There are 22 players on a football field at all times. Some are more important than others, though. As Buffalo Bills fans, we know this to be true and assume it about quarterbacks. We even go as far as to assign a “win” or a “loss” to that singular player despite how illogical that is.
But in doing so, we acknowledge that a player’s impact can be bigger than the man’s standing next to him. These “pivot players” change the complexity of the game when they’re on the field. It may not always be solely an overwhelming amount of talent that classifies a player in this manner. It can be the options afforded to the offense or defense when they’re present or the options removed from the offense or defense when they show up.
Dalton Kincaid can be one of those players.
One of the main principles of 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers) on offense in the NFL is that of putting defenses in conflict: you want them to be too small if they combat you with nickel personnel (five defensive backs, two linebackers) and too slow if they combat you in base personnel (four defensive backs, three linebackers). The issue facing many NFL offenses is that their third wide receiver is markedly more dynamic and talented than their second tight end, which means the value proposition isn’t in the offense’s favor even with the knowledge outlined above.
Think of it like a mathematical equation:
(Talent of your third wide receiver) - (talent of the defense’s nickel defender) gives you one data point
(Talent of your second tight end) - (talent of the defense’s third linebacker) gives you a second data point
With most of the offenses across the NFL, they recognize that in most cases, the opposing defense’s nickel defender is a more gifted player than their third linebacker. But they don’t have the talent in their own tight end room to take advantage of the skill drop off that would be present if they forced that third linebacker onto the field. Sure, the defense would lose a certain level of skills, but the offense would lose an equal or greater amount of skill on their own side by changing out their third wide receiver for a second tight end.
This unrealized potential on offense across the league is no longer the case for the Buffalo Bills with the drafting of Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid.
The Bills in 2020 and 2021 ran the overwhelming majority of their offense out of 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back, three wide receivers) with Stefon Diggs, a separate perimeter receiver (John Brown, Gabe Davis, Emmanuel Sanders) and Cole Beasley manning the slot. It allowed them run option routes and the RPO game underneath with Beasley while still allowing for more explosive plays down the field from the perimeter players. This was unquestionably an effective formula and led to the Bills having stellar offenses during that time.
But there were always a few nagging hangups.
First off, the predictable personnel on offense for Buffalo led to predictable solutions by defenses. They knew they’d play the Bills in nickel essentially all the time, and the isolation of that allowed them to devote time to focus on the particulars of the scheme. It also put Buffalo in a position where they’d need to ask Cole Beasley to block on non-RPO running plays. As a player who is 5’8” and 174 pounds, it was never going to be a strong point in Beasley’s game.
But what if you could still get the defense in nickel personnel, but add 70 pounds and 8” of height to Cole Beasley? You clearly wouldn’t get the same level of quick-twitch separation as you did from one of the best slot receivers of his era, but you’d give yourself some meaningful options in both the run and the pass game that you didn’t have before.
That’s what general manager Brandon Beane hoped for when he mentioned in his press conference after Round 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft. He said the Bills could have incumbent tight end Dawson Knox and newly draft Kincaid on the field at the same time and defenses would likely respond by playing nickel. But the Bills won’t really be in 11 with Knox and Kincaid on the field, nor are they in 12. They’re in “11 1/2” per Beane. Dalton Kincaid was never known as a tremendous in-line blocker in the lead up to the draft, but when he’s being asked to block a player much smaller than him, his blocking competence suddenly becomes more than adequate in the run game, penalizing defenses for going lighter. In addition, Kincaid’s contested catch ability (a translatable skill from his time playing basketball) means that any potential bullying doesn’t stop in the run game. As mentioned earlier, playing a nickel defender on Kincaid is going to mean sacrificing size for many NFL defenses. They’re simply too small.
But if the defensive coordinator gets tired of being bullied in both the run and pass game and brings in a third linebacker to cover Kincaid in the slot, it’s not likely they’ll have the coverage skills to match up. Kincaid may not be able to separate in the short area as often against smaller, quicker nickel cornerbacks and safeties, but he can do that and pull away from many of the linebackers who would be tasked with covering him. In addition, the Bills have historically seen much more zone coverage against them than man, which means that concern about Kincaid separating from more agile defenders is mitigated partially by the fact that the defense won’t be covering him straight up the majority of the time.
This is a matchup league, and the Bills have had solid weapons over the last few years. But they didn’t have a matchup piece on offense (“matchup piece” is defined here as “a player who puts the defensive personnel decision-making in conflict”). They have a matchup player on defense in linebacker Matt Milano and now they have one in Kincaid.
All of this is theory, but none of it will have the potential to become reality if the Bills don’t meaningfully utilize Kincaid. If the Bills had traded up to select wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba at 20 overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, we wouldn’t believe that a 30% snap count and 45 targets would be a good return on investment. Nor should it be the case for Kincaid. Buffalo went out and traded up to get a matchup piece that could fundamentally change how you play on offense and give a boost to not just the running game, but the controlled short and intermediate passing game as well. It’s time to use him, because his usage could really be a pivot for the team’s offense in 2023 and beyond.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!