Can the Bills overcome their weaknesses and take a step forward toward a Championship in 2021?

josh allen, bills

Last season was a really big step for the Buffalo Bills. Finishing the year with an excellent 13-3 record followed by their first AFC Championship appearance since 1993, the Bills, for the first time in a long time, truly looked like Super Bowl contenders. With a high-octane offensive and a versatile defense, the Bills evolved into a force to be reckoned with and illustrated how dominant they can be.

Entering the playoffs with a big wild card victory over the Indianapolis Colts to then completely shutting down the Baltimore Ravens the following week in the divisional round, the Bills really lived up to the hype and proved just how dangerous and elite they are. Coming off a season in 2019 where they went 10-6 and suffered a swift playoff exit in the Wild Card round, last season’s accomplishments really highlighted the tremendous amount of growth this team mustered together in just a year’s time, despite adding a handful of new cornerstone players to their roster.

However, when this strong team was confronted with the living epitome of greatness in Patrick Mahomes, the Bills did not have an answer for the former MVP and struggled to keep up with the Chiefs’ offensive tenacity. Not only did they have a very difficult time trying to slow them down defensively, but on top of that, not even their offense could keep up with the scoring output from the Chiefs, resulting in yet another tough playoff exit.

What the Bills confronted, though, wasn’t an unusual setback; the Chiefs are the greatest team in the AFC and have solidified that over the last two years. And just like it is for the Ravens, Titans, Steelers, Browns and other championship-driven AFC teams, overcoming the Chiefs this year for the Bills is the greatest challenge they face in the AFC period. Making it to the playoffs is no simple task as is. But beating the Chiefs in the playoffs is the biggest test for this Bills team to surmount and remains to be a feat that seems awfully daunting for them to prevail against this season.

That being said, the Chiefs did come up short in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat them fair and square by 22 points. Although Tom Brady pulled off yet another flawless Super Bowl performance and took home the Super Bowl MVP honors, the key ingredient for their success that night was nothing but their staunch and ruthless defense led by Todd Bowles. Holding the Chiefs to only nine points, Mahomes and his offense had no solution against the Buccaneers’ defensive schemes, and the former MVP quarterback found himself scrambling helplessly all too often from start to finish.

On the contrary, this is precisely what the Bills lacked with their very own defense and was ultimately why they couldn’t slow down the Chiefs in the first place. Though they have a handful of great defensive playmakers and specialists on their unit, the Bills defense had a couple of gaps in talent and strength, particularly along their defensive line who struggled against the run and could hardly garner any pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Just to give you an idea, the Bills defense allowed over 350 total yards per game with 119.6 of them coming on the ground, finished the year in 12th in total sacks and conceded 23.4 points per game in the process (ESPN). Considering the talent and potential this defense has, those numbers were far from ideal and have to improve if they want a shot at redemption come January 2022.

But since the Super Bowl ended back in February, a series of small yet significant changes have been made with the Bills, and there’s no doubt that this team has what it takes to make it to the Super Bowl within the next two years if not sooner. It sounds kind of crazy, but the Bills made all the right adjustments over the offseason that they needed to make, putting themselves in the best position to go the distance for the first time in decades.

For starters, the Bills made defense their biggest priority this offseason, and they really capitalized on that in this year’s NFL Draft. With their first two picks, the Bills not only selected debatably the best defensive lineman coming out of the draft in Gregory Rousseau out of the University of Miami, but they also selected the gifted, defensive menace in Carlos Basham Jr. out of Wake Forest, big-time playmakers that wreaked havoc during their college years. With Rousseau bringing elite athleticism, quickness, and versatility and Bashem Jr. providing an unrelenting level of strength, grit, and power, the Bills have assembled one dangerous defensive line considering they have Ed Oliver, Mario Addison, and Jerry Hughes to begin with. Along with these additions, the Bills also reinforced their already stacked secondary in the draft by selecting safety Damar Hamlin and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, physical and competitive defensive backs that possess good upside and skill (ESPN). Though these rookies are all very new to the league, they all have the talent and athleticism to provide what the Bills have been seeking for defensively, it’s just a matter of when. Last year, the Bills defense ranked 14th overall in the league; this year, they have the potential to be top-five, and that’s due in large part to a very well-executed draft that addressed the most vulnerable areas of their defensive unit (ESPN).

Offensively, the Bills didn’t need to do much outside of pad their overall depth and replace the deep threat hole John Brown left behind. Well, lo and behold, they did just that. Signing Emmanuel Sanders over the offseason, a savvy veteran presence that brings tremendous downfield speed, the Bills also drafted Marquez Stevenson out of Houston, a lighting quick receiver that is downright lethal after the catch and brings big-play potential every time the ball is thrown his way. Additionally, the Bills also went ahead and drafted two bright offensive tackles in Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle, providing a strong and young insurance policy in case Daryl Williams or Dion Dawkins deal with any injury setbacks. Though there’s a good chance both of these rookies won’t see a whole lot of starting reps this season, a deep offensive line is vital for the Bills’ long-term success, and both of these tackles possess encouraging potential.

