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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 4

28 Jan

The final entry of our four part Bills’ season review delves into what the team needs to accomplish in the off-season as far as adding talent to improve their standing. Having made it to the AFC Championship game in 2020, the challenges GM Brandon Beane faces are much different than in previous off-seasons. Nonetheless, there are still areas where the Bills need to get better next season. Here are our projections on the positions Beane has to address:

 

Running Back

 

As prolific as Buffalo’s passing attack was in 2020 behind the arm of Josh Allen, the run game was very much abysmal. Allen, on scrambles and designed runs, was the best run game option. There is some debate as to whether the team needs a more dynamic running back to improve the rushing attack, or a stronger offensive line. Free agency is not a good option if Beane decides on adding a playmaking back. Most of the options are either too overpriced, plodding runners or are aging. Some draft experts see the Bills possibly taking a back with pick # 30 in the first round, and if players like Clemson’s Travis Etienne or Najee Harris of Alabama are still on the board, Beane might be tempted to go that route. Both are versatile and explosive.

 

Defensive Tackle

 

Star Lotulelei’s decision to opt out of the season left a hole in the Bills’ defensive rotation that hurt their ability to contain the run. Buffalo might not want to wait to see what kind of condition Star, a big man, is in after not playing all year, and one name on the free agent market that stands out as a perfect fit for his spot is Dalvin Tomlinson of the Giants. He is a solid space-eater type of lineman with a high motor who would make the players around him, including Ed Oliver and the linebackers, so much more effective. It will take some salary cap finagling to be able to sign him, but I would like to see him be a top priority. In the draft, a couple of those space eating type tackles could potentially fall to the second round. They are Alabama’s Christian Barmore and Marvin Wilson of Florida State. In the middle rounds, an intriguing name is Tedarell Slaton from Florida, who is a mountain at 6’5 and 358 pounds.

 

Edge Rusher

 

Premier edge rushers in free agency are rare and usually expensive, and require an investment the Bills can’t afford at this point. There are some names on the list that stand out, but they are either 30+ years in age or will command dollars Buffalo doesn’t have, even if they cut ties with Trent Murphy and save some cap cash. That leaves the draft again. Edge rushers who project to be available when the Bills pick are Patrick Jones II of Pitt and Carlos Basham out of Wake Forest. Mid-round possibilities include Tulsa’s Zaven Collins and Shaka Toney from Penn State. Buffalo might also consider a late round flyer on a local product, University of Buffalo’s Malcolm Koonce.

 

Cornerback

 

In today’s NFL you can never have enough cover corners, and although late round 2020 pick Dane Jackson could be a candidate for a breakout season, Buffalo could go CB as high as their first round pick if he’s the best player available. Aaron Robinson of UCF has been projected to the Bills at that pick by Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network. Asante Samuel Jr. could fall to them at pick 30 also. He has NFL bloodlines as his father played in the league. If the Bills are looking for length at the corner, a later round gem might be found in Washington’s Keith Taylor or Robert Rochell from Central Arkansas. The free agent CB list is mostly older players over 30 or Buffalo retreads like Ronald Darby and Nickell Robey-Coleman.

 

Offensive Line

 

Among free agent tackles on the market, the Bills’ best option looks like re-signing Darryl Williams to man the right tackle spot for another year. Also, their best and least expensive FA choice at guard appears to be their own Jon Feliciano. That leaves the college ranks again. Using the best player available formula, if Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood or Tennessee guard Trey Smith fall to 30, either could be picked. There are plentiful choices from rounds 2-6 available among O-line prospects. The team would do well to look at players like Ben Cleveland from Georgia, Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks, Walker Little from Stanford, Dillon Radunz, a North Dakota State stud, and Spencer Brown of Northern Iowa.

 

Wide Receiver

 

This is definitely not a position of need for the Bills. However, should the team look to save cap space and add speed by not bringing back return specialist Andre Roberts, they might look for a cheaper and faster option like D’Wayne Eskridge of Western Michigan, who comes highly recommended by Rayonsports contributor and draft guru Josh Pohlman. Shi Smith from South Carolina and Dazz Newsome out of North Carolina are other later round possibilities.

