Each week of the NFL Season I’ll be posting a new edition of my Matchup Preview Series. That series is a comprehensive preview of how the Buffalo Bills matchup against their opponent that week. Leading up to that, I’ll be using the same format to preview all four teams in the AFC East.
These previews will look at five components of each team: Pass Offense, Rush Offense, Pass Defense, Rush Defense, and Special Teams. Each section concludes with a my “patented” 👏 scale which ranges from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Best) to 👏 (Worst). The post culminates with a Floor, Ceiling, and Prediction of the team’s 2023 record.
Finally, the Buffalo Bills.
Bills Pass Offense
Since the Josh Allen era began in 2018 you could argue there has been no single player more important to his team. The outcome of games, both wins and losses, consistently hinges on the decisions that Allen makes. While this is not unique in the NFL the year-over-year insistence that Allen is regressing is rarer. This is despite tangible evidence to the contrary, including Allen’s 59.22 QuBeR in 2021 versus his more recent 59.96 QuBeR in 2022. Still, there are parts of Allen’s game that must be cleaned up for the Bills to take another step toward a world title, most notably his turnover issues. His five red zone Interceptions were tops in the league last season while his 2.62% Turnover Rate ranked 24th out of 32 qualifying Quarterbacks. In 2023 the expectation is that both those numbers progress to the mean due in large part to arguably the best supporting cast Allen has ever had around him.
Despite rumors to the contrary that will include the Bills unquestioned WR1, Stefon Diggs. Since joining the Bills in 2020 Diggs is just one of two players (Davante Adams the other) to have at least 100 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons. He yet again will be joined on the outside by Gabe Davis, who at points struggled last season but still finished the year with the 30th most receiving yards (836) amongst wide receivers. Behind them, the Bills upgraded their depth by moving on from gadget slot Isaiah McKenzie in favor of the speedy Deonte Harty and from Special Teams only wideout Jake Kumerow for proven slot option Trent Sherfield. The biggest upgrade as far as receiving options go is outside the wide receiver room though. The tight end room will continue to feature Bills seam Tight End, Dawson Knox, but it’s his new running mate who could change the Bills’ offense, rookie Dalton Kincaid. The departure of Cole Beasley in 2022 left the Bills scrambling for a pressure release valve for their quarterback last season, with no answer available. Kincaid is expected to solve that issue this season though, as a pseudo-Tight End who will often play off the line and possesses the ability to unlock intermediate levels for Allen in 2023.
Kincaid’s presence should help to minimize a concern the Bills share with most NFL teams, the play of their Offensive Line. The Bills have attempted to resolve this issue in years past, to no avail, and in 2023 have hit the reset button again at multiple positions. Dion Dawkins (LT) and Mitch Morse (C) return as stalwart options at their respective positions while the other three present some questions. Expectations are that Connor McGovern will take over at Left Guard for Rodger Saffold, but injury concerns may have put that plan on hold. At Right Guard rookie O’Cyrus Torrence seems to have won the job and while his size is impressive his footwork will be something to monitor in his first season in the NFL. But it’s the Right Tackle position that the Bills will monitor most closely as the struggling Spencer Brown enters a critical third season. The Bills need average play from that position in 2023, and if Brown can’t provide it, they will likely look elsewhere, but he will have help this season. With the Bills shifting to more 12-personnel, look for Knox to often be paired with Brown and provide a chip as he enters his route. Add to this Kincaid taking pressure off Allen as well as Allen’s elite ability to avoid defenders and the Bills’ one weakness in the passing game should be lessened significantly.
Bills Rush Offense
An oft-ignored aspect of the Bills’ offense is their efficient rushing attack. They finished 2021 and 2022 ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards while boasting an impressive 4.98 Y/A. Both of those numbers of course rely heavily on Allen and his abilities on the ground as he accounted for 34.34% of the Bills yards over that span. It’s the dynamic nature of the Bills rushing attack that keeps opponents guessing though as the RPOs the Bills employ keep opponents on their heels. On any given run play the Bills have the option of sending a Running Back up the middle or having Allen bounce to the edge. In 2023 there is evidence that the Bills could be adding to their run packages in the form of the diamond formation which they have shown numerous times throughout this summer. In order to run that though you need a deep stable of Running Backs, and the Bills may just have their deepest since the McCoy, Williams, Gillislee backfield of 2015.
