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Bills 2024 Needs

Another Buffalo Bills season has ended with them falling short of the ultimate goal. As has become an annual tradition, after the pain of another final game loss, the page turns to examining what needs to happen for them to come back next season and win it all. This year's offseason will be perhaps the most challenging under Brandon Beane, as the team faces salary cap issues, a long list of impending free agents all while dealing with the hangover and frustration of being so close, and yet so far away. In addition to a likely turnover for the roster, several questions need to be answered on the coaching staff, including making sure the right man is at the helm and calling the shots for the franchise unicorn QB.

Sean McDermott's career was at a crossroad after 12 games this season. His team was mired in mediocrity at 6-6, 3 games out of the AFC East lead and on the outside looking in on a playoff position. On top of that, a scathing 3 part article was released that was critical of his handling of game situations under pressure, his treatment of his assistant coaches and his awkward inability to motivate and inspire the team. At the time, he was very much on the hot seat, having lost a host of games late, after leads had been taken. One of the criticisms in the article rang true, stating that in the clutch, McD took over key aspects of the game from his assistants, and essentially choked games away. This tightness under pressure, zapped confidence and often put players out of position to make game changing impacts down the stretch. Hard to make a play on the ball as a corner, when you are lined up 10-15 yards off the ball. Hard to drive down the field to win the game in the final seconds, when you take a knee and play for overtime or punt repeatedly in 4th and short situations. Perhaps worse, it seems sometimes fear of a negative play from his unicorn of a QB, took away all that makes him great. Keeping him from running and scrambling, limiting the throws downfield, trying to turn him into a game manager, when clearly that is not what he is destined to be. Josh Allen may lose some games because he makes a crucial mistake or two in the game, but far more often, he will put on his cape and carry this team to victory. However, at that point in the season, Josh Allen seemed like he was lost inside his own head, doubting his greatness and dwelling on the negatives. McDermott could have responded to that article, and got defensive and doubled down on his conservative style, and taken even more control away from his assistant coaches, but he didn't. His style of coaching down the stretch, was looser, more confident and more trusting. The team rallied around him first, and then rallied around each other even more and went on a remarkable winning streak that not only clinched a playoff berth, but secured their 4th straight AFC East Title and the #2 seed, despite a mind numbing number of critical injuries. McDermott once again, lost in the Divisional round and again was out coached and outclassed by his mentor and future HOF Coach, Andy Reid, but McDermott showed enough growth in the face of criticism and adversity to be removed from that hot seat, at least for now.

However,  the question needs to be asked and answered, should he remain as the Defensive coordinator. There is no doubt about the stellar job he did for the defense this season. No d-coordinator in the league did more with less, given the number of devastating injuries to the core of the defense throughout the year, including the playoffs. He not only shut down mediocre defenses, but up until the match up against the Chiefs, he held some of the better offensive teams in check. After the break, the team become more aggressive with the game on the line, and that had the team playing with confidence. Despite that, he had no answers for the Chiefs throughout most of the game. The injuries became too much to overcome, having to rely on their 4th and 5th linebackers and 3rd and 4th corners. D coordinator isn't the only position coach that should be considered for an addition or change.

 

Bills fired Ken Dorsey mid-season and promoted Joe Brady. Brady showed flashes of being capable of the job, helping to transform the team down the stretch into a dominant run team. Allen 's was unleashed and he bull dozed his way into the playoffs using his legs and creativity and howitzer for an arm. However, something was missing down the stretch. Stefon Diggs' production fell off a cliff and the long ball and chunk yardage passing plays disappeared. Gabe Davis never got in synch with Allen and when he went down with an injury in the playoffs, it hardly went noticed in the passing game. Davis' blocking ability remained steady, but an explosive day far too often was followed with weeks of single digit or zero receptions. Khalil Shakir was a huge bright spot down the stretch and he looks like a lock to man the slot position for years to come. The Bills also hit on Rookie TE Dalton Kincaid, who is a perfect compliment to veteran Dawson Knox. Together, they will be one of the best TE tandems into he league. Brady also got the most out of 2nd year back, James Cook, who has the kind of game breaking speed and ability the Bills had been searching for. However, several dropped passes and a tendency to put the ball on the turf, tempers some of the excitement surrounding Cook. In his locker clean out day press conference, Josh Allen expressed strong support for Brady to remain at the position, saying he is excited to see what he adds to the offense with a season to truly make it his own. However, the Bills would be wise to do a thorough search for a coordinator before simply handing the keys over to Brady. Points were still left on the board, especially in the red-zone down the stretch. Plays to take advantage of the deep cover 2 coverages teams threw at Allena and the Bills down the stretch, needs to be more consistently implemented and executed. Finding a true innovator who understands Allen's unique talent and can design an offense that fully exploits and unlocks it, is a must. If they decide that is Brady, so be it, but then a QB coach should also be brought in who can offer another perspective and help Josh to take that next step. One thing I would love to see added to the offense, is some up tempo/ no huddle sets. Given the versatility of Josh, Cook and Kincaid, they can trap defenses in heavy or light box formations, and cross them up without making substitutions. Josh also obviously excels in the 2 minute offense, almost always leading the league in scoring at the end of the half and in close games. 

Finally, for the coaching staff, it is a must to find an elite special team's coordinator. The team invests multiple roster spots for the unit, and it is simply not good enough to win a championship. I will not blame the season's end on one missed kick, but all core ST units struggled at times this season. Too many men on the field at the end of the Denver game being clearly the most egregious coaching error of the season, but not the only one. A change is needed. An upgrade at Kicker and Punter may be needed and at the very least, the Bills need to bring in serious competition. 