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

28 Jan

Used from 1996 until 2000, this is the logo of a college football team that plays in the Mountain West Conference, the Utah State Aggies. The school played it’s first gridiron season in 1892 and has won 12 conference titles over the years. The list of former Aggies who have enjoyed pro football careers is long, and includes Bob Gagliano, Lionel Aldridge, Jim Turner, Bobby Wagner, Al Smith, Barry Sims, Altie Taylor, Len Rohde, Donald Penn, Bill Munson, MacArthur Lane, Rulon Jones, Cornell Green and Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen.

 
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Classic Sports Card of The Day

28 Jan

1977 Topps football card of former NFL defensive tackle Mike Kadish, who spent 10 years in the league, mostly with the Buffalo Bills. He was a first round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins in 1972 and spent that year on the team’s taxi squad as they completed their undefeated season. He was traded to the Bills and was a main fixture on their defense until his final season in 1981.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 3

27 Jan

Part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review deals with the defense and special teams. It was a tale of 2 seasons for the defense. They struggled to find their footing early in the year as they worked in some new players on the front line, then became a unit that forced turnovers in a late season run in which they wrapped up the team’s first AFC East title in 25 years. They then reverted to that early season form in a brutal championship game loss to the Chiefs. Here’s a position-by-position assessment of the defense and special teams for 2020:

 

Defensive Line

 

The Bills walked away from 2 of their mainstays of the 2019 D-line when they lost Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips to free agency. In their places, they brought in Vernon Butler, Mario Addison and Quinton Jefferson, and got mixed results. Addison was a force in the pass rush while Butler and Jefferson were adequate at times and invisible other times. Ed Oliver’s play seemed to regress some from the previous year. He was beginning to emerge as a force late in the 2019 season but never showed the ability to be a consistent disruptive player this past season. The loss of Star Lotulelei, who played next to him but opted out of the season, probably was a factor. Justin Zimmer, a street free agent who fought his way into the D-line rotation, made more impact plays throughout the year than Oliver. Harrison Phillips came back from a serious injury and slowly worked his way back as the season progressed, and should improve even more next year with a full year of healing behind him. Besides Addison, the defensive end spots were manned by old reliable Jerry Hughes, veteran Trent Murphy and youngsters Darryl Johnson and A.J. Epenesa. Hughes was the team’s best pass rusher even if his sack numbers don’t show it. Murphy spent a lot of 2020 as a healthy inactive on game day and the likelihood of him returning next season is slim to none. Johnson is still an interesting prospect. He is a key contributor on special teams and a regular in the D-line rotation, and should only get better with experience. The same can be said for Epenesa. He looked like a green rookie early in the year but worked his way into regular duty also with solid if not spectacular play. The practice squad has 3 players who all were recalled for games during the season and will be back competing for jobs again in 2021 – Mike Love, Brandin Bryant and Bryan Cox Jr.

 

Linebackers

 

The amount of time NFL teams play standard 4-3 defenses that keep all 3 LBs on the field is almost as extinct as the fullback position is. In today’s pass-happy game even the linebackers who play regularly have to have special skills. The days of snarling physical monsters like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke have long passed into history. Buffalo’s main pair of linebackers possess those necessary modern day skills. Tremaine Edmunds is an interesting case. He is still very young and has been a twice-named Pro Bowler, yet his game still has a ways to go to reach elite status. He has great physical tools – tall, rangy, quick and intelligent. Yet his playmaking ability still needs improvement. The other backer, Matt Milano, is similar. He can tackle with the best of them and is great in coverage, and until the title game fiasco the team was unbeaten in 2020 in games he played in. He’s also due to be a free agent and hopefully his skill set and still untapped potential make him a top priority to get re-signed. A.J. Klein was an enigma in 2020. He had a target on his back from fans early in the year as a reason the defense was struggling, then shined when Milano was hurt and he replaced him, almost playing at a Pro Bowl level himself. When Milano returned, Klein pretty much went back into obscurity. The rest of the linebacking corps consists of mainly special teams players – Tyler Matakevich, Andre Smith and Tyrel Dodson. Lurking on the practice squad is an interesting name to watch for next season – Darron Lee. He is a former high draft pick with the speed and skills that translate to the modern game if the Bills’ coaches can harness them.

