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Power ranking the Bills' position groups

Jay Skurski

The question had Mel Kiper Jr. stumped.

Speaking on a national conference call last week, the longtime NFL draft analyst for ESPN was asked what positions the Buffalo Bills might be looking at with their second- and third-round picks now that the team has traded away the No. 22 overall selection for wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

Kiper thought it through before conceding the Bills "don't really need a lot." That speaks to the depth General Manager Brandon Beane has built.

Of course, even the best NFL teams have roster holes. Perhaps a position has decent depth, but lacks top-end talent. Or the reverse could be true – a team has an All-Pro at one position, but not much else behind him.

With Kiper's comment in mind, The Buffalo News attempted to power rank the Bills' roster, by position group. Top-end talent, production, potential and depth all factored into the rankings – which will surely produce a fair amount of debate. Have at it after reading ours:

10. Tight ends

Dawson Knox had a promising rookie season, but right now he’s more potential than production. Knox has to cut down on the drops in his second season. He also missed a block in the playoff loss to Houston that, if executed, probably wins the game for the Bills. Yes, it’s only one play, but it was a huge play. Tyler Kroft is a good guy and it was nice to see him contribute a big touchdown catch against the Steelers last year, but injuries are a concern. He’s played in 16 of a possible 32 games over the past two years. Lee Smith is another “glue guy” in the locker room, but he saw his playing time drastically reduced last season. He also was penalized nine times – far too many for a player in on 30% of the offensive snaps.

9. Specialists

Kicker Stephen Hauschka has made 78.6% of his field goals the past two seasons. Prior to that, he had never been below 80% in seven full seasons. Most troubling last season was Hauschka’s seeming loss of leg strength. He went just 1 of 5 on field goals from 50-plus yards. Consistency remains an issue for punter Corey Bojorquez. His seven touchbacks tied for the NFL lead and his net average of 37.7 yards ranked 30th among qualified punters.

8. Quarterbacks

Before you freak out, let’s start with the good. Josh Allen improved in the traditional statistics used to evaluate quarterbacks. His completion percentage, yards gained, touchdowns and interception rate were all much better in his second year. That doesn’t mean Allen is a finished product. He’s got to be way better on deeper throws. On throws of 20 yards or more in 2019, he completed just 25% with four touchdowns and five picks. That completion percentage dropped to just 13% on throws of more than 30 yards. Allen’s performance against better competition also has to improve. The Bills played five games against playoff teams in 2019, and went 1-4, with the only win coming over Tennessee before it made a quarterback change. Allen completed 51% of his passes in those games with an average of just 5.6 yards per attempt. He had eight total touchdowns and six total turnovers (the Bills were lucky to recover four of his six fumbles or that number would have been worse).

None of this is to say Allen isn’t capable of improving. He showed significant growth from his rookie year to second season. That just has to continue. The Bills also don’t have a lot of quarterback depth, which partially explains this ranking. Matt Barkley has been a positive presence in the locker room, but let’s say Allen gets hurt in 2020 and misses a month. Can the Bills go at least 2-2 with Barkley? That’s not a sure thing. The only developmental quarterback on the roster is Davis Webb, a former third-round draft pick who has bounced between three teams.

7. Running backs

Devin Singletary was solid as a rookie, but things might be tougher for him in his second season. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Singletary faced eight or more defenders in the box on just 5% of his carries in 2019. If, as expected, he becomes a bigger part of the Bills’ offensive game plans in 2020, that number should go up. Singletary was efficient and explosive as a rookie, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. The Bills currently don’t have a No. 2 running back on the roster with veteran Frank Gore an unrestricted free agent and not expected back. Perhaps that’s T.J. Yeldon. More likely, however, is the team either adding a low-cost veteran in free agency (Carlos Hyde?) or drafting another running back in the middle rounds. Taiwan Jones was signed to be the fourth running back, replacing Senorise Perry in the job that is primarily for special teams.