With the underrated and underappreciated Devin Singletary heading to Houston, the Bills backfield is set to look much different than it has since 2019. Enter the Bills’ new RB1, second-year player, James Cook. Cook is coming off a quietly impressive rookie season where his Y/A of 5.7 ranked only behind Breece Hall (5.8) amongst Running Backs with 80+ carries. A one-cut back with a lot of variances to his game, Cook is starting to see running lanes better and will look to carry the Bills rushing attack in 2023. Behind him are two NFL veterans in Damien Harris and Latavius Murray, each of whom still have plenty of juice left in the tank. For Harris, the biggest concern is a long injury history including multiple hamstring strains, concussions, and lesser injuries like bruised ribs and broken fingers. His health will be monitored all season long but when on the field he produces to the tune of a 4.7 Y/A as well as a 2021 season that saw him rush for 15 touchdowns. Then there’s Latavius Murray, the oldest active Running Back in the NFL, who is much more than just an experienced player. Murray has had 500+ receiving yards in every season since 2015 with 760 last season, his most since 2017. Murray is the downhill runner the Bills have coveted and should eat up some snaps in 2023 as a solid runner, and excellent pass protecter.
Whoever is carrying the ball in 2023 will do so behind what appears to be an improved front. The two new additions at guard in particular bring their own unique value to the Bills rushing attack. Rookie O’Cyrus Torrence (RG) comes to Buffalo as a 6’5” 330lb behemoth that has the functional strength to eat up any Defensive Linemen in the A or B gaps. He projects to be a stationary object which puts an extra reliance on the Bills runners to identify the lane he creates. Helping run through those lanes, or even outside the tackle is the best pulling guard Buffalo has had since Richie Incognito. Connor McGovern is one of the most athletically gifted Guards to ever play in the NFL, posting a 9.77 RAS, and will be used often in space by the Bills. With the Cowboys, McGovern occasionally lined up as a Fullback or Inline Tight End due to his ability to block in space. Expect more of the same from the Guard position as McGovern now paired with Mitch Morse at Center provides the Bills with two unique options as open-field blocking linemen.
Bills Pass Defense
The Bills-Bengals playoff game left a sour taste in the mouths of Bills Mafia, but make no mistake, the Bills’ pass defense was excellent last season. They ranked fourth in Passer Rating Against (82.1) despite being the only team in the NFL to not face a team forced to play their backup Quarterback due to injury during the regular season. They also did this with Micah Hyde (S), Jordan Poyer (S), Tre White (CB), Christian Benford (CB), and Kaiir Elam (CB) missing a combined 38 games. While the expectation in 2023 is that the injury bug won’t bite quite as hard, some changes are expected. Leslie Frazier is out as the Bills Defensive Coordinator and Sean McDermott is now in, signifying some changes in scheme and game planning are on the horizon.
The most glaring change in the scheme seems to be foreshadowed by the addition of Taylor Rapp. A player who started 48 games for the Rams from 2019-2022, Rapp choosing to come to Buffalo despite two All-Pros starting at Safety was an interesting move. He didn’t come to Buffalo to be the Bills’ Nickel Corner either, as Taron Johnson continues to be one of the most versatile defenders in the league and a premier Nickel Corner. What Rapp is expected to provide the Bills is a serious option as a Dime Backer, a personnel grouping the Bills almost never ran in seasons past. In those scenarios, Rapp will join the aforementioned Taron Johnson as well as All-Pros in Hyde, Poyer, and the now healthy Tre White. Questions still remain about who will be manning the other outside CB role though with three options available. Option No. 1 is Dane Jackson, the high-floor solid CB2 who has had a Levi Wallace-esque career arc. Option No. 2 is Christian Benford, an FCS CB out of Villanova whose abilities as a zone corner make him a perfect fit for the Bills zone heavy scheme. Option No. 3 is Kaiir Elam, the Bills first-round Pick from 2023 who excels more in man press coverage and has yet to reach anywhere close to his potential in Buffalo. Thus, the Bills are provided with a floor of Jackson and a ceiling of Kaiir Elam at CB2 which rounds out one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
That secondary should be buffeted by a Bills pass rush which quietly improved this offseason. Von Miller will be a key figure down the stretch for the Bills as their undisputed closer, but due to injury is set to miss the first handful of games this season. In his stead, the Bills starters on the edge will be third-year pro Greg Rousseau and the newly added Leonard Floyd. Rousseau has 12.0 Sacks in his first two seasons while Floyd has 9.0+ Sacks in each of his past three seasons. An above-average duo, Rousseau and Floyd will also be a part of a Bills rotation that has three solid options behind them. That rotation will include A.J. Epenesa who had 6.5 Sacks last season, a proven veteran and edge setter in Shaq Lawson, as well as an intriguing prospect in Kingsley Jonathan whose stable of pass rush moves is a major reason the Bills felt comfortable moving on from Boogie Basham. Add to that a solid interior pass rush which will feature Ed Oliver as well as Jordan Phillips and the Bills may just have the best defensive front they’ve had since the days of the Cold Front.
