Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott both openly discussed running the ball more effectively in 2021 in their year-end press conferences ahead of the offseason. They were quick to point out that running the ball effectively does not necessarily mean running the ball more often, and Beane went as far as to point out that he didn’t think incumbent running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss “came up short for us.”
Their comments sparked one of the first narratives of the Buffalo Bills’ 2021 offseason: Do the Bills need to make a move for a new significant ball carrier in 2021 to accomplish the stated goal of running the ball more effectively?
Najee Harris and Travis Etienne are popular names for the Bills at pick 30 in the first round. Even the staunchest of opponents to the idea of a first-round running back selection have begun concocting creative justifications, like “just call him an offensive weapon” or “dynamic players are good regardless of position.”
But the options at the team’s disposal aren’t limited to just “status quo” or “pick a first-round running back.” Any number of different approaches could be taken if more talent was a desire for the room. How do I think they should tackle the position this offseason?
I think they should do nothing. That’s right. Nothing.
A 2021 Bills backfield consisting of Devin Singletary, Zack Moss and Antonio Williams is fine by me. If the team feels the need to add a special teams gunner to replace Taiwan Jones and/or bring in an undrafted free agent or two to add to the camp bodies (which will need to be done for numbers purposes), so be it.
But as far as actual meaningful contributions to the room? I want them to do nothing.
Now typically in these opinion pieces I give a multiple part process for addressing a particular position. “Nothing” is really only one step, so in the interest of making sure this piece is actually worth your time investment, I’ll explain the “why” behind my curt response to the idea of meaningful running back additions.
1. A multitude of bigger needs exist that have a more significant impact on winning.
Daryl Williams might not re-sign with the Bills, leaving them with a gaping hole at right tackle that has seemingly existed for this entire century. Matt Milano appears likely to leave as well, giving the Bills a linebacker need in a linebacker-centric defense that has historically played up or down to the play of its linebackers. John Brown has been released and the need at wide receiver becomes at worst a field stretcher and at best a WR2 unless you’re 100 percent sure second-year player Gabriel Davis can fill that role, which is assuming a notable developmental step. Are the Bills comfortable with Justin Zimmer at the backup three technique defensive tackle behind Ed Oliver for 2021 after the release of Quinton Jefferson? If not, that now became a need. If they want to add a pass rusher in free agency (as may have been foreshadowed by the J.J. Watt interest), they have some options but they’ll cost a decent contract. With Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie and Corey Bojorquez all scheduled to be free agents at the time of this writing with no re-signings or tenders given, the specialist positions need attention as well. Is there a CB2 with man coverage ability who can be had in the draft or free agency to allow the defense to be more multiple?
Every single need I just mentioned (even punter) is a need I feel more strongly about than searching for an upgrade at running back.
2. Line and scheme are more important to upgrade than running back.
The rushing success rates for the Bills in 2019 and 2020 were both 48 percent. However, in 2020, the Bills ran against a six-man or lighter box fourth most in the NFL. On those snaps when the numbers were most in favor of the Bills’ rushing attack, they were 18th in yards per attempt. ESPN’s run block win rate metric had the Bills ranked 29th in the NFL at 69 percent, and the 30th, 31st, and 32nd ranked teams were all at 67 percent. The most generous run-blocking metric came from Pro Football Focus, who ranked the Bills 15th in the league in run blocking.
I cannot look at the film of the Bills’ rushing attack, take into account the metrics and come to the conclusion that the talent at the running back position is the best upgrade to make in order to ensure a more effecting ground attack in 2021.
One of the other main differences between 2019 and 2020 was the increase in the amount of zone runs from the Bills. A return to more man gap power runs, better usage of Mitch Morse on pin-and-pull run concepts, or more athletic additions to the line to better suit the increased amount of zone runs would better marry the personnel to the scheme.
3. Spending meaningful capital on a running back in 2021 is bad asset allocation.
The Bills spent third-round picks in back-to-back years on Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. They shouldn’t triple down on the most replaceable skill position in football with either free-agency dollars or draft capital. Lest you think this is a sunk-cost fallacy, that would only be true if Singletary and Moss had not had moments of success that could be seen more consistently with other changes to other factors in the running game. Sticking with the two of them isn’t tying yourself to proven unsuccessful talent—it’s recognizing diminishing returns that come from adding a running back to a group that is already talented enough to give you a reasonable running game in a pass-heavy league for a pass-heavy team.