Outside of these minor changes, the Bills offense is just about as dangerous as any other in the league and has everything it needs to replicate their success from last year. With Josh Allen getting better every season, to Zach Moss and Devon Singletary forming a complimenting, one-two punch out of the backfield, to Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley leading the charge of a strong group of receivers, this Bills offense is so complete with not only star talent and excellent role players but also has the close-knit chemistry that an offense needs in order to succeed at the highest level.

When all is said and done, the Bills did just about everything they could to address their greatest concerns on both sides of the ball and met all of those expectations wholeheartedly. With their defense looking much stronger than last year, the Bills have a serious chance at ending their Super Bowl drought this season by not only overwhelming their opponents with their offensive resiliency but by also stifling and shutting them defensively as well. Beating out Mahomes and the Chiefs still remains to be the greatest test the Bills face down the line. But if there’s any team in the AFC that could do so this season, it’s no one else but the Buffalo Bills.

New York Jets: 5 games that could get the national TV treatment

When can New York Jets fans expect to see their team in prime time? ESM investigates with the official schedules on their way out tonight.

Nothing showcases the stranglehold that the NFL holds on the American imagination than the release of its annual schedule. The 2021 edition emerges on Wednesday, with early game reveals scheduled for the morning programs of Fox, CBS, and ABC (Fox & Friends, CBS This Morning, and Good Morning America respectively) before the full schedule is posted in prime time.

Contrary to the popular belief that performance dictates how “easy” or “hard” a team’s schedule is, there’s hardly any surprise involved when it comes to an individual team’s opponents. By the time we get to Wednesday’s reveals, everyone knows who their team is going to play in 2021. Heck, the NFL’s scheduling formula allows us to look to, say, 2049, and figure out all but three opponents for the year ahead. But the mere attachment of times and dates causes we, the football-hungry public, to break out into hysterics, a process and celebration that the league has now turned into an all-day affair.

The drama of schedule release day has been relatively benign for fans of the New York Jets. Trapped in a playoff drought that just hit double figures, the Jets have mostly been bestowed the comparatively mundane 1:00 p.m. ET timeslot in a majority of their contests. For example, they haven’t been a part of NBC’s Sunday Night Football package since 2011, seeing several other opportunities to appear on the peacock network erased by flexible scheduling.

But with the arrival of head coach Robert Saleh and offensive weapons, the young Jets could be worth watching and putting on a national stage again. Putting them in the playoff discussion might be a tad much, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that the Jets are in a much more intriguing spot than they were last year. Suddenly, there’s drama behidn the numbers again.

Which games could get the national call? ESM takes a look at five…

1. @ Carolina Panthers

There’s not much history between the Jets and Panthers. The teams have met only seven times and last faced off in Charlotte in 2013. But the Sam Darnold…and, to a lesser extent, Robby Anderson…factor changes everything. The new New York guard…Zach Wilson and Elijah Moore…going up against the old…Darnold and Robby Anderson…makes this a game the Jets could use as a barometer to see where they are in the latest chapter of their rebuild.

The Jets and Panthers may not be fighting for postseason position this year, but they’re in remarkably similar spots: trapped in a division with a powerful conference finalist that shows no signs of relenting, but equipped with hope through young offensive weaponry.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

Whether they like it or not, Wilson and Trevor Lawrence are forever linked through their status as the opening two picks of the 2021 NFL Draft. Despite the Jets and Jaguars’ recent ineptitude…the two united for three wins last season…this will be an attractive game for the rookie throwers alone.  But there’s so much young talent from the past few drafts that the game should probably be called by Mel Kiper and Todd McShay. Wilson is aided by Moore, Denzel Mims, and Michael Carter, while the Jacksonville side is further repped by DJ Chark, Laviska Chenault, and Travis Etienne.

On top of it all, it well could feature Tim Tebow’s return to MetLife Stadium, the site of some of his most recent NFL regular season action. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

3. Buffalo Bills

The divisional rivalry loses a little luster with the loss of Darnold, Josh Allen’s fellow 2018 draftee. But Buffalo tightened its grip on the hearts of Empire State football with a downright historic season that ended in the AFC Championship Game. Divisional rivalries tend to get priority placement when it comes to the national TV schedule and the Bills would be the most attractive opponent to place in the slot with the New York connections in mind.

4. New England Patriots

The Jets-Patriots rivalry is at an interesting point in that both teams are reeling from losing seasons. But even in their unfamiliar squalor, the Patriots managed to sweep their yearly pair with the Jets last season. A new chapter of the rivalry begins with both teams boasting first-round quarterbacks: Wilson emerges for the Jets while the Patriots counter with Mac Jones.

New York-Boston rivalries always get national attention and the Jets-Patriots matchup has received a Monday Night date in each of the last two seasons. But the two teams’ status as AFC East also-rans, not to mention the uncertainty around the idea of Jones starting (you know Cam Newton won’t go down without a fight) could raise some red flags.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Just when you thought the Tom Brady nightmare was over, the seven-time Super Bowl champion returns for (at least) one last scare in the form of an interconference game with the defending champions. Networks have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with New York schadenfreude, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see Brady’s reunion with his old metropolitan buddies get the national treatment.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills’ Orchard Park stadium gets another new name

The establishment formerly known as Ralph Wilson Stadium undergoes another name change, as the Buffalo Bills reached a naming rights deal.

