State Of The Franchise

State of the 2021 Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen's team ready to take next step?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Bills organization, Bills fans around the world and those who bought a Bills-inspired bWo T-shirt:

What an amazing year it has been for the Buffalo Bills. At this time in 2020, I stood before you in this very space and told you that you were on the cusp of great things. I even tried to breathe a Super Bowl matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to life. And while the Bills fell short of the ultimate goal -- a championship -- there is reason for unbridled optimism among the Most Amazing Fans In America. Oh, wait. Is that the origin of Bills MAFIA? (I know it's not, but the acronym works, so deal with it.)

How the Bills got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Nearly pulled a Falcons. The Bills had a 28-3 lead over the Rams midway through the third quarter in Week 3, and then found themselves trailing 32-28 late in the fourth quarter. But Josh Allen's 3-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Kroft with 15 seconds remaining gave the Bills the dub. And you won the game, so who cares?
  • REVENGE! The Bills beat the Patriots twice! Buffalo had a nice 2019 season, but was swept by the Pats. The roles were reversed in 2020. The Bills took a squeaker in Week 8 on Tyler Bass' field goal. Then they cruised to a 38-9 win in Week 16.
  • AFC East champs. The Bills captured the division title, ending the Patriots' run of dominance. And then, one year after a quick exit from the 2019 playoffs, they looked pretty confident in knocking off both the Colts and Ravens in the 2020 playoffs to advance to the AFC Championship Game.

The low:

  • So close. The Bills lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Kansas City Chiefs. When you look at the scope of where the Bills have come from (last playoff win was in 1995), it was a tremendous achievement to make a postseason run. But to get that close to the Super Bowl and not get in ... That's like your friend telling you he has club hookups, and then when you get there, you find out he doesn't. You wouldn't be mad if you were sitting at home on your couch. But once you get your hopes up, it kind of stings.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Sean McDermott. I put a lot of faith in Sean last year, deeming him a top-10 NFL coach before the start of the 2020 season. And then he went out there and backed me up by winning NFL Coach of the Year honors. And ... wait a minute. Sean did not win NFL Coach of the Year. That award went to Kevin Stefanski, whose Browns did not make the AFC title game. But then again, it's Cleveland, so making the playoffs was like winning a Super Bowl, so I can't be too mad. Sean is kind of like the NFL's Woody Harrelson, a great actor who you will be surprised to find out has never won an Academy Award. And perhaps Harrelson would be an inspired choice to play McDermott in the film adaptation of his life. Well, maybe Woody is a little too old. Maybe I can play the role.

In any event, Sean is one of the best coaches in the league. Putting him in the top 10 was a hot take a year ago. Now he's safely in that category.

Quarterback: Josh Allen. It's been fun watching Allen become a superstar quarterback. I've been a big fan. To put it in wrestling terms, it's been a lot like the way Bryan Danielson went from indie darling to beloved professional wrestler, climbing the ranks in the WWE. It feels like Allen is right where Bryan was before WrestleMania XXX. You know he's about to make the next step and get to that championship level, even though people dismissed him before he even got a chance to shine.

Allen had 46 total touchdowns last season, second in the NFL behind Aaron Rodgers. He broke most major Bills single-season passing records, a pretty tremendous feat considering the legacy of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Allen became the only quarterback in NFL history with 4,500 passing yards, 35 passing touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns in a single season.

We've moved past the point of debating if he can be a great NFL quarterback. We are now discussing how great he can be.

Projected 2021 MVP: Allen. Allen had more offensive TDs (46) in 2020 than the average of the last five NFL MVPs. He also improved his passer rating by more than 21 points from 2019 to 2020. He needs to keep that momentum going. And there's no reason to believe that he won't do it, as the Bills have committed to bringing in more talent to help get him to that next level. I know, that's a novel concept to some teams. (cough) Green Bay (cough). But the Bills are going for it. Now it's time for Allen to take that next step.

2021 breakout star: Gabriel Davis, wide receiver. The Bills signed 12th-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders, who should be an immediate contributor, but Davis is the receiver I really like to break through for Buffalo this season. You hear a bunch about Chase Claypool and his nine receiving touchdowns, which were great. But did you know Davis was second among rookies with seven touchdown catches? I mean, if you're reading this, you're likely a Bills fan and you know this. But if you're not a Bills Mafia member, that little note probably knocked your socks off. Well, don't put them back on because Davis is going to do it again this season.

New face to know: Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback. I'm a Bears fan. I loved this signing for Buffalo. Mitch was a solid teammate. He tried really hard. And he's kind of like a Kirkland version of Josh Allen. If -- god forbid -- something happens to Josh, you don't have to change the playbook too much for Mitch. He runs. He has a strong arm. And if offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can find a way to reach him the way Bears head coach Matt Nagy couldn't, we could be looking at one of the best redemption stories in the league. In any event, you have one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: REALLY HIGH. This is the most anticipated season for the Bills since the early 1990s. And for good reasons. Many of which I've already discussed in this piece and some that I'm about to get into.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers. There will be a full stadium in upstate New York. The Bills will be coming off their best season in decades, going up against one of the blue bloods of the AFC. I can't think of a better atmosphere for the opening week of the NFL season.
  • Week 5 at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday night). The Chiefs eliminated the Bills from the playoffs last season. I'm not saying that a win here would be payback by Buffalo or anything like that. But it's a great opportunity for the Bills to make a statement. Just don't stumble at home against Houston the week before.
  • Week 8 vs. Miami Dolphins. The Bills have a tough stretch with back-to-back road games against the Chiefs and Titans before a Week 7 bye. This game starts a long stretch leading to the playoffs. It's imperative to get off to a good start in the second half of the season.

