The Buffalo Bills have something that has eluded them for a long time: Stability.
The team is entering the third year under the leadership of coach Sean McDermott. That means the same defensive system for three years in a row. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will return for his second season on the job, so the offense will have continuity that it has long lacked. Last year, Daboll was the fifth different offensive coordinator the Bills had in the previous five seasons.
While the team has several newcomers who will have to be brought up to speed on the team’s playbook, there are plenty of returning players who will be counted on to play key roles in 2019.
Here's a look at five players who need to improve for the Bills:
5. CB Levi Wallace
From Weeks 10 to 17 last year, Wallace was analytics website Pro Football Focus’ No. 2-ranked cornerback. The undrafted free agent ranked behind only Cardinals All-Pro Patrick Peterson. Wallace allowed just 10 catches for 94 yards in those seven games, both of which led the league, according to PFF.
Despite that, the Bills aren’t simply handing him a starting spot. The team signed former first-round draft pick Kevin Johnson and reunited with E.J. Gaines, who started under the same coaching staff in 2017. If Wallace wants to remain a starter, he’ll have to beat out both of them. The concern with Wallace is his size. At 6 feet and just 179 pounds, this offseason will be big for him in terms of adding muscle to his slight frame.
4. WR Robert Foster
The Bills don’t have an established No. 1 receiver on the roster. Foster might be their best hope of developing one. He became the first undrafted rookie in the common draft era (since 1967) to have at least three games with 100-plus receiving yards last year. From Week 10 through the end of the regular season, he ranked 15th in the NFL with 511 receiving yards (and eight of the players ahead of him played eight games, compared to Foster’s seven).
Over that time, he averaged 20.4 yards per catch, which was second in the league among qualified leaders. At 6 feet, 2 inches and 196 pounds, and with 4.41-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Foster is the Bills’ most explosive offensive weapon. He’s got the work ethic to match, too. Like with Wallace, his former Alabama teammate, the challenge for Foster will be proving that he is more than just a pleasant surprise.
3. DE Shaq Lawson
Lawson is a repeat selection on this list from a year ago, which isn’t a good thing. He did have his best professional season in 2018, finishing with 28 tackles, four sacks and five passes defensed. Still, the Bills made clear that they need to see more by electing not to pick up the fifth-year option on Lawson’s contract.
That means he’s heading into a contract year, which should be all the motivation he needs. The Bills didn’t make a big investment at defensive end in either free agency or the draft, meaning Lawson will again have an opportunity to show he was worth the first-round draft pick the former front office spent on him. If he doesn’t, it’s possible the current front office moves on after this year.
2. LB Tremaine Edmunds
Edmunds had a good rookie season in 2018, starting 15 games (missing one with a concussion) and making 80 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. The challenge for Edmunds in 2019 is to be great. Edmunds ranked fifth among linebackers who played at least 560 snaps last year with 13 missed tackles. That number has to improve.
At 6 feet, 5 inches and 250 pounds, he has freakish size, and it’s easy to forget he’s still just 21 years old. The Bills have pushed Edmunds into a leadership position, choosing him to address the media on the first day of offseason conditioning. As the quarterback of the defense, leadership comes with the position, but the easiest way for any player to be a leader is to produce at a high level.
1. QB Josh Allen
A no-brainer at the No. 1 spot on this list, Allen’s development will be the most important factor in whether the Bills become a true contender. That doesn’t necessarily have to happen this year, but at a minimum, Allen has to show that he’s the right quarterback for the job. He will have the benefit of coming to training camp as the unquestioned starter, and will get the reps that comes with the role. His rookie season was a roller coaster ride, from coming off the bench in Week 1 to getting hurt in October and missing four games to returning to the lineup and playing his best football down the stretch. But it was hard to get a true read on Allen.
Certainly, his ability as a runner surprised and impressed observers. The Bills, though, would prefer to see Allen do less running, and more with his arm. To aid him, the team rebuilt the offensive line and added weapons at wide receiver. With a better supporting cast, it’s on Allen to take the next step in his career.