The Buffalo Bills added a little more blue to their repertoire this week.

The team announced the selling of naming rights to Bills Stadium this week through a partnership with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York. Orchard Park’s football palace will now be officially known as Highmark Stadium. 

“We are proud to welcome Highmark to the Buffalo Bills family and we are thrilled to partner with them on a new naming rights deal for our stadium,” Bills Owner/President Kim Pegula said in a statement on the team website. “We are confident that Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York is committed to maintaining their status as a healthcare and philanthropic leader in our region.”

“We look forward to many years of working together with their team creating great memories at not only NFL football games but at many other health and wellness events and community celebrations.”

Though financial details have not been disclosed, Ben Fischer and Terry Lefton of Sports Business Journal report that it is a ten-year deal.

Highmark Stadium has hosted Bills football since 1973 and has gone under several different monikers. Its original status as Rich Stadium (1973-97), named after Buffalo-based Rich Products, was one of the earliest examples of stadium naming rights in American sports.

The stadium’s most famous identity arrived in 1998 when it was named Ralph Wilson Stadium after the then-Bills owner. Many fans continue to refer to the stadium as “The Ralph” and have expressed their plans to do so on social media upon the new name announcement. Another Buffalo business, the New Era Cap Company, purchased naming rights in 2016 but backed out of their agreement in July 2020. The stadium was thus known as Bills Stadium last season during Buffalo’s run to the AFC title game.

Other notable events to take place on the stadium’s turf include the inaugural NHL Winter Classic in 2008 and Erie County high school football playoffs.

With the naming rights in Orchard Park sold once more, Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati) and Soldier Field (Chicago) are the only two NFL stadiums without an official corporate sponsor name. The Kansas City Chiefs’ dwelling is now officially as GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium after inking a deal in March.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Free agent J.J. Watt spurns Buffalo Bills for Arizona

New York Giants, JJ Watt

Despite a supposedly promising social media update earlier in the day, J.J. Watt will not join the Buffalo Bills.

A promising lead involving J.J. Watt’s supposed Peloton profile veered off course for the Buffalo Bills on Monday.

Bills fans were enthused by a report from ESPN’s Field Yates, who claimed a Peloton profile belonging to Watt narrowed his free agency destinations down to Buffalo and two other contenders from Cleveland and Green Bay. However, Watt refuted ownership of such an exercise bike on Twitter and later revealed that he would instead be signing with the Arizona Cardinals in a separate post. The latter image shows the former Houston Texan lifting weights, clad in Cardinals gear, and is accompanied by the captions “source: me”. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, the deal is worth $31 million over two seasons with $23 million guaranteed.

With this move, Watt joins fellow disgruntled former Texan DeAndre Hopkins, who united with quarterback Kyler Murray for 1,407 yards through the air.

Yates owned his refuted report, later threading the original Peloton tweet with a GIF of animated character Homer Simpson awkwardly disappearing into shrubs. It likely does nothing to soothe the blow dealt to Bills fans who wanted to see Watt in Western New York. Some Bills-supporting social media users, perhaps desperate, got their hopes up for such a union when Watt posted a tweet about “mitochondria” last week, reasoning a local medical research center in Buffalo bore the same name.

Though the Bills will miss out on Watt, he of three Defensive Player of the Year awards and 101 sacks over a ten-season career with the Texans, there are plenty of options available to them on the free agency front to bolster their pass rush, including Leonard Williams, Matt Judon, and Shaquil Barrett.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

3 Carolina free agents Brandon Beane and the Buffalo Bills could target

New York Giants, Curtis Samuel

General manager Brandon Beane’s past with the Carolina Panthers could lead to a brighter future for the Buffalo Bills.

In just four years, Brandon Beane is turning into one of the finest architects Buffalo has ever welcomed…and this is a city well-versed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.

Over his first four years as the general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Beane, 44, has ended the longest active playoff drought in the NFL and turned it into a strong Super Bowl case. But if January’s AFC Championship Game proved one thing, it’s that more is needed to truly compete for a Super Bowl. Thus, the Bills will look to pull out all the stops this offseason in searching for a way to topple the Kansas City Chiefs.

Beane has a source of untapped potential at his fingertips, one he hasn’t been afraid to approach before…the Carolina Panthers.

Over nearly two decades (1998-2017), Beane held a variety of roles in the Carolina front office. Several former Panthers have played roles in Buffalo’s resurgence. The overseer of the project, Sean McDermott, was a defensive coordinator clad in teal for six seasons. This season, Daryl Williams proved to be a serviceable replacement after the Bills’ blocking corps was decimated through injuries.

Who might Beane and the Bills target this time around? ESM investigates…

T Taylor Moton

After Williams worked in a pinch last season, it feels like Moton could be a similar case but with an eye on the future. One of Beane’s last Carolina acquisitions, chosen in the second round in his last draft, Moton would be a good candidate to take over the right tackle spot with both Williams and Ty Nsekhe both up for free agency. But the thing that could scare off the Bills, and other suitors, is the fact that Carolina has placed the franchise tag on him, which would lead to a pricy contract…one the Bills might not be able to afford that with the 20th-best cap space in football. They can add to that number and move up the ranking by bidding some veterans farewell, like John Brown (over $6.3 million) and Jerry Hugest (over $5 million).

