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Bills' final report card shows progress but many areas to improve

The Buffalo Bills’ progress in 2019 can be summarized with one simple set of numbers: 6-10 to 10-6.

A four-win improvement from the previous season and a second playoff berth in three years are signs that the Bills are headed in the right direction.

As coach Sean McDermott correctly pointed out in his season-ending press conference, though, being pointed in the right direction does not guarantee the Bills will eventually arrive at their desired destination.

“It’s what you do learn from that coming off of it that helps you the next season,” McDermott said.

There were plenty of learning experiences for the Bills to draw from, the biggest of which came in the playoffs against the Houston Texans. As painful as the 22-19 overtime loss was, it can be invaluable experience for the Bills’ young nucleus, starting with quarterback Josh Allen and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.

“I can’t get those moments out on the practice field,” McDermott said. “We can pump the crowd noise and do this and that, but being in those moments, there’s something to be said for that. There’s no substitute for those games.

“How do you start over and use that pain to turn into strength and growth? That’s what we’re trying to do this offseason.”

Before looking at how that’s best accomplished, here’s a look back at the year that was, in the form of The Buffalo News’ final, position-by-position report card on the 2019 Bills:

Quarterbacks: C

Colleague Mark Gaughan summarized Josh Allen’s second season neatly when he wrote:  “The bottom line on Allen’s season: He got better in almost every measurable way over his rookie season.”

Better, but still not good enough.

Allen’s accuracy is still not where it needs to be – especially when it comes to deep balls. He ranked 29th of the 32 quarterbacks with the most attempts of throws that went 20-plus yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. His adjusted completion percentage, which takes out drops and throwaways, was 30.9%, ahead of only rookie Dwayne Haskins of Washington and Kyle Allen of Carolina. The league average was 42%.

Allen increased his completion percentage 6% to 58.8%, the third-best improvement in the league. Despite that, he still ranked 32nd.

To Allen’s credit, he learned from his mistakes. After a three-interception showing against the Patriots in Week 4, Allen threw just three interceptions the rest of the season. He accounted for 29 total touchdowns, which ranked sixth in the league. His five game-winning drives tied Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Seattle’s Russell Wilson for most in the NFL.

The playoff loss to the Texans left plenty of questions about Allen. Can he ever truly shake his tendency to play “hero ball?”

“There are so many things that he can do better and there are certainly things that I can do better and our entire football team,” McDermott said. “I think if you take the right approach, that’s being accountable and taking ownership – and I know Josh did that – that’s really where it starts. With that, he’ll put the work in and you know he will be better next season. I think you’ll see another step this offseason into next season.”

It’s a good thing Allen stayed healthy, because backup quarterback Matt Barkley did not look good in a pair of appearances. Barkley couldn’t lead a comeback win over the Patriots after Allen got hurt in Week 4, then struggled in the rain in a meaningless season finale against the Jets. Barkley finished the year 27 of 51 (52.9%) for 359 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions – a quarterback rating of 51.0.

Running backs: B-

Rookie Devin Singletary missed three games because of a hamstring injury early in the year, which slowed his development. That’s a shame, because Singletary was the best running back on the Buffalo roster. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, which was tied for fourth in the NFL among running backs. Singletary should be even better in his second season.

Veteran Frank Gore stepped up in Singletary’s absence, rushing 45 times for 245 yards in the three games he was out. His touchdown with 1:50 left gave the Bills the go-ahead points in a Week 3 win over the Bengals. Gore, however, looked all of his 36 years old down the stretch. He slowed considerably as the season went on, averaging just 2.7 yards per carry over the final nine games.

Third running back T.J. Yeldon was a forgotten man after the bye week. Yeldon was a healthy inactive 10 consecutive games. The coaching staff seemed to lose faith in Yeldon because of fumbling issues in the preseason and early in the regular season.

Wide receiver Cole Beasley had the second-best year of his career. (Getty Images)

Wide receivers: C+

John Brown and Cole Beasley were huge free-agent signings. Brown became the Bills’ first 1,000-yard receiver since Sammy Watkins in 2015. Brown finished with 1,060 yards, but his production slowed toward the end of the season after he was on a 1,300-yard pace. Brown’s touchdown catch against New England in Week 16, when he smoked All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore, was an example of what he can do. Unfortunately, there wasn’t more of that in the offense. Brown had just 17 catches that went for 20-plus yards.

Beasley, meanwhile, had the second-best year of his career. He finished with 67 catches for 778 yards and six touchdowns, a single-season best. He had 75 catches for 833 yards and five touchdowns in 2016 with the Cowboys.

It’s scary to think what the offense would have looked like without them. The Bills settled on Isaiah McKenzie as their third receiver, but the bulk of his time was spent running (or faking) jet sweeps. Fan favorite Duke Williams caught the go-ahead touchdown against Tennessee before the bye week, but then spent nearly the entire rest of the season as a healthy inactive. He did make six catches for 108 yards against the Jets in the meaningless Week 17 finale, earning a spot on the game-day roster for the playoffs. Williams, however, failed to make a couple of key plays in that loss to the Texans.

