The Buffalo Bills closed out their turbulent 2023 NFL season with a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL Divisional Round. This season went through so many highs and lows, injuries, and surprises that there are too many to list. One part of the team that wasn’t subject to those wild swings was the offensive line. The Bills’ starting five offensive linemen—Dion Dawkins, Connor McGovern, Mitch Morse, O’Cyrus Torrence, and Spencer Brown—played more snaps together than any offensive line group in the NFL this season (835). To put that in perspective, five teams (CAR, CHI, MIA, SEA, and NYJ) each had their most common group of linemen not reach 200 hundred snaps together with the New York Jets having the lowest cohesiveness with their most frequent five linemen at just 146 snaps as a unit. That kind of upheaval disrupts communication, increases confusion, and reaches deep into a team’s depth. Let’s look at how well the OL performed in our first review of positional groups.
Position Group Season Reviews
To finish out the 2023 season, each position group will be reviewed, and a projection will be given for 2024 starters with a look at contract status. The hope is to get a realistic grasp on how each position group performed now that there is a little distance between us and the close of the season—an immediate reaction to the defensive line as a group would be tainted by disappointing play against the Chiefs. As we enter the offseason and player acquisition period, it’s important to know where the Bills stand to generate an idea of where they might go.
In early December, we declared it was time to pay attention to how well the Bills’ OL was doing protecting Josh Allen and creating lanes for James Cook and the other running backs. Offensive linemen tend to go unnoticed when they are performing at a solid level. We all love watching Allen be amazing, Cook weave and slither, Dalton Kincaid develop into a smooth criminal, and all the other skill position players go full highlight reel with the ball in their hands. We get distracted from the stoic wall that makes those plays possible in the first place. We don’t pay attention to the OL until a free rusher comes screaming in trying to separate Allen’s head from his body, and then we’re disgusted by them. Let’s take a few minutes to recognize how they played when we weren’t muttering under our breath about them.
Simply put, the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line was the best that has played in front of Allen, and, outside of quarterback, was arguably the best position group on the team. That argument has to include injuries as one of the factors, but the OL’s level of play and dependability were critical assets to a team that fluctuated and didn’t know who was playing where so many times. They weren’t perfect. Monster-sized defensive tackles make life harder on Morse, and Brown and Torrence need to work on recognizing and adjusting to different types of stunts, but numerous stats below show a group that had an exceptional season.
There are two primary components to OL play, obviously pass protection and run blocking. The chart below assesses both of those areas. Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) is a PFF Signature stat measuring pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks allowed, and Adjusted Line Yards is a rushing metric designed to separate OL performance and RB performance. The Bills were top five in each.
The Bills’ OL wasn’t just good in two separate stats, though. Just two statistics could simply be cherry-picking, but a cultivated group of statistics can be used to capture as full a picture as possible. The graph below represents each team’s average score against the number of snaps each team’s most common OL unit played together.
Snaps of the most common unit were selected because they help present a sense of total impact and relate to the old offensive line mantras about consistency. Turns out some of those old Howard Mudd sayings must’ve had a grain of truth. The Bills rank first in overall average. For the season, the Bills had the most positive impact from their offensive line play.
You might be wondering about the statistics that were chosen. Here’s the overall chart:
These numbers were pulled from PFF, ESPN, Sumer Sports, Sports Info Solutions, and FTN.
If you aren’t already certain there is a connection between OL play and a team’s success, this next chart should help convince you. Looking at each OL group’s overall EPA against Pressures Allowed led to a fairly distinctive trendline.
The teams in red text were playoff teams this season. Twelve of this season’s playoff teams come in above this trendline, and there are only two above that didn’t make the playoffs, Seattle and Tennessee. The two teams that made the playoffs by bucking this trend, were Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Cleveland had a tremendous team defense this season, and the Steelers…well, the Steelers continue their inexplicability under Head Coach Mike Tomlin.
One area to hopefully see improvement in is holding penalties. The Bills had 22 holding penalties this season, which was the fifth most in the NFL (SIS), and they had the most holding penalties on pass plays, tying with the Giants at 18. The 22 overall includes two by Dawson Know and one by Dalton Kincaid, but this is an area for growth when compared to their positional peers. The parenthetical numbers are the number of players included in that position (LT, LG, C, RG, RT).
Holding could be called on every play in the NFL, so some of this is a product of bad luck and how many pass attempts the Bills make, but holding calls kill drives almost as effectively as sacks do.
What about their play as individuals? It is incredibly difficult to parse out each lineman’s effectiveness on any given play. While PFF does a fantastic job with statistics, there is too much inconsistency, uncertainty, and shenanigans around their grades to give them much significance. There is a much less well-known metric that attempts to answer the public’s desire for an understandable evaluation tool that might actually be much closer to the mark than PFF’s grades. Total Points Earned (TPE) by Sports Info Solutions (SIS) is derived from Expected Points Added and tries to assign a portion of the EPA from a play to each player for their respective role within that play. Here’s the definition of TPE for Blocking from SIS:
The Bills’ linemen performed incredibly by this metric. This rank listed below is for points earned compared to all blockers with ten or more blocking snaps, including TE.
Each Bills’ starter finished within the top 25 of all blockers in the NFL by TPE, and McGovern led the entire league. There were several points this year where Leonard Floyd was touted as Brandon Beane’s best FA signing leading into this year. Floyd was sensational for the first three-quarters of the season, but his fade in the final weeks might give that title to McGovern.
We can also look at the responsibility for pressures allowed by individual positions. This statistic is harder to identify for teams that didn’t have the consistency and injury luck the Bills did, but the positions are almost a 1:1 correspondence for Buffalo.
Allen had the best pressure-to-sack rate, only allowing 10% of his pressures to become sacks, but pressures he bore some responsibility for was tied for fifth highest with Daniel Jones at 20%. Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes actually have a higher percentage of pressure responsibility, so it is not necessarily a “bad” score, but we should remember that how long Allen holds onto the ball and his out-of-structure plays can create pressures that are not the sole fault of the OL.
Next Season and Beyond
The whole starting OL is in place for 2024, and that is great news. For right now, McGovern and Torrence are the only players locked in beyond next season. Dawkins is an easy extension candidate, as is Morse, even if the additional term is only another year for the center. After the year he just had, Brown made himself an extension possibility as well. Bates is probably on the path to becoming Morse’s successor at center, but the depth will likely see high turnover again and a mix of incoming value-priced free agents and late-round draft picks. Having a successful starting OL that is fully under contract for next season is a positive and remarkably stable place.