WR Curtis Samuel

Even the briefest looks at the Bills’ stat ledgers and highlight reels shows that they’re well situated with their receivers for the foreseeable future. While the top three producers (Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis) are locked up for 2021 at least, the aforementioned Brown could be let go for the cap money and Isaiah McKenzie is up for free agency. The Bills might be looking for depth at receiver, but Gabriel could provide another top target for Josh Allen. One of Beane’s final moves in Carolina was overseeing the draft that brought in Samuel with the 40th choice, 24 picks before Moton. He’s emerging from a career-best season earned while Carolina deals with an unstable quarterback situation. It’s likely Gabriel’s looking for a long-term contract in a top target’s role, but his connection with Beane could warrant at least a meeting with the Bills. Buffalo has far bigger needs to fill, but Gabriel would be a weapon worth splurging on.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kp4Lw-69jis&ab_channel=NFL

DT Kawann Short

It didn’t take long for Short, a second-round choice in 2013, to make an impact in Buffalo. He was one of the defensive faces of the Panthers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2015-16, earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. Short was recently granted his release by the Panthers on February 16 and has stated that several teams have inquired about his availability. It wouldn’t be a shock in the slightest if the Bills were one of them, as they can use all the front seven they can get. The knock against Short is that he turned 32 earlier this month and injuries have dominated the latter half of his career. Short hasn’t played a full season since 2017 and has partaken in a mere five games in the last two years. A short-term for a guy who could not only provide talent to the line but mentorship to young guys like Ed Oliver would be one of the more effective, under-the-radar deals we could see in the AFC East this offseason. In addition to his familiarity with McDermott and Beane, Short has also worked with defensive line coach Eric Washington, who took over the position in Buffalo after nearly a decade in Charlotte.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Wide receivers

The Buffalo Bills have found some reliable top receiving targets, but will need to analyze the options behind them this offseason.

The Position: Wide Receiver
On the Roster: Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah Hodgins
Free Agents: Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie
Reserve/Future: Tanner Gentry, Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams

Stefon Diggs’ first year in Western New York led to the Buffalo Bills’ single-season record book, at least the receiving chapters, to be completely rewritten.

The (Minneapolis) miracle worker made an immediate impact in his red and blue debut, earning 1,535 yards on 127 receptions…each establishing new team records and led the NFL. Buffalo had their passing weapon in Josh Allen but they now appear to have a strong tandem that can cause Kelly-to-Reed-style levels of offensive destruction. Few can question the potential future Diggs has created in Buffalo. An enduring image of the 2020-21 AFC Championship Game is Diggs watching the Kansas City Chiefs’ celebration from afar, the lone man clad in white to remain on the field.

Diggs wasn’t the only one to enjoy a breakout with the Bills. Cole Beasley likewise earned career-best numbers (967 yards on 82 receptions) while Gabriel Davis established himself a valuable day three find, as he was among four others first-years tied with seven touchdown receptions, second-best amongst rookie competitors.

Yet, the unprecedented success the Bills found last season was tough to celebrate because of the lack of Super Bowl at the end. Startling as such a leap would’ve been, Davis admitted that the semifinal heartbreak made it difficult to watch the Big Game.

“I couldn’t watch it because it made my stomach hurt. I feel like we should have been there,” the Central Florida alum told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s our standard, obviously, now. We set the standard and we’re playing to be above that standard every single year. So our guys are going to get back to work and we’re going to be ready to go, and hopefully, we get a big one next year.”

While the Bills are obviously pleased with the output from the top of their depth chart, they’ll have to analyze their alternative options this offseason. In addition to McKenzie and Roberts’ expiring contracts, the team also has a decision to make on John Brown. The former Baltimore Raven was unable to capitalize on a career-best season in 2019 as he missed several games due to injury. Buffalo would save over $6.3 million if they were to move Brown through either a release or trade.

Free Agents-to-be

Isaiah McKenzie

In a year where seemingly every Bills receiver was setting new career-bests, McKenzie was no exception, albeit on a smaller scale. He put up 282 yards and became a reliable red zone target with five scores. The man of many talents also earned a passing score through trickery and took a punt back for a score during Week 17 proceedings.

Andre Roberts

Roberts has been a consistent Pro Bowl representative for the Empire State, making the last three and the most recent two as a member of the Bills (he notably caught a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson in the 2019-2020 game). Roberts continued to make himself a valuable special teams commodity in 2020, despite getting deeper into his 30s. Appropriately, Roberts led the league with a 30-yard average on kick returns.

Will They Draft?

If they do, likely not until the latter stages. Their top three receivers from last season are all back, and they also might try to develop Isaiah Hodgins, a sixth-round choice in 2020 who missed all of his rookie campaign with an injury. Their reserve/future signees could be diamonds in the rough as well. Kumerow and Williams have extensive professional experience (Williams being a CFL All-Star in Edmonton) and Gentry, a draftee of the XFL’s New York Guardians, was Allen’s favorite target during their shared tenures as (Wyoming) Cowboys. Late projects on day three could be Davis’ former UCF teammate Tre Nixon or Michigan’s Ronnie Bell, who could be a slot-mate for Beasley.

