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State of the Franchise: Bills viable playoff contenders in 2019

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Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams over the next few weeks, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Bills organization, fans of the team around the world and those who like to take ECW-style bumps through burning tables:

Bills fans have a lot to be excited about right now. I know there have been some rough times. It might have seemed like a lifetime ago that the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith were out there doing their thing. But it just feels like the Bills are getting closer to breaking through.

How the Bills got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.

The highs:

-- Destroying the Vikings, 27-6, in Week 3. This game was in Minnesota, mind you. Josh Allen had this amazing run that I don't even need to link to here, because you can close your eyes and remember it. The Vikings didn't make the playoffs last season, and you can directly link that outcome to this game. I mean, the Bears swept them, but this was supposed to be such an easy win for the Vikings and the Bills crushed them. They never recovered.

-- Josh Allen in Week 17. I'll get to this in a moment. But it was pretty awesome.

The low point:

-- Vontae Davis retired during the Bills' Week 2 game. It was pretty wild. Davis later revealed he was out on the field in the second quarter and it hit him that he didn't want to be on the field any more. He told his position coach, "I'm done." Now, you can make your jokes and wonder how somebody could walk away from all of that money. But it's Davis putting his body on the line, so I'm going to respect the decision. People had a lot of hot takes about the situation and it was not the kind of publicity the Bills wanted.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Sean McDermott. Maybe it's because I'm prone to stick up for a fellow bald guy, but McDermott is one of the most impressive coaches in the league. That might seem weird to say about a guy who has a career record of 15-17. But let's really dive into that, shall we? He kind of shocked the world when the Bills won nine games during his first year on the job and made the playoffs with a team that started Nathan Peterman at quarterback for two games. And while starting Peterman, the quarterback equivalent of a pratfall, was kind of his own doing, he still won a game with him. And winning six games last season might have been an even more impressive feat when you consider the Buffalo roster. So it's fair to say McDermott is getting the most out of his talent. He's almost like a "Top Chef" contestant who is given an egg, a bag of parsley and a bottle of hot sauce to turn into a meal. The dish might not be ready for a Michelin rating just yet, but it's still pretty good.

Quarterback: Josh Allen. The Bills paid a significant price for Allen, giving up three picks to move up five spots to select him seventh overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. I loved him during his rookie season, from a fantasy football perspective, because his running ability and athleticism made him unique. But he did struggle as a passer last year. He was last in the NFL with a 52.8 completion percentage among 33 qualifiers at his position. He was second to last in passing yards per game (172.8), TD-INT ratio (10:12) and passer rating (67.9). So, there is room for improvement. Allen did finish his rookie season with his best game as a pro. He threw for 224 yards with three touchdowns and an interception against the Dolphins. He also rushed for 95 yards with two touchdowns. Dude accounted for five touchdowns in that game. This was like when you're playing golf and you birdie on the 18th hole and want to keep playing, even though your overall score was in the triple digits.

Projected 2019 MVP: Allen. I mean, the season comes down to Allen. The Bills' defense should be really good. But if Allen can't put it together this season, then it's going to be a long, long year. I'm not expecting vintage Jim Kelly or anything. If he can find a fine line somewhere between peak Kelly and peak Peterman, that should get the job done.

2019 breakout star: Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker. The Bills also invested a lot in Edmunds, trading up to draft him 16th overall in 2018. And like Allen, he had some struggles out of the gate. But he really started to put it together toward the end of the season, and was starting to look like one of the best linebackers in the league. I don't want to get into the "best shape of his life" hyperbole that gives fans too much hope in the offseason. But Edmunds was a lean 20-year-old last season, and now he's starting to grow into his body. And I don't want to point out that he was a rookie last year, but not enough to keep me from doing it. Edmunds will become one of the young leaders of this defense. He finished the season with 121 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. He was one of two rookies to have at least two forced fumbles and an interception last year. The other was Darius Leonard. Ever heard of him? Of course you have. But Edmunds was the youngest player since at least 2000 to have 100 tackles in a season. He's going to be better this year.

