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Analysis: Self-scouting the Buffalo Bills’ passing offense

How is the passing, and what does the future hold?

The Buffalo Bills have played through two-thirds of their season, compiling a 7-3 record in their first ten games. It’s an appealing place to be, in sole possession of the AFC East lead, but things aren’t perfect.

The bye-week break is the perfect time for self-scouting, understanding a team’s strengths and weaknesses, and thinking about the future.

Let’s go ahead and do that—with an eye focused on the Billspassing offense.

What an incredible, unprecedented passing season we’re seeing from Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills. We thought he started turning the corner in the second half of 2019, but you’d be lying if you thought he’d be the league’s leading passer ten weeks into the season. Even as other quarterbacks gain statistics during Allen’s bye week, he’s in the middle of a Pro Bowl caliber season that vaulted him into the NFL’s top ten quarterbacks.

All-in-all, Allen is a hundred times more comfortable playing within the structure of the play than he was two years ago. He can hang in the pocket, buy time with small movements, and isn’t afraid to throw the ball as a defender’s closing in on him.

Josh Allen escapes pressure and completes a checkdown pass
How many times have we seen Allen turn a negative into a positive like this in 2020?

A big reason for Allen’s comfort? The supporting cast. In Allen’s rookie year, the number-one target was Zay Jones, whose career was rapidly unraveling into bust territory. Then the Bills added two reliable playmakers in John Brown and Cole Beasley. Now they’ve added Stefon Diggs to the mix. This group can beat man, and they can beat zone. Not to mention, my goodness, are they good at catching the football. Diggs and Beasley lead the team in targets. They also lead the team in catch percent. Combined, they’re catching a whopping 76.2 percent of their targets—a number that equals the franchise record set by receiving fullback Larry Centers.

Then there’s the offensive line. Now, you can’t make the case for a top-five unit like you could with the wide receivers. But the group is cohesive, they have depth, and they’re keeping Allen upright. From 2018 to 2019, Allen’s sack rate dropped from 8.0 percent to 7.6 percent. This year, it’s 5.2 percent.

If you were wondering whether this could be attributed to Allen’s improved pocket presence, that is a factor, but other statistics also show improvement. Last year, Allen averaged 2.3 seconds in the pocket before throwing or facing pressure, and was pressured 23.2 percent of his drop backs. This year, he’s averaging 2.6 seconds in the pocket and only pressured 20.8 percent of the time. Dion Dawkins leads the way for the group, and free-agent signee Daryl Williams is also having a fantastic year. Mitch Morse has been as impressive as ever, despite missing two games after suffering a concussion. The only weaknesses have been the guards, with Cody Ford, Brian Winters, and Ike Boettger all susceptible to the pass rush at times.

Before we forget, we should also credit Devin Singletary and Zack Moss for their work in pass protection. Both backs have been phenomenal here, despite their youth.

Josh Allen is perfectly protected even on this blitz.
This five-man blitz can’t even get close to Allen.

The final piece to the puzzle has been a dramatic improvement in Allen’s throwing accuracy. This is a player who looked like he didn’t know how to throw a football at times in his rookie season. Now, he’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. Footwork has always been the key to unlocking Allen’s potential and, in the offseason, he overhauled his throwing footwork. Taking cues from Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, Allen developed an unorthodox hopping motion on some of his throws. Normally, QBs want to point their toes at the target and drive through into the ground, but this step seems to help Allen bring his waist around, take some heat off the ball, and throw it with touch where he wants it to go.

Josh Allen’s 2019 throwing motion
Josh Allen’s throwing motion in 2019. Note the follow-through.
Josh Allen’s 2020 throwing motion
Josh Allen’s 2020 throwing motion. His feet are more fluid, but also more stable than they used to be.
Aaron Rodgers has a similar throwing footwork to today’s Josh Allen
Aaron Rodgers has similarly loose-yet-stable footwork that helps him aim for tough throws.