Veteran Possibilities

Curtis Samuel, Carolina

The idea of more offensive firepower in Buffalo is the subject of nightmares in East Rutherford, Foxboro, and Miami. But Samuel is an elite target that’s a realistic option for Buffalo (which likely would require Brown’s release). One of general manager Brandon Beane’s final moves in Charlotte was taking the Brooklyn native with the 40th pick in the 2017 draft. Samuel will likely be looking for some stability with his second contract, but he well could be the proverbial “one move away” from truly pushing the Bills into the aura of Super Bowl contention.

Breshad Perriman, NY Jets

If the Bills wind up letting both Brown and McKenzie walk, Perriman would be a solid consolation prize in terms of speed and experience. It was clear last season that Perriman isn’t the type of player who can headline your receiving corps, but there’s hope he can create a good NFL career as a solid support man.

Chad Beebe, Minnesota

In some ways, it’s almost fate for Beebe to don red, white, and blue. Born in Buffalo and the son of a Bills legend (Don), Beebe can be the veteran depth option the Bills need if they’re forced to part ways with Brown or lose McKenzie.

Outlook

Overall, the Bills are more or less set with their top-heavy receiver depth chart. It’s unfortunate that Brown’s Buffalo journey might not continue, but that cap space earned with his moving (Buffalo currently ranks 20th in available cap space going into free agency) might be too much to resist. Expect the Bills to bring in a free agent or two to compete for a roster spot, as well as someone with return skills if both Roberts and McKenzie walk.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Running backs

Just because the Buffalo Bills have figure out their passing game doesn’t mean their offense should fully rely on it.

The Position: Running Back
On the Roster: Devin Singletary, Zack Moss
Free Agents: T.J. Yeldon, Taiwan Jones
Reserve/Future: Antonio Williams, Christian Wade

The Buffalo Bills have solved their long-lingering passing problems through Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and other aerial talents. That doesn’t mean they should solely rely on such talents to win games.

It was rare to find disappointments on the Bills’ roster, particularly on the offensive front, but the run game’s decline. The team seemed to be set for the future with day two gem Devin Singletary (775 rushing yards, fourth-best amongst rookies despite missing four games) entering his sophomore season and using another third-round choice on Zack Moss last spring. Moss replaced the Florham Park-bound Frank Gore, who united with Singletary to create the eighth-best rushing attack in football in 2019.

But despite some brief flashes of brilliance…Moss had two touchdowns in a November win over New England…their run tally was mostly anchored by Allen. As a whole, the Bills dropped to 20th in rushing yards per game…right behind the Saquon Barkley-free New York Giants. No Bills rusher reached triple digits in yardage last season. The mistrust in the run game was apparent in the playoffs. During the Divisional victory over Baltimore, one that Moss missed with an injury sustained in the Wild Card tilt with Indianapolis, Buffalo running backs earned only nine carries, with Allen forced to carry the load with 46 touches (37 passes, 9 carries).

“We’re gonna do what we think we need to do to win, whether it’s run it or pass it,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said of his unit, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “You try to do both of them well. How that sorts itself out and how the game’s going or the direction we want to take it, that’ll all be played out.”

Free Agents-to-be

T.J. Yeldon

Yeldon, struggling to live up to the promise he displayed during his first years in Jacksonville, has spent the last two seasons playing sparingly with the Bills. He did take some more snaps once Moss was lost for the postseason.

Taiwan Jones

Working through his second stint with the Bills, Jones is far more well known for his work on special teams, notably recovering a Mecole Hardman fumble during the AFC title game.

Will They Draft?

There’s probably no use in drafting a running back so early on, especially with needs on the pass rush far more pressing. Considering their top two current options are consecutive third-round picks, it’s hard to see them picking another rusher on day two. Options in the third round and beyond could include Chuba Hubbard. The Oklahoma State star’s relatively small size and struggles with blocking could well push him to day three, but small school options in the draft’s latter stages could include Trey Ragas (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Spencer Brown (FCS Northern Iowa).

Veteran Possibilities 

Mike Davis, Carolina

Singletary and Moss can be labeled as bruising, smashmouth options. Their young, workhorse ethic can be complimented and honed with an experienced speedster like Davis, who is well known for running a 4.38 in the 40-yard-dash, a highlight that will probably be played often with no combine this season.

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis

If the Bills want to go the three-headed monster route at running back, Mack would work well with a similar skillset to the incumbent Moss and Singletary. He’ll likely be searching for a new home after Jonathan Taylor’s breakout and is come off a torn Achilles. If the Bills can ink him to an affordable short-term deal, it could be worth giving him a chance to earn the permanent rushing job.

Nick Bellore, Seattle

The fullback is a dying art in today’s NFL, but the idea of Allen working with a fullback could be most intriguing. A man of many talents, the linebacker-turned-fullback Bellore earned his first Pro Bowl nomination through some strong blocking and performance on special teams. Bellore ranked third in the NFL last season with 14 tackles on kickoffs and punts.

Outlook

Overall, the Bills appear to be satisfied with their rushing corps despite their struggles. General manager Brandon Beane exonerated Singletary and Moss during his season-ending statements.

“I think it’s unfair to look at the running backs to point blame on the running game,” Beane said, per Matt Bove of WKBW-Buffalo. “Running the football is very complex. It’s the offensive line, it’s the tight ends, it’s the receivers. If one guy doesn’t make his block, the play is probably dead.”