 

Defensive Backs

 

Overall in 2020 the Bills’ pass defense was a strength, but appeared lost and completely overmatched against the Chiefs in the title game. It’s uncertain if that poor showing was due to a lack of speed and ability from the players, or a massive failure of the scheme used that day. (Who leaves the best tight end in the NFL, Travis Kelce, virtually uncovered the entire game?) In any case, Buffalo has a good mix of youth and experience in their secondary. Starting safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are one of the top duos in the league, and have a capable mix of youth and experience behind them in Dean Marlowe, Siran Neal and Jaquon Johnson. Neal especially is a valuable, versatile piece of the roster as he can play corner or safety and is a top gunner on coverage teams. Josh Thomas is on the practice squad and has been signed to a futures contract for 2021, so the team sees some value in him also. At cornerback, the Bills have an All Pro in Tre’Davious White, and have him locked up contractually going forward. The annual attempt to unseat Levi Wallace at the other CB spot failed again in 2020, and at this point it’s time to admit that he has been an overall good player for the club. That doesn’t mean the Bills won’t welcome a better option again next season, and one player who will get the opportunity to take that job is 2020 seventh round draft pick Dane Jackson. He was a PS fixture this season but made some impact plays when his chance came as a recall on game days a couple of times this season. Slot cornerback has evolved into a starting position nowadays in the NFL, and the Bills’ player at that spot, Taron Johnson, cemented himself as a prime time star in 2020 with a pair of pick-six touchdowns. The Bills got mixed results from the free agent signing of veteran Josh Norman. He was hampered by injuries and was never completely able to take over Wallace’s job. He would appear to be an unlikely candidate to return next season, especially with Buffalo looking to add speed to the secondary to compete with Kansas City’s track star receivers. Two other players to consider for competition next year – Cam Lewis, a University of Buffalo product who spent the season on injured reserve, and practice squad member Duke Thomas.

 

Special Teams

 

The “bomb squads” made some improvements in 2020. There weren’t many game-changing plays but the units went from hurting to helping the Bills’ effort to win games. The team’s decision to jettison Stephen “Hausch Money” Hauschka in favor of rookie Tyler Bass as their placekicker was surprising, but turned out to be exactly right. Bass set a club record for points and is set as a mainstay for the future. He provided 2 of the few bright spots in the team’s loss in Kansas City with a pair of 50+ yard field goals. Punter Corey Bojorquez joined in the mediocrity of the team’s title game effort, but had a solid season overall. He also teamed with Bass and long snapper Reid Ferguson to form a nearly flawless extra point and field goal tandem. Andre Roberts, who is a free agent, delivered a Pro Bowl effort as the team’s kick returner, regularly providing the offense with good field position to start drives. His backup, Isiah McKenzie, returned a punt for a touchdown in the regular season finale rout of Miami. The coverage teams were pretty solid also all season. Undrafted free agent Reggie Gilliam was a part of those teams. He blocked 6 kicks in college at Toledo, including 4 in one season alone. If the Bills want to follow coach Sean McDermott’s edict to “improve in all areas in 2021”, then special teams coordinator Heath Farwell would be wise to try to take advantage of Gilliam’s unique skill.

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

27 Jan

Logo of a Division II college football team that plays in the South Atlantic Conference, the Catawba College Indians. The NCAA cited the school for it’s “abusive” nickname, but after appealing to continue to use the name, citing the approval of the Catawba Indian Nation, the NCAA relented. Catawba alumni who have gone on to pro football careers include Bucky Pope, a Rams’ receiver who was nicknamed “The Catawba Claw”, Ike Hill, Dave Taylor and Drew Buie.

 

 
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Classic Sports Card of The Day

27 Jan

1976 Topps football card of former pro football defensive lineman Earl Edwards, who played 11 seasons in the NFL for 4 different teams. After playing 2 years with Edmonton of the CFL, he joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1969 and finished second in the voting for Defensive Rookie of The Year to Pittsburgh legend Mean Joe Greene. He helped the Niners win the NFC West from 1970 to 1972, then was traded to Buffalo. He finished up his NFL career with stops in Cleveland and Green Bay. Edwards is currently a substitute teacher in Arizona.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 2

26 Jan

Part 2 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review will focus on the offensive side of the ball. Surprisingly, the offense was the strength of the team all year, mainly due to the play of quarterback Josh Allen. Here’s a position-by-position critique of the Bills’ offense:

 

Quarterbacks

 

Josh Allen’s play in his third season drew rave reviews around the NFL due to an improvement level rarely, if ever, seen before at the game’s most important position. He solidified his spot as a franchise QB by leading a dominant passing attack that thrived despite the lack of a consistent run game. Allen has established himself as one of the game’s rising stars. Veteran Matt Barkley was the backup again in 2020 but rarely saw action due to Allen’s durability. He did impress in the club’s final regular season game against Miami in which they rested their starters. His contract is up now, so the question is, will he be back or will Buffalo turn to a younger option. They have 2 of those on the roster. Davis Webb and 2020 draft pick Jake Fromm. Since the pandemic wiped out the NFL’s preseason, neither Webb or Fromm has truly been evaluated yet.

