Every season, it seems as if a few players remain stuck behind their fellow peers who fans are itching to see get more playing time. While the Buffalo Bills’ front office and coaching staff continues their work to build up depth and add young pieces to the team, some in the fanbase begin to grow impatient while their favorite player struggles to find more playing time.
In 2019, rookie Ed Oliver was starting to come on as the season approached its midpoint. Fans and media alike were wondering when Oliver’s snaps would finally start to increase as he had clearly been the most consistent and useful 3-technique in defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier’s system. Offensively, fans wanted to see tight end Dawson Knox fully unleashed as he split duties for most of the 2019 season. He was the main man at the position in 2020 to such an extent that Tyler Kroft was a healthy scratch most of the season.
While some huge wishes came true for Bills Mafia this past season, there will always be favorite players fans want to see more of on the field. With that in mind, here are three players who should see more playing time entering the 2021 regular season.
Epenesa was the Bills’ second-round draft pick in 2020. After huge production at Iowa (26.5 sacks) in three seasons, the Bills decided to take a chance on him. A player with a very high floor and perhaps a limited ceiling, Epenesa is a power rusher at 6’6” and 280 lbs, and there were some serious questions raised during the draft process about what his best position would be in the NFL. Many wondered if he should shift inside to a 3-technique role or continue to play off the edge.
The Bills fully committed to him as a defensive end in their system and apparently told him to drop some weight prior to the season. According to head coach Sean McDermott, he dropped weight—but he lost too much.
The Bills asked AJ Epenesa to get his body weight down. He got it way down and even a bit lighter than they wanted. Beane said started slow and they were concerned how he'd hold up against the run. He added a bit, but "couldn't move the needle." He was 280 at Iowa, 260 for Bills— Sal Capaccio (@SalSports) January 27, 2021
In 2020, Epenesa only played on 27 percent of the defensive snaps as Mario Addison took a massive chunk of playing time away from him. Perhaps his weight struggles were a big reason for the adjustment that Epenesa had to make to the NFL. He was an afterthought at the beginning of the season who was even a healthy scratch at one point. But he showed well in run support and was a factor as a pass rusher at times. Though he will need some fine tuning and has to get his weight situation figured out, Epenesa’s snaps should increase in 2021 as Addison gets one year older and Epenesa gets his feet wet in the NFL.
The Bills still have a big-time hole to fill opposite Tre’Davious White at the second corner position. The position was an oft-discussed topic during last year’s draft season—one that needed an upgrade to challenge and perhaps supplant Levi Wallace. The Bills addressed the position by signing Josh Norman who became a depth commodity as the 2020 season rolled on. In reality, they never really prioritized it in the draft to the surprise of many.
They didn’t completely ignore the need by selecting Dane Jackson out of Pittsburgh in the seventh round. At Pitt, Jackson was known as a slimmed-down corner who was very feisty and aggressive. Sometimes too much so but, still, a playmaker who was willing to make a tackle despite his lack of size. But he was a seventh-round pick for a reason.
He started the year on the practice squad after failing to make the 53-man roster without a true training camp or preseason. But that never stopped the 6’0” 187-lb corner from leaving his mark every time he touched the field. When Levi Wallace went down with an ankle injury in Week 4, Jackson moved up in line for an opportunity. He was ready when his number was called Week 7. In his first action, he picked off a pass against the New York Jets and defended two passes in that game. He showed off his ability to make plays as a clear athletic upgrade to Levi Wallace and Josh Norman.
Jackson only played four snaps in Week 8 and Week 9. But, in Week 10, he came up with eight tackles, a pass defensed, and a fumble recovery against the Arizona Cardinals. He played 58 snaps in that game. His last bit of action came in Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins where he continued to make an impact by defending two passes and making a tackle for a loss. In a game where the Bills rested a large number of starters, Jackson was a bright spot.
It appears general manager Brandon Beane liked what he saw as well.
Beane says they wished they had more elevations to use on Dane Jackson, but he will have every opportunity next season to not only win a roster spot but "we'll see who starts opposite Tre."— Sal Capaccio (@SalSports) January 27, 2021
Many Bills fans were clamoring for Jackson every time Levi Wallace or Josh Norman saw a target in their direction, In 2021, if Brandon Beane’s words hold up, fan might just get their wish.
The Running Backs
Look, Singletary is still a young player who has a chance to improve within the team’s current system. It’s fair to say that his sophomore season took a notable step back with less usage than his rookie campaign. In college, Singletary was known as an explosive runner in the short areas with elite change-of-direction ability and very good contact balance for a 5’8” back.
All of the things that made Singletary a third-round pick oddly seemed to disappear as the season wore on. The truth of the matter is that all the running backs were used sparingly during the back half of the season. But Singletary, the most explosive of them all, continued to lose touches. That possibly shook his confidence some. He struggled mightily against the Kansas City Chiefs with a key drop and a lack of efficiency as a runner (6 rushes for 17 yards). Singletary had 12 or less touches in each of the last six games of the season.
Meanwhile, Zack Moss was injured late in the season and never really got going with a pair of injuries. T.J. Yeldon is a pending unrestricted free agent who was used sparingly this season, but he showed some flashes and is a solid pass-catching back. Between the two young former third-rounders in Singletary and Moss, they only touched the ball 320 total times on offense in 19 games during the 2020 season and playoffs. That’s less than 17 touches per game combined for two players the Bills invested pretty heavily into through the draft.
No, I’m not saying Buffalo needs to more methodically establish the run. But to keep defenses honest, they will need some semblance of a run game. Brandon Beane addressed the situation in his postseason press conference and said that he puts no blame on the young stable of backs. But putting no blame may be inaccurate. Sure, Beane has a good case to be made here. The entire offensive line struggled to run block in 2020 and that can be attributed to a large list of reasons that are a whole topic in and of itself. In short, run concepts, blocking schemes, and player execution on the offensive line are all things that are fair to call into question. But it’s also fair to be critical of the running backs.
Singletary slowed down as a runner and dropped passes late into the season while Moss struggled to stay healthy. One of the big knocks on both ball carriers is a lack of long speed. The Bills could certainly use an injection of speed in the backfield. It will likely be a popular offseason topic, but with two former third-round picks manning the backfield, I hesitate to suggest that the running back room will look much different in 2021.
Whatever the case, the Bills will face light boxes of four, five, and six men until the run game is fixed, which will only make offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Josh Allen’s life more difficult trying to pass the ball. Teams did not respect the Bills’ run game and, often, they were correct. A secret to almost no one, the running backs need to have more of a role in 2021.