If they’re willing to let both Yeldon and Jones walk, and neither of them is going to top the offseason priority list, they could go after a veteran rushing name. But it’s more likely that Beane will try to replenish the blocking corps before he tinkers with the Singletary-Moss duology.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

How J.J. Watt’s “mitochondria” tweet invokes the Buffalo Bills

New York Giants, JJ Watt

Watt’s Tuesday morning science lesson sent Buffalo Bills fans into hysterics as the prized defender seeks his next destination.

The day elementary school science teachers prepared us for finally came on Tuesday morning.

Superstar free agent J.J. Watt set football Twitter ablaze with a cryptic posting that simply read “Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”. Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, offered no context for his scientific observation. Such labeling of mitochondria is common in biology textbooks and the phrase gained a bit of notoriety in 2013, when Tumblr users mocked the supposed uselessness of this information being taught in schools. Mitochondria are found in the cells of most eukaryotic organisms (whose cells contain a membrane encased nucleus).

With Watt set to move on from the rebuilding Houston Texans, fans and analysts couldn’t help but wonder if the prized defender was hinting at his new destination. The organelle held particular meaning for fans of the Buffalo Bills, as some fans pointed out that Buffalo is home to the Mitochondria Research Society. The MRS is described on the National Organization for Rare Disorders’ (NORD) site as “a non-profit, international organization of scientists and physicians. The purpose of MRS is to find a cure for mitochondrial diseases by promoting research on basic science of mitochondria, mitochondria pathogenesis, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment throughout the world”.

Buffalo fans were hardly alone in trying to decipher Watt’s tweet in their favor. Syracuse.com’s Ryan Talbot jokingly pointed out mitochondria’s bean-like shape, facetiously declaring that Watt was negotiating with Bills general manager Brandon Beane. Talbot’s mentions were quickly filled by overzealous fans of the Chicago Bears, who insisted that Watt was referring to the Windy City’s Cloud Gate sculpture, commonly referred to as “The Bean”. None of the league’s fanbases were truly without guilt in this endeavor, each stretching their own theory further than the last. Only Bills fans, it would appear, were able to find a local landmark to strengthen their case. 

Watt, 31, requested his release from the Texans after a decade in Houston. While a bittersweet breakup, the split appeared to be mutual, with Watt’s wish fulfilled by owner Cal McNair. Watt has earned countless accolades in his NFL career and departs Houston as the Texans’ all-time leader in sacks (101), tackles for a loss (172) and All-Pro nominations (5). He earned 52 tackles and five sacks, as well as the sixth touchdown of his career (and first since 2014) last season, as he partook in all 16 games after his 0219 campaign was mostly lost due to a torn pectoral. 

Despite Watt’s apparent hint, don’t expect the former Texan to make a decision any time soon. He indicated as such when responding to an impatient follower on Sunday night.

“I scroll through door dash for like an hour before I pick a restaurant man…” [sic] Watt told the fan. “You’re gonna have to give me a second to choose a new team and city.” [sic].

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Quarterbacks

The Buffalo Bills finally have an answer in their franchise quarterback role, but adjustments may be coming to their backup situation.

The Position: Quarterback
On the Roster: Josh Allen, Jake Fromm
Free Agents: Matt Barkley
Reserve/Future: Davis Webb

It took 24 years, 18 AFC East titles for the New England Patriots, and countless false prophets…but the Buffalo Bills have finally found the answer to Jim Kelly.

Any doubts about Josh Allen’s NFL future were more or less eliminated with a historic season that likely occupies its own chapter in the Buffalo record books. Allen’s 2020 evolution turned the Bills into bona fide championship contenders, ones that fell just a game short of the Super Bowl. It’s safe to say that the Bills envision Allen riding out the decade with a streaking buffalo on his helmet…and maybe partake in a little of the next one as well. In fact, it may not be too early to start thinking about an extension to ensure he stays in blue and red.

But if any franchise knows that NFL prosperity can be yanked away in the blink of an eye…it’s the Buffalo Bills.

No one in their right football mind is going to deny that Allen has a role to play in the future of not only Western New York but the national gridiron scene as a whole. But the Bills must think about the names behind Allen, just in case the medically unthinkable happens. Allen has started the last 42 Bills games under center, but he did miss four games during his rookie year (2018) with an elbow injury. During that time, Buffalo worked with the backup hydra of Nathan Peterman, Derek Anderson, and Matt Barkley, the latter securing the long-term backup job by earning the lone win in that bunch.

Obviously, Allen is the toast of The Queen City until further notice. But no one in the NFL has ever prepared for an injury, especially one of the season-ending variety that can sink Super Bowl runs entirely. Barkley has proven somewhat reliable when called upon (his 2020-21 ledger consisted of Week 17 mop-up duty in a blowout win over Miami), but the Bills might have plans for rookie Jake Fromm to assume the role. Chosen in the fifth round of last year’s draft, Fromm’s rookie season was an unusual situation where he was kept in relative isolation in case COVID-19-related protocols rendered Allen, Barkley, and practice squad arm Davis Webb inactive.