6. Offensive line

The Bills were much improved up front in 2019, but they had nowhere to go but up. The team still ranked 16th in Football Outsiders’ run blocking, and 23rd in pass protection. The Bills don’t have any first-round draft picks on the line (Dion Dawkins, Cody Ford and Mitch Morse were all second-round picks). None of their linemen have made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team. It should help that the Bills return all of their starters up front, given that cohesiveness is a key. Nevertheless, an injection of more top-end talent – perhaps with a second-round draft pick – wouldn’t hurt.

5. Linebackers

Middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is an ascending talent coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. Matt Milano is one of the more underrated players in the league. A.J. Klein, a free-agent signing from New Orleans who has experience in Sean McDermott’s defense from their time together in Carolina, rounds out the expected starters in the base defense. He should be a good addition to the locker room. Depth at linebacker is a bit of a concern. Tyler Matakevich, a free-agent addition from Pittsburgh, will likely back up Klein. Matakevich is one of the best special teams players in the league. Vosean Joseph, a fifth-round pick last year who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, will have a good chance to make the roster. Julian Stanford was Edmunds’ primary backup last year, but he remains an unrestricted free agent.

4. Cornerbacks

Tre’Davious White is one of the best young players in the NFL at his position. He’s coming off a first-team All-Pro season. The big question at cornerback is, what do the Bills have opposite White? Veteran Josh Norman, who was signed to a one-year contract this offseason, is a former first-team All-Pro, but that was in 2015 when he played under McDermott in Carolina. The Bills are hoping that a return to the same defensive scheme will benefit Norman. Levi Wallace, a third-year veteran, will compete with Norman for the starting spot. Wallace had some rough moments in his second season, but his struggles were somewhat overblown. With White on the other side, it made sense that Wallace would be tested more. For the most part, he’s been a capable starter. It shouldn’t be assumed that Norman will win the job – Wallace won’t just give it to him. EJ Gaines was signed this week. He would provide decent depth if he can stay healthy. Unfortunately for him, that’s been a big “if” in his career. The nickel spot is Taron Johnson’s to lose.

3. Defensive line

The Bills are likely to start three first-round picks (Jerry Hughes, Star Lotulelei, Ed Oliver) and a second-round pick (Trent Murphy) on the defensive line. They are backed up by another first-round pick (Vernon Butler), a third-round pick (Harrison Phillips) and a player with 39 sacks over the past four seasons (Mario Addison). The line added great versatility with the addition of free agent Quinton Jefferson, who can rush the passer from inside and the edge. While the line doesn’t have an All-Pro, the combination of talent, proven production and depth is tough to beat. The hope, too, is that Oliver can turn into that All-Pro.

2. Safeties

In Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, the Bills have one of the top safety duos in the NFL. It’s been that way since the team signed them on the same day in 2017. Poyer and Hyde may not get the recognition they deserve nationally, but those who follow the Bills closely recognize the value they provide to the defense. Dean Marlowe is a trusted backup, while the Bills have a young player to develop in Jaquan Johnson.

1. Wide receivers

It’s amazing how one trade can transform an entire position. That’s what the Bills’ addition of Stefon Diggs did. With Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley, the Bills have more than just a formidable three-receiver set. According to Pro Football Focus analyst Sam Monson, it’s the best group in the NFL.

"Both Beasley and Brown get open and gain separation extremely well. Brown in particular was regularly open deep down field, but Josh Allen has been one of the least efficient deep passers in the league since he hit the NFL, so his production there didn't reflect that.

"Add in Stefon Diggs, who can win at all levels, and in all ways, and this is an incredibly balanced receiving corps who can win everywhere on the field and get open consistently. They will paint a better picture for their quarterback than pretty much any other group in the NFL, particularly because they all excel at generating separation.”

The Bills also brought back Isaiah McKenzie, who threatens defenses with his constant jet-sweep motion. Robert Foster, a third-year pro, provides competitive depth. Andre Roberts is one of the best return men in the league and can play receiver when needed.

The one thing that might be lacking from the receiver group is a big target, although Duke Williams could potentially be that. He will get the chance to build on what he accomplished in 2019. It’s also thought to be an exceptionally deep year for receivers in the draft, so it’s possible the Bills could find a contributor even in the later rounds.

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