One of the most critical aspects to team building, is understanding, developing and utilizing the talent you already have in the building. The Bills have done well developing the young players on the roster and complimenting them with veterans that can be plugged in at any given time in an emergency (see AJ Kline and see AJ Kline and then again, see AJ Kline). However, there tends to be an over dependency and trust with the veterans over some of the developing youth. For example, Shaq Lawson, Von Miller, Latavius Murray got more playing time than probably should have, keeping players like Kingsley Jonathan and Ty Johnson off the field. Even some vets got time over others, despite a lack of production, like Tim Settle and Jordan Phillips getting heavy reps while Poona Ford went inactive week after week. The decision not to activate Rookie WR Justin Shorter for the playoffs and being forced to have Andy Isabella on the active roster for the final game was another case were the young prospect was not given a chance to contribute. That thinking has to change next season. Given the Bills salary cap situation, they will need to lean heavily on their younger players, who are playing on their rookie contracts. Long time special teams vets may need to be released in favor of having a deeper roster that includes rookies that are unproven. Unlike years past, they may not only need to have all of their draft picks make the team, but several UDFA may end up being part of the final squad.

Given the state of the cap, I do not see the Bills making any major additions to the roster, and they likely will not be able to keep many of their own FA's. It's probably a lock that Gabe Davis will not be back, and Micha Hyde's best days are behind him, and despite the amazing leadership he has shown on this Bills team, it may be time to move on. His partner, Jordan Poyer is still under contract for another year, but he also may be a salary cap casualty. That means, for the first time since McDermott arrived, the secondary will be lead by new players. Cam Lewis may be looked upon to fill one of those spots, but a day 2 draft pick should definitely be considered given the importance of Safety in McD's Defense. The FA that should have the highest priority, is DaQuan Jones. The Bills defense is simply not the same when he is out of the lineup. He makes everyone around him, especially Ed Oliver and the LBs, better. If he is not re-signed, DT becomes a major need, especially a 1Tech. I do think this is the one position they fill in FA, either by re-signing Jones or bringing in a vet.

 

Despite not having either starting LB on the field against KC, they do have their long term answers at both spots, with the potential to also have two young swing players behind them. Bernard, Milano, Spector and Dorian Williams make up a solid young core for the LB room. Adding a larger, true run stuffing MLB is still something that should be considered, given the difficulty staying on the field the undersized Bernard and Milano have had, and having that throw back MLB on the roster would help against power running teams. I would look at adding one day 3. 

The good news for the Bills roster is the offensive line seems set for years to come. Only Mitch Morse is close to moving on, and the unit managed to start every game together this season. They showed down the stretch, they can dominate teams in the run game, and are more than capable of keeping Josh clean in the pocket. Bringing in a developmental swing IOL, who can eventually take over at Center would be wise, but outside of that, the unit seems set, especially give Ryan Bates is in the wings behind Morse at C. 

Starting QB obviously is not an issue, but adding a young developmental QB behind him makes sense. Despite his durability and toughness, injuries are inevitable given his play style, and now those tires are starting to have show some signs of worn tread. It's not much of a concern, given the fact, if Allen does go down, in all likelihood, their season would be over. He means too much to this team to compete for a championship without him, no matter who the backup is. 

The RB room has it's leader in James Cook, and Ty Johnson looks to be a nice compliment. However, given the overall lack of durability at the position, and Cooks lack of size, having a true young power back on the roster as a compliment would be worth the roster spot. It would also make the team somewhat less dependent of using Josh as their short yardage back, to save some of that tread on his tires. 

That leaves the most glaring need on the team, WR. Fortunately, this draft is shaping up to be one of the better classes at the position, and the Bills must come away with a true future, if not immediate number 1 alpha Receiver. Size and speed would be nice, but the priority has to be finding a reliable receiver with good/great hands who runs efficient routes and consistently gets separation. The Bills do prioritize blocking ability, so they should at least be capable and willing to help out. I will be looking for a guy who is not afraid of going over the middle. The Bills need to take back the middle of the field and find players, and they may already have one in Kincaid, who can challenge the deep seam. The Bills should double down with at least 2 day one and day two or early day 3 picks at WR. Adding young weapons for Josh is THE priority this offseason. 

The league, in its never ending quest to suck every last dollar, has created a format that is more about endurance than talent. The Bills were forced to play two extra games this year, then they would have a few seasons ago (17th regular season game and the 2 vs 7 seed playoff game). They also were forced to travel to England to play on a field that should never be played on that cost them multiple games from their best defensive players, including Matt Milano for the season. Their roster was deflated by injuries and they had no chance to rest and recuperate. Add a snow storm forcing them to move the first round game from Sunday to Monday, giving the 3 seed Chiefs two extra days rest, and the formula was set for a loss. No excuse, that is the hand they were dealt and they couldn't get the job done. Every team has to deal with injuries, but this team just constantly seems to have to deal with way more than their fair share of adversity. 

As frustrating as it was to see the season end on Bills turf, against those same Chiefs, who looked to have lost a step from the teams that beat the Bills in the recent past, and despite a dire salary cap situation, the window is still open for the Bills. Josh Allen is warrior and he will not rest until he hoists the Lombardi. The team needs to keep surrounding him with the tools he needs to get the job done. Brandon Beane is one of the brightest minds in the league, and will be up for the challenge of transforming the roster. This is a critical draft, needing to not only hit at the top, but also add contributing quality throughout the 3 days and even into the UDFA period. Don't expect anything other than trying to hold onto some depth this free agency period. However, if they can hit at WR, and McDermott continues to show growth and trust in his team as a coach, this team will be right back in the post season, trying again to break through to the Super Bowl. Let the media and the rest of the league doubt Josh Allen and this Bills team at their own peril. Next season starts today. Go Bills!

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