It may seem irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but backup quarterback remains one of the most underrated positions in any of the four major sports. The wrong name behind Allen, likely one the Bills hope they never have to see in the weekly box score, could save or derail a championship effort the Bills have steadily built.

Free Agents-to-be

Matt Barkley

Barkley’s football career has never truly recovered since he fell to the fourth round of the 2013 draft and a six-game stint as a starter yielded little in Chicago. But he managed to create some stability in Buffalo after guiding the Bills to a one-sided win over the Jets during the aforementioned 2018 season, having been Allen’s backup ever since. Barkley’s given little reason for the Bills to move on, but it’s possible they could move on to a younger name like Fromm to serve as Allen’s understudy.

Will They Draft? 

Very, very, very unlikely. The Bills just used a draft pick on a quarterback in Fromm, and if they bring in another camp arm. It’ll likely be one of the veteran free agent variety. Longshot options on day three include Ian Book of Notre Dame and Dustin Crum out of Kent State.

Veteran Possibilities

Tyrod Taylor, LA Chargers

One of the most reliable pre-Allen options as Buffalo quarterback was Taylor, who helped the Bills end a playoff drought that nearly became old enough to enjoy a Labatt Blue legally. Since Allen’s takeover, Taylor has been the opening act for rookie sensations in Cleveland and Los Angeles. If Allen were to go down, Taylor would serve as a reliable replacement because he has likewise been a multi-threat; some of the records Allen broke this season, namely the quarterback rushing marks, previously belonged to Taylor.

Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis 

It’s unfortunate that Brissett likely won’t get an opportunity to win his starting job back in Indianapolis, as he performed admirably when Andrew Luck abruptly retired in 2018. Brissett is another mobile threat who would help Buffalo quickly pick up the pieces if the unthinkable happened to Allen. Despite backing up Phillip Rivers this season, the Colts had Brissett come for quarterback sneak situations on crucial short-yardage situations (scoring three touchdowns last season).

Colt McCoy, NY Giants

If Barkley leaves and the Bills go looking for a more traditional veteran option to compete with Fromm, they could go with McCoy, who was relatively decent in two starts with the Giants, even helping the team earn a win in Seattle.

Outlook

Quarterback remains very low on the Bills’ offseason priority list. If they lose Barkley, it’s likely they’ll attempt to groom Fromm into the backup role, though a competition will ensue if they want someone with more experience behind Allen.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

How will they “be back”? 4 ways the Buffalo Bills can avoid a hangover

Everyone assumes the Buffalo Bills will be back to the AFC title game, but we’ve heard that one way too many times in the past.

Toward the end of many NFL playoff contests, a mantra of the damned has become as much of a prevalent broadcast tradition as reminding viewers that Bob’s Burgers or 60 Minutes will be coming up next (except on the west coast, in the latter case). When time is low and the game’s outcome is no longer in doubt, time is often dedicated to the team who will have to wait until September to restart their Super Bowl trek. As the camera lingers on images of the downtrodden runners-up between plays, the announcers will often repeat some variation of the phrase “they’ll be back”.

The Buffalo Bills were the latest to hear the chants, as their magical 2020-21 season came to an end in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Buffalo was no match for the Kansas City Chiefs’ title defense, falling in a 38-24 final in their first semifinal visit since 1994. During contentious final minutes defined by post-whistle extracurriculars, CBS broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo waxed poetic on the Bills, they of 13 wins and an AFC East title, assuring fans that the best was likely yet to come for a team that grew by leaps and bounds. The Buffalo locker room repeated the phrase as Kansas City celebrated their return trip to the Big Game.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we will be back,” quarterback Josh Allen said, per team reporter Jourdon LaBarber. “We’re still young and we’re only going to get better. That’s one thing I take from this. We’re close. The results weren’t good tonight but I’m super proud of how our team fought all season and how we bonded together.”

“Give the Kansas City Chiefs credit. They won, they were the better team tonight. But the Buffalo Bills will be back,” head coach Sean McDermott added in a postgame interview with CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn. “This is a learning experience. It’s a tough environment to play. We didn’t play our best game, we didn’t coach our best game, we’ll be back.”

But, if recent history has proven anything, this mantra has only led to more losing.

Losing the AFC title game can certainly serve as a springboard for future success. Kansas City, for example, hasn’t lost a postseason game since they fell to New England in the 2019 edition. But everyone brushed off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ loss to those same Patriots the year before as a mere stepping stone to something brighter. After all, they were armed with a youthful, fearsome defense featuring Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Yannick Ngakoue, and many others. It was only a matter of time before they made the next step, no?

In the three years since that epic run, Jacksonville has won a mere dozen games (including a single triumph this season) and will choose first in the upcoming NFL Draft. The Los Angeles Rams appeared ready to take over football after their own run that same season but wound up missing the playoffs in the NFC title defense. A “double doink” derailed the Chicago Bears. Even Super Bowl champions aren’t exempt from such hangovers. Only four years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles looked like a dynasty in the making. Now, they’re one of the least desirable situations in football. Doug Pederson has already been dismissed and Carson Wentz appears to be next.