 

Running backs

 

This is a spot that is in need of an upgrade if the Bills hope to take the jump to championship level. Devin Singletary was average at best as the starting back, and is not an explosive runner. Rookie Zach Moss, in my opinion, surpassed him as the lead back before a late-season injury ended his season. The Bills could be looking at a feature back early in the draft if one turns out to be the “best player available” when they get their turn at pick 30. Veteran T.J. Yeldon has served strictly as an insurance policy since he joined the team. He’s flashed some brilliance when he’s gotten a chance to play, but the fact that he’s almost always inactive and his contract is up leads me to believe that his days are numbered here, probably by his own choice. There are a couple of other interesting options on the roster. Undrafted rookie Antonio Williams became a fan favorite and a realistic possibility to make the regular roster when he was recalled from the practice squad for the finale against the Dolphins and played great. Former rugby player Christian Wade will get his final shot at making the team in 2021. He has also shined in limited preseason showings and has gotten to learn the nuances of the game the last 2 years. Taiwan Jones is on the roster strictly for special teams. Veteran Devonta Freeman was added to the practice squad after Moss was hurt. Was he just season-ending insurance or will he be back in 2021?

 

Receivers

 

The receiving corps was a major strength of the Buffalo attack in 2020. After adding veteran free agents John Brown and Cole Beasley in 2019, GM Brandon Beane made a bold trade to acquire Stefon Diggs from the Vikings to round out the starting 3 wideouts. He then proceeded to add another valuable receiving weapon in the fourth round of the draft when he “stole” Gabriel Davis. Beasley had a career year working out of the slot, while Brown’s production dropped, partly due to Diggs’ arrival as the main target of the passing attack. Isaiah McKenzie is a Swiss Army knife of a player who adds versatility to the unit, and is also the backup kick returner. He is due to be a free agent, and is one name the Bills should pursue, given his value in different areas. Andre Roberts, also an impending free agent, makes minimal contributions as a receiver but is an All Pro kick returner. The Bills also have some interesting prospects for the wideout position on their injured reserve/practice squad lists. Isaiah Hodgins, a 2020 sixth round draft pick, never got a chance to show his worth as he wound up on IR at the final cutdown. He is a rangy 6’4 receiver who is said to have excellent hands. Beane loaded up with extra insurance on the practice squad near season’s end. Kenny Stills is a veteran speedster known for his ability to go deep. Jake “Touchdown Jesus” Kumerow got some game action at Denver and scored a touchdown to put his name on the map. Duke Williams has been on the PS for 2 seasons now and has occasionally gotten a shot to play, but hasn’t cracked the full roster yet. Another interesting late season signee was Tanner Gentry, Josh Allen’s favorite target in their college days at Wyoming. Kumerow and Gentry have already been signed to future contracts for next season, while it remains to be seen if Stills is considered an option for 2021 or was merely a 2020 insurance policy.

The Bills carried 4 tight ends on their roster in 2020. Dawson Knox emerged as the undisputed starter during the season after battling injury and Covid issues early on. In his absence, Tyler Kroft filled in admirably but as the season progressed he was inexplicably relegated to inactive status on game day each week. Lee Smith, who is basically a tackle playing tight end, was used more often, mainly to help a rushing attack that never really meshed all year. The fourth tight end is undrafted rookie Reggie Gilliam. He contributed on special teams and was used as a blocking back on short yardage plays. Like Duke Williams, Nate Becker has been a practice squad regular for 2 seasons but seems to have not much of a future with the club. Speaking of future, Tommy Sweeney’s is a question mark going forward. He contracted Covid-19 and then developed a heart issue from it that could jeopardize his career going forward.

 

Offensive Line

 

The Bills solidified the offensive line as the season went on after some early shuffling, but after a disappointing finish at Kansas City in the title game and with some free agency pending, there may be some reshuffling going on in the offseason. The only spot set in stone at this point is left tackle, where Dion Dawkins is the man, freshly signed to an extension. Two starters, Jon Feliciano and Darryl Williams, are free agents. Williams was solid most of the year but played poorly against the Chiefs so his return is no sure thing, especially with Cody Ford returning from injury. There is speculation that the Bills could part with center Mitch Morse to save cap money. He was benched for a short time during the season so that speculation might have some truth to it. If Morse is let go, signing Feliciano becomes a priority since he would be the player to slide into the position. Ike Boettger quietly took over the left guard spot as the season progressed, and was decent, but with Beane always looking to upgrade the roster, his starting position is tenuous. As for the depth, there is versatile Ryan Bates, who can play any position, a skill the coaches value. Swing tackle Ty Nsekhe is a fine backup, but he’s also 35 years old. Brian Winters is an impending free agent. He had multiple chances to move into the starting lineup and couldn’t stay there, so I don’t see him being a priority to resign. Jordan Devey, a late season insurance add to the roster, is 33 and not a long term prospect either. The practice squad has a couple of interesting prospects. Jonotthan Harrison was a “protected” PS player most of the year, so the Bills must see some value there. Trey Adams is a big tackle prospect who was highly rated coming out of college until injuries hampered him. There is certainly room for improvement and an infusion of youth along the O line.

 

 

 
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Classic Team Logo of The Day

26 Jan

Logo of a scholastic football team from northern California, the Firebaugh High School Eagles. The school is located in Fresno County and has a majority of Hispanic students enrolled in it. It’s most famous athletic alumnus is current Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen.

 
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Classic Sports Card of The Day

26 Jan

2019 Score football card of one of the bright young stars of today’s NFL, Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen. Drafted in the first round out of Wyoming in 2018, he has improved vastly in his 3 years in the NFL, to the point where he was considered a serious MVP candidate in 2020. His family owns a cantelope farm in the rural northern California town of Firebaugh.

 
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NFL – Buffalo Bills’ Season Review – Part 1

25 Jan

The 2020 Buffalo Bills’ season extended quite a ways past where it usually has in other years, yet came 2 weeks short of where fans hoped it would end. Nevertheless, it’s time to publish our annual four part season review of the team. Part 1 deals with the Bills’ management and coaching staff. General Manager Brandon Beane deserves an A+ for the job he’s done in constructing a playoff caliber roster, and he’s been rewarded with several Executive of The Year honors. He purged the roster of selfish players who were deemed to be not buying in to “the process”, drafted a sure-fire franchise quarterback in Josh Allen and then surrounded him with the talent to help him succeed. In the last off-season Beane did some of his best work. He sacrificed the club’s top draft choice in a trade that yielded a player who turned out to be the top wide receiver in the NFL in Stefon Diggs. His work with the remainder of his 2020 draft picks left the team with players who either contributed on some level to the winning year or have the  potential to be part of the Bills’ future success. Beane’s next challenge will be his toughest – raising the team to championship level by continuing to add depth pieces and recognize where he needs to freshen the roster with young talent that can improve a club that won 15 games this season but still came up short of the ultimate goal. The Bills lost a rather one-sided AFC Championship game to Kansas City to end the season, so there’s now a clear barometer of where they need to get to in order to climb the final mountain.

Head coach Sean McDermott has established much more than just a winning culture in Buffalo. His players have banded together into a brotherhood where they all play unselfishly for each other and for the team’s die-hard fans. There’s a lot of love in the locker room, and that has been noticed around the league, as the Bills are now respected as a winning organization that other players will be willing to come and join. That helps Beane do his job. One of my criticisms of McDermott in past reviews was that at 0-6 against Bill Belichick he had yet to beat the AFC East’s dominant team. He slayed that dragon in 2020 by sweeping the Pats, including a convincing win in Foxborough near the end of the regular season. His assistant coaches have become hot properties around the league as both coordinators, Brian Daboll and Leslie Frazier, have gotten interviews for head coaching openings, and quarterback coach Ken Dorsey has been rumored to be a candidate for offensive coordinator jobs. McDermott, a serious candidate for Coach of The Year for his work, hasn’t been perfect. His challenge decisions haven’t always worked, and his team overall looked overmatched and outcoached in the title game against the defending champion Chiefs.

With 3 playoff appearances in 4 seasons, the Bills’ management and coaching is in a solid and stable position for years of future success. There still needs to be improvement as standing pat usually leads to staleness and regression, but the Beane/McDermott partnership is well equipped to accomplish that.

 
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