Robert Foster, who had 25 catches for 511 yards and three touchdowns in the final seven games last season, was limited to three catches for 64 yards in his second season.

Tight ends: D

Tyler Kroft was signed to be the starter, but a broken foot on the first day of spring practice set him way behind. Kroft was supposed to return against his old team, the Bengals, in Week 3, but then an ankle injury sidelined him. It ended up being a bust of a season for Kroft, although he did make a key touchdown catch in Week 15 at Pittsburgh, helping the Bills punch their postseason ticket. Nevertheless, he finished with just six catches for 71 yards and is a prime candidate to be a salary-cap casualty.

That’s because the future at the position for the Bills is Dawson Knox. Forced into the starting lineup because of Kroft’s injury, Knox finished with 28 catches for 388 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His numbers should have been even better, but he had a huge issue with drops – nine of them to lead all tight ends. He also struggled as a blocker. For evidence, go back and watch the quarterback sweep in overtime against the Texans. If Knox gets in front of Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham, the Bills probably win the game. (On second thought, you might not want to watch that play.) If those issues get cleaned up, Knox could be a force for a long time.

Lee Smith is a great quote and one of the good guys in the Bills’ locker room, but it’s inexcusable that he led all tight ends in the NFL with eight penalties while playing just about a quarter of the offensive snaps.

Tommy Sweeney, a seventh-round draft pick, made the active roster but spent most of the season as a healthy inactive after Kroft returned. I’d bet the Bills can get from Sweeney what they got from Kroft next year, at a fraction of the price.

Offensive line: B-

Considering all the turnover, the Bills had a nice year up front. Left tackle Dion Dawkins was the only returning starter, and he elevated his play in his third season. Dawkins could be in line for a contract extension this offseason.

The rest of the line was brand-new: left guard Quinton Spain, center Mitch Morse, right guard Jon Feliciano and the combination at right tackle between Cody Ford and Ty Nsekhe. Morse, the high-priced free agent, suffered a concussion in the preseason, meaning the eventual starting group had little time to come together.

It did so reasonably well given the circumstances. The Bills allowed 40 sacks, which ranked as the 18th most in the NFL, but analytics website Pro Football Focus put just 17 of those sacks on the offensive line. That ranked as the 10th fewest in the league.

The Bills were not a good power running team, finishing 25th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. Those are plays on third or fourth down needing 2 yards or less for a first down or touchdown. Buffalo was successful in those situations just 58% of the time, which points to some problems getting the necessary push.

Spain, who had no other contract offers, and Feliciano, who was a backup with the Raiders, were low-priced additions who paid off in a big way for General Manager Brandon Beane. An ankle injury suffered by Nsekhe in the second half of the season pushed Ford into a full-time role that he might not have been ready for. Ford struggled with speed rushers coming off the edge at times.

Spain is the only free agent among the group, and he’d like to be back, so there is a good chance for the line to continue building continuity.

Defensive line: B

It was a strange year in that some players exceeded expectations, while others didn’t quite meet them. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips blew by them with 9.5 sacks, setting himself up for a nice payday in free agency. Phillips was sometimes the beneficiary of pressure off the edges, but that’s a sign of a cohesive defensive line. The Bills face an interesting decision on what to do with Phillips in free agency. When Beane said at his year-end press conference that Phillips had earned the right to test the open market, it was perhaps a clue about what might happen.

It would be understandable if the Bills don’t want to get into a bidding war for Phillips, considering they drafted Ed Oliver ninth overall to be their primary three-technique defensive tackle. Oliver, who had five sacks as a rookie, will be a big part of the defensive plans going forward.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes tweeted after the season that he played with torn wrist ligaments, which might explain why he finished with just 4.5 sacks, his fewest since 2012, his last year with the Indianapolis Colts.

Across from Hughes, Trent Murphy finished the year with four sacks in the last two games, including two in the loss to the Texans. It was the type of finish Murphy needed, because he was outplayed most of the season by Shaq Lawson. Murphy has one year remaining on his contract at a cap hit of nearly $9 million. He’ll likely stick around, given that Lawson is a pending free agent coming off the best year of his career. He finished with 6.5 sacks. The Bills sounded interested in bringing him back at the year-end press conference.

The run defense suffered when defensive tackle Harrison Phillips was lost for the season because of a torn ACL. He had started to take playing time away from Star Lotulelei before getting hurt. The Bills never found an adequate replacement for Phillips, and the run defense suffered, most notably in allowing 218 yards to the Eagles in Week 8.