How can the Bills avoid such a hangover? ESM investigates…

 Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Be Buffalo Bold

What eventually did Buffalo in during the AFC title game was their lack of assertiveness in Kansas City. If you want to beat the Chiefs, you have to be the Chiefs, a team so dedicated to securing the victory as quickly and cleanly as possible that they’re willing to throw with Chad Henne on a 4th-and-1 just two games away from the Super Bowl.

Before things got out of hand at Arrowhead, the Bills had several opportunities to assert their authority on the Chiefs and earn precious points on fourth-and-short situations. However, they opted for the relative safety of Tyler Bass field goals, but they proved meaningless when the defense failed to stop Kansas City’s high-voltage offense. The red dagger came when they chose to narrow the lead to 24-15 on a 26-yard Bass boot when three yards would’ve set first-and-goal in the latter stages of the third quarter. Tyreek Hill immediately made them pay with a 75-yard catch-and-run that set up Travis Kelce’s short score through underhanded mastery from Patrick Mahomes.

“Maybe if I had to do it over again, I would have went for maybe one of them,” McDermott said of the costly decisions to kick, per Marcel Louis-Jacques of ESPN. “But the one before the half, I wanted to get points. We were having trouble coming up with points, and I wanted to at least have something to show for it going into the half, especially knowing they were getting the ball after half. I’ll look back at that and reevaluate that, especially the one after half there, and as an entire team, we’ll learn from the experience.”

Making things all the more tragic from a football standpoint was the fact that the Bills were no stranger to such aggressiveness during this magical season. They tied with Miami for the best fourth-down conversion rate (albeit on only 10 attempts) and pulled one off on their opening possession, later leading to Bass’ first field goal. Hopefully for Buffalo, they took the missed opportunities as the learning experience McDermott alluded to.

 Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Lock the Block(ers)

The Bills are blessed with the multiple talents of Allen, who has proven capable of beating teams both through the air and on the ground. Blessed with such a prime, game-changing force of football nature, Buffalo must do everything in its power to protect him. Allen was sacked 34 times last season, the 10th-worst rate in football, but that tends to happen when you have a mobile quarterback. All in all, the Bills did a decent job, but it still feels like there are ways to improve.

Among the potential departures through free agency is tackle Daryl Williams, one of the most pleasant surprises amongst the league’s contenders. The former All-Pro was signed to an affordable one-year deal but wound up filling in very well for an injured Cody Ford late in the year. Interior regulars Jon Feliciano, Brian Winters, and Ike Boettger will all be free agents, while center Mitch Morse could be a salary cap casualty (over $4.8 million) as the team currently holds under $2 million in cap space.

Buffalo can’t afford any regression when it comes to their blocking help. It’s possible they could use the 30th pick on someone like Creed Humphrey out of Oklahoma to bolster the unit. If the biggest problem on the offense is the fact that the long-sought franchise quarterback has too much protection, you know you’re doing something right.

Lower the Flags

While the Bills tackled numerous streaks of futility in 2020, one unfortunate streak kept on rolling. With 102 penalties (941 yards lost) during the regular season (sixth in the league), the Bills ranked in the league’s top-ten flag drawers for the third straight season. While Buffalo’s penalty ledger was relatively clean against Kansas City (38 yards on a quartet), the final stages of the season were marred by post-whistle extracurriculars that only built the rivalry between the Bills and Chiefs further. Should the Chiefs prevail in their Super Bowl endeavor two Sundays from now (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS), no one would be surprised to see the Bills in the traditional opening Thursday night slot for the defending champions come Week 1 of 2021.

It was great to see the Bills stick up for each other once things got chippy in the final minutes, but it left a sour taste in Allen’s mouth. One of Buffalo’s last possessions ended with Allen taking a late hit from Chiefs lineman Alex Okafor. Allen tossed the ball at Okafor’s facemask, leading to the first of several late-game melees.

“The way it ended doesn’t sit right with me with how chippy and ticky-tack it got. I’m disappointed in myself,” Allen said per Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. “I let my emotions get to me there. That’s not how you’re supposed to play football.”

 Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Figure Out the Rushing Stampede

The Bills have formed one of the most explosive passing attacks in the league through Allen, Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and others. But that doesn’t mean they have to solely rely on aerial antics to pull off wins. Over the past two seasons, the Bills are a mediocre 5-5 when Allen throws the ball at least 40 times. Two of those victories came in too-close-for-comfort showdowns with the New York Jets, while two of those losses came in the AFC playoffs (2020 Wild Card at Houston, 2021 AFC title game at Kansas City).

Sophomore rusher Devin Singletary regressed in several major rushing categories, working alongside the roller-coaster rookie antics of Zack Moss, who missed a majority of the postseason after leaving the Wild Card tilt on a cart. The two united for 1,168 yards and seven total touchdowns but struggled to maintain consistency. It’s good that the Bills have a relatively consistent rushing tandem, but they have to develop some true traction to avoid the risk of the offense becoming too shallow. Once Moss got injured, the Bills turned almost exclusively to passing. Singletary earned his first carry of the Divisional round late in the second quarter. Allen put up 88 yards against the Chiefs, but Singletary and T.J. Yeldon mustered only 32 on nine carries.

In another report from Parrino, McDermott flat out noted that “we got to be able to run the football better” after the AFC title game. If anyone in the NFL can do it all, it may well certainly be Allen, but that’s no reason to force him into such a situation.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags