The next NFL game is real, and it’s the Buffalo Bills versus the Los Angeles Rams Rams! Bills Mafia is rightly aflame with optimism for the regular season and anticipated long playoff run, but anyone who has been a Bills’ fan for any length of time has seen their little light get snuffed out in some cruel, twisted, happiness-doesn’t-live-here-anymore ways. While this article won’t feed your cynical paranoia, we will look at four areas to watch. Should these issues burn bright, the Bills will likely have the season we are all hoping for. Should they flame out, the Bills will still be good but will struggle more than many expect possible.
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OL Health and Depth
Brandon Beane has worked to build the OL depth year over year, and the 2022 OL will be the most complete, deepest version that has played in front of Josh Allen. That said, the first bucket of water tossed on the 2022 season was the announcement that free agent G Rodger Saffold had been in a car accident during the offseason and would miss the beginning of training camp. Saffold returned to get full starters’ snaps in the preseason game against the Broncos, but that injury was the first signal flare to draw attention to OL depth.
The second flare was learning about Spencer Brown’s surgery, believed to be on his back. He too has returned, but he is still working his way back to 100%, and we have seen David Quessenberry getting run with the starters. Quessenberry is a solid option and speaks to the efforts Beane has put into building the line’s depth, but last year was the first time he’d played a full season in his four year career.
Another is the sword of Damocles that is Mitch Morse’s concussion history. Morse has taken more than 90% of snaps for the last two seasons and started every game in 2021, but concussions are notoriously tricky, cumulative, and their potential lifelong impact presents serious considerations for players who suffer them. Morse’s concussions have not been a topic for a while, but it only takes one wrong hit for the Bills to be without one of the best movement centers in the NFL.
Josh Allen keeps the torches burning regardless of line play as well as any QB in the league and had the lowest percentage of pressures turned into sacks. PFF tracks a statistic called Pressure Into Sacks (P2S%), and Allen was the league leader among QBs who took 50% of snaps at 10.6%. He mitigates OL mistakes with mobility, physicality, and a flame-thrower attached to his right shoulder, but fans should still light a prayer candle for the OL starters’ health because none of us wants to see Allen getting hit repeatedly over the course of the season.
The offensive line is like kindling: it has to be set right or you’re never getting those s’mores.
Punt Returner/Kick Returner
Return duties for the Bills are still pretty wide open as far as those of us outside the team know. The most likely options are Isaiah McKenzie, Khalil Shakir, a surprise, or Micah Hyde. Marquez Stevenson’s foot surgery extinguishes him as an option for now. With the ball securely in his hands, Isaiah McKenzie is a dynamic returner, but his history of questionable decisions and ball insecurity can’t be ignored. Maybe McKenzie has solved those issues while he has continued to develop. Maybe he won’t get the chance to prove it because he has become too important on offense, and McDermott keeps him away from returning.
Shakir has gotten early chances as a returner. The clip below demonstrates his movement skills, but he only had 31 total returns across his four years at Boise State.
Is a rookie who is also an inexperienced returner the safest option for a championship run? He has Bruce Nolan’s seal of approval, and that’s a solid endorsement, but with every rookie, it has to be proven in regular season games.
Khalil Shakir continues to field punts confidently and securely which, when you have an offense like the Bills do, is the majority of the job.
— Bruce Nolan (@BruceExclusive) August 20, 2022
The flip side of Shakir is Hyde. McDermott has trusted him with job in times of need before, and Hyde will make smart, safe decisions as a returner. That’s pretty much all though. Even if Hyde could push for more return yardage, it is less than ideal to have a critically important player risking injury on returns.
DL Growth and Rotation
Each of the last three offseasons have included significant changes or additions to the defensive line. The Bills brought in the most talented player the DL has had since Bruce Smith in Von Miller, however not even a first-ballot Hall of Famer guarantees the defensive front will excel immediately. Each year Beane has added new pieces to the line it has taken players and coaches a period of adjustment to determine the rotational pairings that work best, the timing and coordination for stunts, communication, etc. The DL is not as interconnected a group as an offensive line, but it is an interwoven collection that includes several new players and more in new roles. DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle, and Miller are all brand new while AJ Epenesa and Boogie Basham will need to take on increased responsibility. Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson are in their second stint with the Bills but will need to get reacclimated and integrated along with new players. Think of it this way – of the likely nine players rostered on the DL, only Ed Oliver and Greg Rousseau return to similar roles.
Tre White’s Recovery
We know very little concrete information about CB1’s recovery from an ACL tear. Speculation has run rampant in parts of the Bills’ fan universe with everything from he’ll be back for Week 1 to he won’t play until Week 8 at the earliest. None of us know. Repeat: none of us know. Dr. Kyle Trimble gives an excellent breakdown of the factors considered in determining if a player is ready to return from an ACL tear, and he projected a Week 2 return for White. Even he admits this is an educated guess.
Even if the exact date of White’s return was known, his play level when he gets back on the field is not. White might be able to play before he has fully recovered, and White at 80% of himself would be a very good CB, but the Bills’ hopefully long playoff run is the most important time to have White healthy. Waiting longer for his return to ensure a 100% White for the playoffs more dependence on Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elam, and the rest of the cornerback group.
Jackson played well above expectations for a seventh-round draft pick when he replaced White beginning in Week 12. From Week 12 through Week 18, Jackson gave up 15 receptions on 29 targets, a reception percentage of 51.7% (PFF). That percentage, if maintained across a full season, would have ranked eighth best among all CBs with 50% of snaps (PFF). More than one-third of the season is a sample size that can be trusted, but most of the opponents the Bills faced in those weeks were not dynamic passing attacks. NO with Trevor Simien, NEx2, CAR, ATL, and NYJ with Tampa Bay being the lone exception in Week 14. Jackson couldn’t control who the opponent was, and he played well, but it leaves room for questions about how he might fare versus teams like the Rams, Packers, Chiefs, and Vikings.
A rookie is probably manning the other CB spot while White is out, whether it is Elam or Christian Benford. Please refer to the note above about rookies having to prove it.
Some might be surprised to see the situation surrounding Matt Araiza not mentioned here. As terrible as those circumstances are, the Bills correctly released him. We all hope justice is done, and the distraction had to be removed. The reason this issue will hopefully not be a concern for the Bills’ season is the strength and focus of the locker room. Players like Micah Hyde, Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse, and Allen will help keep the team focused on their goals. Football dreams are trivial compared to what Araiza has been accused of, and compartmentalization will be required, but they are not ignoring the issue: they have a job to do and their team-leadership will keep them on-task. For us as fans, we need to decide as individuals how to respond, and we should have that discussion, but that is an entirely different discussion than this article addresses.
The football concerns listed above should not dampen your excitement for the 2022 season, as the Bills are one of the best teams in the NFL, but no roster is perfect, and plans are made to be changed, and every opponent gets a say. Even the best roster in the NFL is composed of humans and led by people – there will be mistakes and disappointments. If the potential football problems listed above flare up, keep them in perspective. Worrying about who the punt returner will be is a far cry from the state of the organization as little as six years ago. Keep a broad context, and when problems do spark up, instead of merely complaining about them, pay attention to how the team works to address them. We’ll become smarter fans in the process, and appreciate the team and their efforts – despite being imperfect – all the more.