State Of The Franchise

State of the Franchise: Bills poised to take next step, win AFC East

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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 of you who can't really enjoy a Bills game unless you do a Tommy Dreamer-like table bump:

What an exciting time to be a fan of the Buffalo Bills. Not only is your team poised for greatness, you no longer have to see Tom Brady. That man is going to haunt the dreams of Bills fans for years to come, but you don't have to worry about him anymore. Well, unless you get to the Super Bowl and have to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- and I just can't believe I said that. But before we put you in the Super Bowl, let's take a step back.

How the Bills got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Starting the season 3-0. Tre'Davious White made an interception in the closing seconds to thwart a Bengals drive and take the 21-17 victory.
  • Micah Hyde taking an onside-kick to the house to secure a Week 7 win. That play sealed the victory over the Dolphins, and the team improved to 5-1.
  • Going on the road to beat the Steelers in Week 15 on Sunday Night Football. The win gave the Bills a playoff berth -- their second in three years under Sean McDermott. The 10 wins were the most for the Bills in a single season since 1999 (11).
  • Making the playoffs. To the surprise of no one who listened to our own Michael Robinson, who called this from the start.

The lows:

  • Still getting swept by the Patriots. Yes, the playoffs were already assured in Week 16, but at some point, you need to beat the Patriots. Week 4 was especially gutting, losing at home when both teams were undefeated. Jamie Collins intercepted Matt Barkley in the closing minutes to seal the game for the Patriots. Starter Josh Allen left the game with a head injury in the fourth quarter.
  • Losing a winnable playoff game on the road in Houston. The Bills had that last-minute stop on fourth down to give them one more chance. Allen rallied them to tie and send the game into overtime (we won't talk about the Dawson Knox lateral). And then some unpleasantness happened. Don't get me started on that "blind-side" block that pushed the Bills out of field-goal range in overtime, either.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Sean McDermott. He's a top-10 coach in my book. And yes, I realize I say that as a member of the bald community. I'll always stump for my fellow balds. Guys like The Rock. Stone Cold Steve Austin. And, well, not you anymore, Brian Urlacher. But this goes beyond McDermott being follicle-challenged. I said he was one of the most impressive coaches in the NFL heading into last year, which many thought was puzzling, considering he had a 15-17 career mark at the time. But he had been working with a high degree of difficulty. That difficulty being guys like Nathan Peterman.

Let's remember, though, how far this team has come. The Bills were miserable under Rex Ryan, but Sean took over that first year and led them to the playoffs. The 2018 season, well, that was a disaster. But those things happen. Look at what he did last year. He led the Bills to their first 10-win season since 1999. That was the year The Sopranos started on HBO. And this is the first year the Bills are going into a season and you're thinking to yourself, Oh man, they have a squad. This is a prove-it year, for sure. I have no doubt that by the end of this season, Sean gets talked about in those circles as one of the top coaches in the game.

Quarterback: Josh Allen. I'm not here for any slander of Allen. I'm a fan. It was awful to watch some of his decisions in the final moments of that playoff loss to the Texans. The lateral to Dawson Knox (sorry, I wasn't going to mention that) was puzzling. But sometimes young players get caught up in the moment. Sometimes you get Patrick Mahomes throwing left-handed for a first down. Sometimes you get what happened in Houston. But remember, he still managed to get them into field-goal range to send the game into overtime. And again, in overtime, he had them set up for the potential overtime winner when a penalty pushed them out of range. Before you bring up that brutal sack on fourth down against the Texans in the fourth-quarter, I'll remind you that Allen rallied the Bills for the tie after that.

And let's take a moment to look at some of Allen's numbers. He doubled his win total in his second year to improve to 15-12 as a starter. He's the only player in NFL history with 15 quarterback wins and 15 rushing touchdowns over his first two seasons. Allen (30 touchdown passes, 17 rushing touchdowns) joined his new division rival Cam Newton (40, 22) as the only players in NFL history with at least 30 touchdown passes and 15 rushing touchdowns over their first two seasons. If you're getting compared to Newton, you're doing pretty well for yourself. Again, I'm not going to stand for the slander.

Projected 2020 MVP: Allen. Listen, Bills fans, I don't say this lightly. But you have to understand there are a lot of similarities between this team and where the Bears were last season. The Bills have a rock-solid defense that is the identity of the team. Now it comes down to the quarterback. Buffalo made a huge splash in the offseason to help the quarterback (we'll get to that in a minute) get to that next level -- and he's going to need to get to that level.

New face to know: Stefon Diggs, wide receiver. And here is that move! The Bills sent a bevy of picks, including this year's first-rounder, for the uber-talented Diggs -- which sounds like a lot but was worth it. I mean, it only sounds like a lot because you wonder if the Bills had offered the Texans Frank Gore and a second, could they have received DeAndre Hopkins? But I really love this move for the Bills. Diggs, who had 63 catches for 1,130 yards last year, is perfect for their offense, the kind of field-stretcher who will work well with Allen. Diggs had 15 deep receptions (most in the league) in 2019, per Next Gen Stats. His 12.0 air yards per target were second in the NFL (min. 15 targets). And Allen attempted a deep pass on 15.5 percent of his passes over his first two seasons, highest in the NFL.

Another face to know: Mario Addison, defensive end. This kind of flew under the radar during the offseason. The Bills would like to get more pressure on the quarterback, and Addison is a double-digit sack guy (well, almost -- he had 39.5 over the past four years, so sue me) who is going to come in and make an immediate impact. Moves like the Diggs acquisition will no doubt generate headlines because a lot of us are fantasy football enthusiasts, but this might have been a more significant football move.

2020 breakout star: Ed Oliver, defensive tackle. Oliver made a big impact during his rookie season and finished the year with five sacks. Which is pretty good for an interior lineman. And as an added spark for Bills fans, he was a much better player than Quinnen Williams, whom the Jets took with the third overall pick. Oliver should see more snaps from the 3-spot now that Jordan Phillips is in Arizona. Plus, with so much talent on the defensive line, there is a good chance he can become a dominant presence in the middle -- like the Bills' version of Aaron Donald.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. McDermott has two playoff appearances in his first three seasons, and remember, I'm already putting him in the top 10 of NFL coaches. Many consider the Bills the most talented team in the division.

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 vs. Rams. The Bills open up with two AFC East games, but the first true test for the defense will happen in Week 3 when they play host to Sean McVay's Rams.
  • Week 6 vs. Chiefs. Speaking of measuring sticks, the Bills will welcome the defending Super Bowl champs. I'm asking you, when was the last time the defending Super Bowl champions came to Buffalo? Oh yeah, last season, when the Patriots came to town. I don't know why I thought that was going to be such a draw. But any game with Patrick Mahomes and Josh is going to be fun.
  • Week 8 vs. Patriots. This is a brutal stretch that starts with that Rams game and includes playoff contenders like the Raiders, Titans, Chiefs and then the Patriots. And as I previously pointed out, that early season loss to the Pats stung last year, especially when Allen wasn't on the field at the end. This will be the first meeting of the year between these teams.

Will the Bills be able to ...

Continue to build one of the best young defenses in the game? The Bills were third in total defense last year and second in scoring defense, having allowed 16.2 points per game, the fewest by a Bills team since 1999. But what should concern other AFC East teams is that the Bills could be even better in 2020. Tre'Davious White is one of the best corners in the game. He tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions, becoming the first Bills player to lead the league in interceptions since ... 1999! Just kidding. That would have been perfect. But it was Jairus Byrd in 2009 (nine). White had the most targets in coverage (84) without allowing a touchdown in 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Tremaine Edwards was our breakout pick last year in this space, and he led the team in tackles. In fact, Edmunds has 236 tackles (15 for loss) since 2018 and is one of two players (Cory Littleton) to have 200-plus tackles over that span.

The Bills did lose Jordan Phillips and Shaq Lawson. The latter had been a mild disappointment. But we have mentioned the addition of Addison. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was a great pick in the second round of April's draft. Our guy Harrison Phillips is expected back to do big things after his ACL injury in Week 2 (when it looked like he was going to have a breakout campaign). And then you have the development of Oliver added to the mix. It's almost unfair that the Bills are getting better on defense. It's like when the Big Show started to throw dropkicks.

Make Dawson Knox the next Gronk? Any tight end who is drafted in the AFC East or drafted by a team on the Bill Belichick coaching tree is going to be expected to become the next Rob Gronkowski. (Ask T.J. Hockenson.) But many will remember Knox was linked to the Patriots in the draft. So much so that the Bills had to do some maneuvering in last year's draft to jump in front of the Patriots to secure the tight end out of Mississippi. And then, of course, Knox goes out and makes grabs that make the Gronkowski comparisons inevitable. His first touchdown wasn't Gronk-like (though being this open might be). But this catch-and-run certainly will invoke images of Gronk.

Deal with expectations of being the favorites in the AFC East? Winning is tougher once you've established yourself. Think about the Bills last season. They were this great story. They had a fun coach. Fans having a blast in the parking lot, mimicking the Blue Meanie and Stevie Richards throwing people through tables. The Bills were that underdog that everyone rooted for. Now you come into a season where you are expected to win. You no longer have that luxury of being that plucky contender people think can do it. They know you can do it. It's kind of amazing to think about the Patriots all of those years, battling expectations and continuing to win. This is a big opportunity for the Bills to prove themselves. Especially with Tom Brady gone. He was 32-3 in his career against the Bills, the most wins by a quarterback against a single opponent in NFL history. This is the Bills' time.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: Allen's second NFL season was very similar to Jim Kelly's second year in Buffalo. Allen led the Bills to a 10-6 record. Kelly was 6-6 in a strike-shortened season. The completion percentage was nearly identical (59.7 for Kelly, 58.8 for Allen). The passing-yards-per-attempt mark was even, at 6.7. Josh had more touchdowns in more games (20 to 19) but also fewer interceptions (9 to 11). And Josh had the higher passer rating. One point for Bills fans to remember: Kelly went 12-4 in his third season with the Bills.

... people are overthinking: Drafting Zack Moss. Devin Singletary averaged 5.13 yards per carry last year for the Bills, the most in the NFL. That's right, more than guys like Derrick Henry (5.08) and Christian McCaffrey (4.83), which is great. But the Bills selected Moss in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Moss was the highest-rated running back in the FBS last year, per PFF. He forced 89 missed tackles last year as a member of the Utah Utes, the third-highest total in the FBS. The question is, how do they use them? Here's my short answer: Who cares? That's the kind of thing fantasy fans can worry about. Frank Gore played about 35 percent of the snaps last year, though that role diminished as the year went on. The Bills have invested the same amount of draft capital in each player, so the hot hand is going to win. That's what matters.

ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: How great the receivers are. Well, Pro Football Focus didn't miss this. PFF has the Bills slotted as the fifth-best receiving corps in the league. Who am I to argue with that? We talked about Diggs. I let my feelings on Knox be known. My guy John Brown led the Bills with 1,060 receiving yards last year. I'll tell you, the last time the Bills had two players with 1,000-plus receiving yards in a season was 2002 (Eric Moulds and Peerless Price). You add in slot receiver Cole Beasley, and the Bills have a huge opportunity. And they need it. The Bills averaged 19.6 points per game last year, which was the fewest among all playoff teams.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Bills MUST:

  • Win the AFC East. The Bills have not won the division since 1995, the third-longest drought in the NFL behind the Browns (27-year drought) and Lions (26).
  • Have Josh Allen develop as a quarterback. This is probably more important than wins or losses. There are still those who question him, so it's important for Allen to prove he's the franchise quarterback moving forward.

In closing

The time is now. Since all Bills fans seem to be such huge wrestling fans (or maybe they just like jumping through tables), this is like when a wrestler is getting that main-event push. The Bills have been lingering in the undercard long enough. It's time to seize the moment. Will you be like John Cena when he answered Kurt Angle's challenge so many years ago? Or will the team go full Lex Luger and never really reach its potential?

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