New face to know: Frank Gore, running back. When I did my very first fantasy league back in eighth grade at Raney Junior High School, my first pick was Gore. OK, not really, but it's been an amazing ride for him, to say the least. Gore will join LeSean McCoy, T.J. Yeldon and rookie Devin Singletary to form one of the deepest and most veteran running back groups going. But Gore is a cheap, no-risk flier who was pretty solid for the Dolphins last season. He seems like one of those running backs you don't want to tackle in those cold months in Buffalo. You know, September. So I really like this fit.

Gore is now 36 years old. Only two players in NFL history have rushed for more than 300 yards after turning 36. Those guys are Marcus Allen (1,335) and John Riggins (677). Both dudes are in the Hall of Fame. Gore's perfectly capable of becoming the third back to accomplish the feat.

Another new face to know: John Brown, wide receiver. Josh Allen attempted deep passes at the highest rate in the league in 2018, according to Next Gen Stats. He led the league in air yards per attempt (11.0), air distance per attempt (23.9), average time to throw (3.22 seconds) and deep pass attempt percentage (18.1). I feel like I could have just written, "he likes to throw deep" and you would have gotten the point. But now he has a legit threat to actually catch those passes in Brown, who has been one of my favorite players for some time now. Brown averaged 16.3 air yards per target last season (fifth-most among receivers with at least 50 targets) with the Ravens. He accounted for 54 percent of the team's deep air yards (targets of 20-plus air yards) last year. I like the potential of this combination.

2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: MEDIUM. The Bills snapped a 17-season playoff drought back in 2017. But whenever the Patriots are in your division, you're given a little bit of cover for such struggles. I think it's important for the Bills to make a playoff run this year, though. The AFC has some good teams. But the Bills could sneak in as a wild card. Here's something you might not know: The Bills have not won the AFC East since 1995, when they went 10-6. Tupac released "All Eyez on Me" in 1996. The Bills' 23-season division title drought is the third longest in the NFL behind only the Browns (26) and Lions (25).

Will the Bills be able to ...

Sort things out at running back? We discussed Frank Gore. And then there is the incumbent RB1, LeSean McCoy. They also signed T.J. Yeldon this offseason. And Yeldon is all super confident that he can earn a meaningful role in a "heated competition." Which is the kind of thing you say when you're the third-best guy in the group. Because Yeldon is clearly the Krist Novoselic of this trio. You know what? Yeldon actually might be fourth in the pecking order. I'm really smitten with rookie RB Devin Singletary. I kind of feel like we're going to be watching the Devin Singletary "A Football Life" 20 years from now, and it's going to start off with how he was up against these three great running backs in camp but ended up being the best of the best.

And by the way, you might notice the Bills ranked ninth last year in rushing yards per game (124.0) and wonder why they added three new guys at running back. But remember, a lot of that production came from Allen, who ended up rushing for 631 yards last season.

Count on Ed Oliver to be the man up front as they replace Kyle Williams on the defensive line? Williams retired this offseason after 13 years with the Bills. He was the longest-tenured Bills player and a six-time Pro Bowl selectee. So the Bills will turn to Oliver, who was surprisingly still available when the Bills were on the clock with the ninth overall pick in this year's draft (thanks in part to the Giants using the sixth pick on Eli's doppelganger, Daniel Jones). It was kind of weird the way that worked out, but it was good for the Bills. Oliver had 54 tackles for loss from 2016-18, second most among FBS players. However, the Bills have not had much success in developing their drafted defensive linemen into Pro Bowl players. Only three such Bills picks over the last 30 years have made the Pro Bowl -- Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Aaron Schobel.

So, Oliver needs to contribute right away. The Bills generated a 10% pressure rate from the interior last season. That was third worst in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. The Bills also ranked 26th in the NFL with 36 sacks last year. The Bills' defensive tackles have combined for just 11 sacks over the last two seasons. Oliver had 8.5 during that span for the Houston Cougars. Welcome to the team, Oliver. Now you have to go out there and crush.

