2019 Coaching Staff
There’s some coaching continuity in Buffalo for a change. Despite a down year in terms of standings, head coach Sean McDermott was retained due to the promise the Bills showed on the field. Namely, the defense was surprisingly effective and rookie QB Josh Allen routinely put the offense on his back. More importantly for our purposes, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was retained to continue working with Allen, hopefully turning him into the franchise QB Buffalo drafted him to be.
What to Expect
The key in Buffalo is fixing the offensive line. The Bills bled talent from their O-line during the offseason and it showed as PFF ranked the Bills’ O-line 26th by the end of the season. Josh Allen was constantly under pressure and the line couldn’t open holes for the running game to take pressure off him. That’s not an easy thing to deal with for veteran QBs, but it’s especially tough on a rookie QB who isn’t known for finesse and doesn’t have much in the way of receiving talent to throw to. The Bills have hired a new offensive line coach to try to address the issue, but they’ll need some more talent at the line positions as well. Failure to fix the issue will end with Allen on his back and the coaching staff out the door.
Improving the O-line enough so that Allen isn’t constantly running for his life will also be critical for Daboll to run his preferred scheme. Daboll hasn’t spent much time as an NFL offensive coordinator – certainly not much recently, at least – but what little data there is on him shows dedication to the running game; his offenses finished outside the top 6 in rush attempts only once in five years, but never finished better than 28th in pass attempts. For that matter, his passing game isn’t even very efficient as it has only recorded a yards per attempt number better than the bottom 25% once. His running game is a little better – typically around the middle of the pack – but it has still been rather inconsistent across his coaching career. This is a little alarming as the top two RBs on the roster are both on the wrong side of 30 and both coming off the worst years of their respective careers. The defense should give the offense plenty of chances, but the Bills need to surround Allen with a lot more talent before the offense will be able to begin pulling its weight.
Before last year, Daboll’s previous stint as an NFL OC was with the Chiefs back in 2012. While we can glean some insight from looking at his offenses back then, it’s a wide enough gap that we will primarily be considering Daboll’s offense with the Bills last year. Despite being known as a run-first coordinator, the Bills actually only had 468 rush attempts last year against 540 passing plays (including 41 sacks) under Daboll, approximately a 54/46 pass/run ratio. That doesn’t account for the fact that Allen was the team’s leading rusher on the season, so it’s fair to say that Daboll actually called an even higher percentage of pass plays. Which way that ratio goes from here depends on what kind of talent the Buffalo front office can surround Allen with. I’m sure Daboll would love to take some pressure off Allen and return to his preferred run-heavy approach, but that would require either a late-career resurgence from LeSean McCoy or new blood at the running back position, not to mention the improvements required along the offensive line. Given where the team roster stands right now, it seems likely that the pass/run ratio isn’t dipping any lower than last year.
It also seems likely that the wide receivers will continue to dominate targets in the passing game. Last year, Buffalo wide receivers were targeted about 60% of the time while the running backs and tight ends both saw a little under 20%. There is an argument to be made that the tight end group was just young and that there will be improvement moving forward, but no one in the group looked like a future star. The running backs are on the opposite end of the spectrum in age, and both spent time injured last year. They could see improvement this season with some better health, but both McCoy and Chris Ivory have reached the dreaded big 3-0. It’s fair to think that their bodies could be breaking down (especially Ivory, who has been a bit injury-prone his whole career). Meanwhile, Zay Jones and Robert Foster aren’t exactly household names at the wideout position, but both certainly proved to be capable this past year. Allen’s penchant for throwing deep also adds to the wide receiver target share. Unless there are some significant personnel changes in Buffalo, expect Jones and Foster to continue to anchor the passing game.
The final point worth noting is the effect Kelvin Benjamin had on Josh Allen’s accuracy and the catch percentage of the wide receiver group as a whole. Despite finishing solidly as the second most targeted player on the Bills, Benjamin finished fourth in receptions with a pitiful 37.1% catch rate. With him in, the wide receivers only compiled a 51.4% catch rate. Without him, the group catch rate rose to 55%. Make of that what you will, but I think Allen will see at least a little improvement in that area with Benjamin gone.
Buffalo has a strong defense that, in theory, should provide the offense with plenty of attempts and complement Brian Daboll’s run-first approach. In practice, the Buffalo front office has to fill holes across the offense if they hope to see any real improvement. Any notable acquisitions could alter the balance, but for now it seems likely that the Bills will enter 2019 with a very similar offense to what they had last year.
Projected Team Rush Attempts: 465 Attempts
Projected Passing: 305 Completions on 505 Attempts, 40 sacks allowed
Projected WR Catches: 175 Receptions on 310 Targets
Projected RB Catches: 65 Receptions on 95 Targets
Projected TE Catches: 65 Receptions on 100 Targets
Update 1: The Bills have been active early in free agency. In addition to a couple of defensive moves, the Bills signed RB Frank Gore and TE Tyler Kroft. Gore shouldn’t have much impact on how the team operates (quite frankly I’m not sure what prompted the Buffalo front office to sign yet another 30+ year old back), but Kroft might. Kroft had some success as Tyler Eifert’s backup in Cincinnati, and his surprisingly large contract (up to $21 million over 3 years) indicates that Buffalo has a particular role in mind. Most of Kroft’s production will probably come at the expense of the tight ends already on the roster, but don’t be surprised if he siphons off some of the running backs’ target volume.
Update 2: Buffalo’s early involvement in free agency continues as they welcome new receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown. There still isn’t a true #1 wide receiver on the roster, but it’ll be tough to defend the sheer volume of #2 receivers the Bills have accumulated. Surrounding Josh Allen’s cannon arm with wideouts also would indicate a bit more willingness to fire downfield.