei’s absence, much more will be expected of Harrison Phillips, who is entering a make-or-break season, his third in the NFL.
How this group will perform remains to be seen, but give credit to Beane and his staff for addressing a need and in a big way. Buffalo brought in several new players in hopes of increasing the production of its pass rush, and early returns during the preseason have pointed toward this unit trending in a positive direction in that regard.
Of all position groups, both offensively and defensively, there aren’t many in which the Bills possess more depth than at linebacker.
Beginning with the big names Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo is also blessed to have the talents of A.J. Klein, Andre Smith, Tyrel Dodson and Tyler Matakevich, who throughout the preseason proved he is much more than simply a special teams ace.
However, while their depth is substantial, questions remain when it comes to the Bills’ linebacker depth chart.
Through four seasons, Milano has proven to be a top-tier player at his position, while Edmunds has been solid through his three years in the league. But Milano played in only five games last season due to nagging injuries, while Edmunds has yet to put together a transcendent season.
Maintaining Milano’s health is key to the production of the Bills’ defense as a whole. Likewise, if Edmunds can take that step, he has the ability to take this entire defense to another level. Edmunds’ raw athleticism and measurables are off the charts. He simply has yet to put it all together.
Linebacker is certainly not a position of worry for the Bills, but if Buffalo’s stable of linebackers can take a significant step forward, so will the entire defense.
Unlike the defensive line and linebacker room, the Bills’ secondary lacks depth as it prepares for the long haul of a 17-game regular season.
At the top of the cornerback depth chart sits All-Pro Tre’Davious White, and behind him is Levi Wallace, who enters the season as a starter opposite White. Wallace won a training camp battle with Dane Jackson for the starting spot, and all three have proven to be capable of above-average play at their position.
Behind that trio, however, sits Taron Johnson and Siran Neal, who are unproven in terms of their ability to line up outside. Johnson, while his pick-six against the Steelers late in the season will live forever in Bills lore, is better served as a nickel corner, while Neal is more of a special teams contributor than anything else.
Don’t be surprised if Beane and company look to add to this position group as soon as Week 2 whether it be through free agency or a trade.
Behind Buffalo’s group of corners, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer make up one of the elite tandems in the NFL. Both Hyde and Poyer’s playing styles complement one another, translating to a productive relationship on the field. Safety may be the Buffalo’s strongest position group, with third-year player Jaquan Johnson and rookie Damar Hamlin listed as the team’s reserves. Both had positive moments during the preseason.
If this group remains healthy, look for a load of production from the Bills’ secondary this season. However, if one or two starters suffer injuries, that could create some challenges as unproven players will be thrust into key roles.
IN GOOD HANDS
Buffalo is set for the future with Beane and McDermott, who, together, have taken a once-forgotten franchise and helped it rise from the ashes.
The two most critical factors in building a winning team are securing star players at key positions and surrounding them with depth. With Allen and Diggs leading the way on offense and White, Poyer and Hyde powering the defense, Beane and McDermott have done what they’ve needed to do to provide Bills fans with what they rightfully deserve — a consistent winner.
Throughout a long regular season, this one the longest in league history, things are sure to take a turn, if not several turns for the better or worse. But whatever happens this year, Buffalo is set up for long-term contention for the first time in decades. And for that, Bills fans have two men to thank.