Use their defense to overtake the Patriots? I'm not going to be the guy who says the the Patriots are done. That won't be me. But if there is a team in the division that could overtake the Patriots in the AFC East, the Bills would be one of my top three choices. (I know what I said.) And the reason why I say that is the Bills' defense. The Bills ranked second in total defense last year (294.1 yards allowed per game). They ranked first in pass defense, thanks in part to Tre'Davious White, who was one of two players with a defensive passer rating below 75.0 (71.8) and two or fewer touchdowns allowed in coverage on 70-plus targets. The other was Brandon Carr.

The team also signed DE Jerry Hughes to a two-year extension. Kind of risky given his age (he'll turn 31 next month), but I'll allow it. He's recorded 42 sacks since joining the Bills in 2013 and pressured the quarterback on 16.2% of his pass rushes in 2018, the highest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats.

But it's a big ask to beat the Patriots. The Bills are 4-32 against the Patriots in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Two of those Bills wins came with Brady on the bench. And Brady is 4-0 against the Bills over the last two years, despite having thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) in those matchups while carrying a 82.5 passer rating. Maybe we should be asking whether the offense can do enough to make the Patriots pay. So let's change the question.

Score enough points to overtake the Patriots? Probably not.

Three key dates

-- Week 1 at the Jets. The Bills open the season with a stretch of winnable games, including staying in their home state to visit the Jets and Giants in back-to-back weeks. And yes, I realize those teams play in the Meadowlands in New Jersey, but work with me here.

-- Week 4 vs. the Patriots. As I mentioned earlier, the Bills haven't fared well against the Patriots in recent history. We can dive into that further down. But there is a good chance the Bills could be 3-0 at this point.

-- Week 14 vs. the Ravens. If the Bills are going to make the playoffs, they're probably going to need to find a way to win during a three-game stretch that starts with the Ravens and concludes with roadies in Pittsburgh and New England.

One storyline people are overlooking: The Bills' receivers are pretty good. I already professed my love for John Brown. He's the only guy on the roster who has posted 1,000 receiving yards in a season (he had 1,003 for the Cardinals in 2015). But the team also signed slot ace Cole Beasley and veteran Andre Roberts. Zay Jones is back after leading the team in receiving last season. And the dude I'm probably the most infatuated with is Robert Foster. This guy should not have gone undrafted in 2018. Foster is the best receiver on this roster. And with some talent around him, he's going to be able to flourish. I feel weird loving on this Bills roster so much with the way they have struggled offensively, but they could be really good.

One storyline people are overthinking: The offensive line shuffle. Pro Football Focus was not super kind to the Bills in its preseason O-line rankings (the Bills were 19th). Which is fair. The team could have four new starters up front in 2019 -- Quinton Spain, Mitch Morse, Ty Nsekhe and Cody Ford. Morse might be the most intriguing because the Bills paid him $26.5 million guaranteed and he's had trouble staying healthy. But if he develops chemistry with Allen and the rest of the line, look out.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Bills MUST ...

-- Help Josh Allen take another step in his development.

-- Contend for a playoff spot.

The Bills are in a situation similar to the one the Jets find themselves in. Obviously, you want to win the Super Bowl. It's not like any team would ever turn that down. And let's not talk about what Mike Vrabel would do for it. But really, the most important thing for the Bills this season is finding out what you have in Josh Allen. Any team with a second-year signal-caller is going to look at what Jared Goff and Mitch Trubisky did in Year 2 and say, "why can't our guy do that?" If Allen comes out and shows that he can be a solid QB1, it'll be a great season for the Bills.

In closing

The AFC seemingly starts every year with 15 teams playing for five playoff spots. But the Bills have the talent to compete for one of those spots. None of their offseason moves were super-high profile like getting OBJ or something. But I really do believe the offensive additions were kind of low-key good and this team could surprise people.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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