Through the end of 2020

Obviously, with things working so well, there isn’t much to clean up on this part of the offense. The top priority is sorting out the starting five offensive linemen. Cody Ford, Mitch Morse, Jon Feliciano, and Brian Winters should all be healthy coming out of the bye. The Bills (who curiously benched Morse even though he cleared the concussion protocol) need to decide on their interior unit.

Ideally, the Bills also have a healthy John Brown down the stretch. Last year, he had 1,060 yards for the team. This year, plagued by foot, ankle, and knee injuries, he’s only on pace for 618 yards. His speed is the ideal complement to Cole Beasley’s shiftiness and Stefon Diggs’s dominant physicality.

Aside from that, the Bills would like to have Allen continue refining his responses to exotic defenses. The slot/corner blitz is a thorn in their side. Sometimes zone defenses cause Allen to “turtle up” and take safe checkdowns. The Bills have one answer to aggressive Cover Zero blitzes, but with defenses keying on Gold Rip, what’s their counter-counter? We’re mostly splitting hairs at this point, but when the Bills face a Pittsburgh Steelers or Indianapolis Colts defense in the playoffs, it’s the difference between a Super Bowl or a humiliating defeat.

2021 outlook

Four of the team’s offensive linemen are set to become unrestricted free agents: Tackles Daryl Williams and Ty Nsekhe, and guards Jon Feliciano and Brian Winters. Between that set, you have two starters and two backups.

There’s a massive open question about the salary cap next year. By normal CBA rules, it’s set to drop precipitously (thanks to lowered revenue in the COVID-19 season), which would make it nearly impossible to sign players at market rates. But with the whole league affected, this would leave dozens of players unsigned or paid far less than what they’re worth. Perhaps the league will raise the salary cap regardless of what their agreement says.

Either way, the Bills have a decision to make: Re-sign up to two of their starters, knowing that Williams is in line for a big payday. Decide if they’re keeping either of their backups.

Two other players will become UFAs unless re-signed: tight end Tyler Kroft, and gadget receiver Isaiah McKenzie.

Kroft’s 2019 was severely hampered by injuries. In 2020, he’s ended up playing 43 percent of snaps through ten games, in a timeshare with Dawson Knox. Kroft has caught 12 of 16 targets for 119 yards and three touchdowns, all of which lead the tight ends.

McKenzie has carved a solid niche as Buffalo’s curveball. Last year, he was on the field 42 percent of the time, but that number plummeted to 19 percent this year, thanks to Stefon Diggs joining the team and moving every other receiver down the depth chart. In his role as the jet-action receiver, McKenzie is more-or-less keeping up with his efficient role from his whole Bills career—good for a first down or a touchdown about every other time he touches the ball. His rushing success rate has dropped a little, with teams keying on him now that his niche is more explicitly defined.

Backup QB Matt Barkley is also an unrestricted free agent. Will the Bills re-sign him? Keep Jake Fromm as their backup and role with two next year? With Josh Allen’s major step forward, an insurance policy here isn’t as crucial as it used to be for the team.

If there’s an upgrade desired in the passing offense, it would either come in the form of a better tight end or an offensive lineman. Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, and Gerald Everett are set to command the biggest paydays, but Kroft (if re-signed to a discounted contract) might end up being the more prudent option. The Bills could also opt for a rookie prospect, in a talented class led by Kyle Pitts and Pat Freiermuth. They could always bet on Knox’s growth, too.

Many solid offensive linemen at a range of ages and values will be available on the free-agent market next year, at least until teams begin re-signing their own. Among those names: Austin Blythe, Ted Karras, David Andrews, Garrett Bolles, Brandon Scherff, Joe Thuney, and David Sharpe.

Or the Bills could add a rookie, after adding Cody Ford and Dion Dawkins in recent drafts. IOLs Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers, Creed Humphrey, and Zion Johnson might be able to replace Feliciano (and/or eventually Morse) in the lineup. At tackle, there seem to be several players who could settle in at that late first- or second-round territory, even though the list is still shaking out: Liam Eichenberg, Jalen Mayfield, Alex Leatherwood, Dillon Radunz, and Daniel Faalele.