Will the Bills be able to …

Get even more out of Stefon Diggs? I mean, is that possible? Diggs was everything you could ever want from trading a first-round pick for a receiver. I mean, think of the receivers who were traded for first-round picks in recent years. You had Odell Beckham Jr., Amari Cooper, DeAndre Hopkins and ... oops. Sorry. Not you, DeAndre. But Diggs was not to be outdone in 2020. He had 166 targets, 127 receptions and 1,535 yards (all league highs in 2020). And all of that felt like it came in Week 16, when I lost one of my numerous fantasy football championship matchups (I went 0-6, by the way) as Diggs went off for 9/145/3. He was also the first player in the Super Bowl era to lead the league in receiving yards in his first season with a new team. It's true. I just looked it up (hat tip to NFL Research). I'm not sure he's going to duplicate those numbers in 2021, but there is no doubt Diggs should be mentioned with some of the best receivers in the game.

Develop a bell-cow running back? Although the better question might be, does it even matter? The Bills have Devin Singletary, a player I liked a lot coming off his rookie season in 2019. Then they drafted Zack Moss in 2020. And yet, their best goal-line back was Josh Allen, who had as many rushing touchdowns (8) as the team's running backs combined. Singletary led the Bills in carries (156) and rushing yards (687), with Moss behind him. Singletary went from averaging 5.1 yards per carry in 2019 to 4.4 in 2020. However, the Bills' backs are tough runners. They averaged 3.1 yards after contact per carry, which tied for seventh-most in the NFL.

Fun fact: The Bills might want to feature Moss a bit more in 2021. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry in games when he had at least 10 carries. He went for 3.7 per carry in games when he had fewer than 10 rushes. So maybe give him a few more totes? I'm also saying this because I'm drafting Moss a lot in fantasy leagues.

Get the defense back to being dominant? The Bills allowed 7.2 more points per game in 2020 than they did in 2019. Not that the defense was terrible in 2020, mind you. The Bills ranked second in points allowed in 2019 (16.2) but were in the middle of the pack last season (23.4). They allowed the third-most points of any 2020 playoff team (only the Titans and Browns gave up more). However, they did tighten it up in the second half of the year. Buffalo allowed 8.2 fewer points per game after the Week 11 bye.

The Bills need to improve in putting pressure on the quarterback. They did not have a player with more than five sacks in 2020. But the team did address this issue in the draft, picking Miami edge rusher Greg Rosseau in the first round and Wake Forest DE Boogie Basham in Round 2. And if there ever was a name that sounded like it belonged to a player destined to become a Bill, it's Boogie Basham. And Rousseau, who opted out of the 2020 season, was second in the FBS to only Chase Young with 15.5 sacks in 2019. He's one of three Power Five players to record at least 15 sacks in a season since 2018, joining Young and Josh Allen. (No, not the Bills' Josh Allen).

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: Josh Allen is pretty good at throwing deep. I know people have knocked Allen for his accuracy in the past. But he had 26 deep completions (20-plus air yards) in 2020, per Next Gen Stats, after having 28 in the previous two seasons combined. The Bills had four different players with at least five deep receptions in 2020: Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, John Brown (who signed with the Raiders this offseason) and Stefon Diggs. The Bucs were the only other team with four such players.

... people are overthinking: Allen runs too much. Allen is one of three quarterbacks with 1,500-plus rushing yards and 15 or more rushing touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons. The other two are Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson. Both are former NFL MVPs. Allen needs nine rushing touchdowns in 2021 to surpass Cam for the most by a quarterback in his first four seasons. He's had at least eight in each of his first three seasons.

... people are overlooking, part II: How explosive the Bills were on offense. The Bills averaged a team-record 31.3 points per game in 2020, which was second in the NFL to the Packers. I mean, it makes sense for two teams that play in the coldest conditions to score the most points, right?

... people are overthinking, part II: The team's offseason interest in Rob Gronkowski. The Bills did make a run at Gronk in free agency, but he re-signed with Tampa Bay. Last year, I openly wondered if Dawson Knox could be the Bills' version of Gronk. He kind of wasn't. Knox led the Buffalo tight ends with 24 receptions for 288 yards and three touchdowns (one of them came against the Broncos when I started him in fantasy, though). He also has the highest drop percentage (18.2) among all players with 75 or more targets since 2019. But I'm bullheaded and feel like he could still be their Gronk. I really do want to believe that.

... people are overthinking, part III: A slight regression for Tre'Davious White. White saw his numbers fall in interceptions and passes defensed last season. He held quarterbacks to a passer rating of 43.0 in 2019, but that ballooned to 91.7 last year, per PFF. Still, the Bills didn't panic. They didn't use a high draft pick on a corner. And honestly, if the Bills can get to the quarterback with more consistency in 2021, White's numbers are going to go back to 2019 levels.

For 2021 to be a success, the Bills MUST:

  • I mean, it feels like getting to the Super Bowl is a must, right? I love winning the AFC East. The Bills just won the division title for the first time since 1995. And getting back to the AFC Championship Game would be amazing. Five teams have made it to back-to-back AFC title games since 2000. But these Bills have to take the next step this time ... right?

In closing

It's here, Buffalo. A lot of times, I caution fan bases to temper their expectations (... which I rarely do when it comes to my own team). But for Bills fans, I say GO WILD. It's like when my 2-year-old boy gets on the arm of the couch and is about to do a frog splash or coffin drop onto his sister. I know I should tell him not to do it. But sometimes you just have to let them have their fun.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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