Bills Rush Defense
By far the biggest loss this season for the Bills was their Middle Linebacker, Tremaine Edmunds, going to Chicago. The now 25-year-old Edmunds had started 82 games for the Bills since being drafted in 2018 racking up 636 tackles in those games. A two-time Pro Bowler, the void left by Edmunds is one the Bills are set to struggle to fill in 2023 and beyond. Buffalo has a plan though, albeit a risky one. It’s one that will rely heavily on more speed at Linebacker, mixing and matching of personnel packages, and stalwart Defensive Tackles consistently winning in the trenches. It’s a gamble for a Bills team that seems set on challenging teams to beat them on the ground while focusing on stopping opponents from doing so through the air.
All of this will put more emphasis on Matt Milano than any season prior. One of the most well-rounded linebackers in the NFL finally got his flowers in 2022 earning first-team All-Pro honors as by far the best player on an elite Bills Defense. Without Edmunds this season Buffalo expects Milano to continue that level of play and be the focal point of the interior of their defense. Who is next to him though remains a major question mark for the Bills. At this point it is down to two players, Tyrel Dodson and Terrel Bernard. The Bills signified their comfort with Dodson after giving him a fully guaranteed $2 million one-year contract but after struggles this preseason confidence seems to be waning. Dodson’s instincts occasionally allow him to find the running gap but far too often he gets sucked into blocks, reads plays too slow, or whiffs on open field tackles. This leaves the enigma that is Terrel Bernard as what may be the only viable option for the Bills at Mike. His weight and frame mark him as an undersized player, but his athleticism and instincts suggest he can handle the role. An injury has prevented Bernard from seeing any action in the preseason but come Week 1 it may very well be he who is the Bills starting Mike, and possibly weakest part of an otherwise well-rounded Bills defense.
Where Bernard becomes less concerning is through the Bills plan at Defensive Tackle in front of him. DaQuan Jones proved last season to be the true 1-tech DT that Sean McDermott has been looking for since taking over in Buffalo. However, due to the Bills rotation and no real 1-tech behind him, the Bills were limited in how consistent they could be last season. This is the primary reason the Bills went out and got yet another true 1-tech this offseason in Poona Ford. At 5’11” 300+ pounds, Ford possesses a low center of gravity that makes it difficult for even double teams to move him off the ball. Ford and Jones now provide Buffalo with two separate players capable of taking on multiple blockers which should only enhance Buffalo’s ability to keep their linebackers clean. Next to them is the $68 million man in Ed Oliver, the frequently unhealthy Jordan Phillips, and intriguing Tim Settle, all of whom should give Buffalo the ability to compete in the trenches. How the Bills contend with the run is the most concerning part of the 2023 version of this team, but with the way the team is structured from a high-scoring offense to elite pass defense, it may not be enough to simply run at the Bills.
Bills Special Teams
It took Tyler Bass all of three years to enter the conversation of him being a top-five Kicker. To accomplish that in such a short time is impressive, to do so playing half your games in one of the worst weather stadiums in the NFL is incredible. Bass’ 97.5% XP rate and 85.6% FG rate are both impressive numbers for a player the Bills can count on to be a consistent weapon all season long. He’s joined on Special Teams by another solid player in Punter Sam Martin who the Bills signed to a three-year extension this offseason. The Bills finished 32nd in punts last season (46) meaning that Martin is rarely called upon, but when he is has been solid.
The Bills also roster a few other players of note that factor into the Punting and Kicking game, outside of long-snapper Reid Ferguson. Both Siran Neal and Tyler Matakevich possess their own defensive positions but in reality, are Special Teams players. Siran Neal is one of the best gunners in the league and Matakevich is one of the best all-around special teams players. Each factored heavily into the Bills giving up the third-fewest Punt Return Yards (145) and third lowest Yard per Kick Return (20.2) last season.
Lastly is the return game which remains a question mark for the Bills. Heading into 2023 the assumption was that Nyheim Hines would handle both Kick and Punt Returns, however, an injury caused by a jet ski has ended Hines’s season. There are a few players on the Bills roster that seem fit for the role, but the most likely candidate must be Deonte Harty. In Harty’s rookie season in 2019, he was named a first-team All-Pro for his abilities as a Punt Returner. In his career he has an impressive 9.8 Y/PR and 25.4 Y/KR as a player capable of altering a game anytime he has a chance to return the ball. In a conference as loaded as the AFC Special Teams will matter, and the Bills have one of the more well-rounded groups.
FLOOR: 10-7, CEILING: 15-2, PREDICTION: 13-4
The Bills are flying under the radar more this season than they have the prior two. While most of the AFC East headlines are about the Dolphins and Jets, the Bills have quietly built a 2023 roster that is arguably better than their 2022 roster. Buffalo will go so far as Josh Allen can take them but with some new wrinkles on both offense and defense, Allen has the potential to take them further this year than in seasons past. While many outside Buffalo are wondering if the Bills will win the AFC East, the Bills look primed to compete for something much more prestigious.