Bills middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds combined with Matt Milano for 17 tackles for loss this season. (James P. McCoy/News file photo)

Linebackers: A-

The Bills have a pair of excellent, every-down linebackers in Edmunds and Matt Milano. Edmunds, who makes the defensive calls, isn’t a vocal leader, but he spoke to the team the night before the Week 11 game against Miami – a moment that resonated in the locker room. He finished with 115 tackles, nine passes defensed and one interception.

Milano also had nine passes defensed, finishing with an even 100 tackles in 15 games. Milano and Edmunds combined for 17 tackles for loss. If the Bills were to lose either Edmunds or Milano for an extended period of time, it would be a big problem for the defense, because there is not a lot of depth.

Retiring linebacker Lorenzo Alexander also had nine passes defensed, while making 50 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble in playing half of the defensive snaps. The Bills will have to replace Alexander on the field, but the bigger challenge will be replacing his leadership in the locker room.

Secondary: A

This group is easily one of the best in the NFL. Cornerback Tre’Davious White took a huge jump in his third season, making his first Pro Bowl and more importantly being named a first-team All-Pro. White, who tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions, consistently defended the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, allowing an opposing passer rating of 46.3, tops in the NFL among cornerbacks who played at least 520 defensive snaps, according to PFF.

On the opposite side, Levi Wallace started all 16 games, but when he began to struggle midway through the season – most notably in the loss to Cleveland – the Bills went to a rotation with Kevin Johnson. Whether Wallace is the long-term answer as the No. 2 cornerback is a question the team needs to answer this offseason. Johnson, who is an impending free agent, is a valuable depth player who started the playoff loss with Wallace out because of an ankle injury. If Johnson departs, depth at outside cornerback will be a big offseason need.

Slot cornerback Taron Johnson missed four games early in the season because of a hamstring injury. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his first two seasons. Johnson is a physical tackler, but isn’t the biggest player, which means those injury concerns are always going to be there. Backup Siran Neal is a versatile defender who became one of the Bills’ best special-teams players.

The safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer remains rock-solid. Their communication allows the defense to hide coverages. Poyer, who has one year left on his contract, has been a big-play machine, with 105 tackles, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Pound for pound, he might be the toughest player on the roster.

Hyde, who is a good candidate to step into Alexander’s leadership role, had 72 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles. Like with Edmunds and Milano, there would be a big dropoff if Hyde or Poyer missed an extended amount of time.

Kicker Stephen Hauschka missed two field goals in the Week 10 loss to the Browns. (Buffalo News file photo)

Special teams: C+

Punter Corey Bojorquez was streaky. He tied for the league lead with seven touchbacks, but also led the league with an average hang time of 4.54 seconds. That led to just 22.8% of his punts being returned, also the best figure in the league. Bojorquez placed 42 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, which was tied for second. His net and gross averages of 37.7 and 41.9, respectively, both ranked 30th in the league. Those can get better with fewer touchbacks and an avoidance of the shank that Bojorquez has from time to time.

Kicker Stephen Hauschka got off to a bad start, making just 8 of 13 field goals in the first 10 games. He missed two field goals in a Week 10 loss to the Browns, including a 52-yarder that could have sent the game to overtime. Hauschka, however, made 18 of 19 field goals the rest of the season, including the playoff loss. My big concern with Hauschka is what looks to be diminished leg strength. If the Bills need a 50-plus yard field goal next year, is that going to be within Hauschka’s range?

Return man Andre Roberts, an All-Pro with the Jets in 2018, came close on a few occasions, but was never able to reach the end zone. Nevertheless, he ranked fourth in kickoff return average (26.6 yards) and ninth in punt return average (8.0). He showed good hands and decision making all season, which isn’t always the case for returners.

Long snapper Reid Ferguson did not miss a snap all year.

The Bills definitely improved as the year went on, but made some crucial mistakes – the biggest of which was the blocked punt in Week 4 that was recovered by the Patriots for a touchdown. Buffalo also allowed a 101-yard kick return for a touchdown by the Dolphins’ Jakeem Grant in Week 11, which let Miami hang around in the game.

Coaching: B+

Under Sean McDermott, the Bills have made the playoffs twice in three seasons. Considering where this franchise was before his arrival, that’s remarkable. McDermott has built a tight-knit team. It’s not just lip service when he talks about the “culture” that’s been established.

With the exception of the loss to the Browns and maybe the home game against the Eagles, the Bills beat the teams they should have this season. That’s meant as a compliment. The team was ready to play every week, which is a credit to McDermott’s preparation.

Not everything was perfect, though. Despite his disdain for presnap penalties, the Bills still committed 31, second-most in the league. That says McDermott’s message isn’t getting through.

Time management and operation errors that led to wasted timeouts were almost weekly occurrences. That has to get better moving forward.

Offensively, it’s fair to second-guess the overreliance on Gore, particularly in the loss to the Texans. It also felt like Beasley could have been utilized more at times.

All things considered, though, the offense made progress under second-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. If he leaves to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns, McDermott will have a huge decision to make on a replacement.

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