The Buffalo Bills returned every member of their core from last season’s AFC Championship run and yet, they’ve fallen in ESPN’s annual rankings of the best offensive weapons in the league.
In fairness, the Bills didn’t drop too far.
Entering last season, ESPN NFL writer Bill Barnwell ranked their offensive arsenal as No. 8 in the NFL. This year, the Bills are slotted at No. 9.
Still, the slight decline doesn’t appear to make a lot of sense. Josh Allen is coming off an MVP-caliber season, and Stefon Diggs led the league in receptions and receiving yards.
But Barnwell says the drop from Diggs to Buffalo’s secondary skill players is more significant than it was last year.
“How are the Bills one spot below where they were a year ago?,” Barnwell writes. “The running back and tight end spots are more about scheme and rotation than standout talent. They swapped out John Brown, who looked like a legitimate No. 1 receiver heading into 2020, for 34-year-old Emmanuel Sanders. [Cole] Beasley has threatened to retire over concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine. Diggs should continue to be a superstar, but there's more of a drop-off between the former Vikings standout and the rest of the group than there was a year ago.”
Barnwell makes some good points, beginning with Beasley, who said last month he would rather retire than get vaccinated for COVID-19. That could set up a conflict with general manager Brandon Beane. Earlier this spring, he said he would consider cutting players who are unvaccinated, but the NFL stepped in saying a team could not release anyone due to vaccination status.
While Beasley is almost certainly not in danger of being released, his tenuous status is bad news for the Bills. He’s developed into one of the better slot receivers in the league, catching 82 passes for 967 yards in 2020 — both career highs.
As Barnwell mentions, Buffalo’s talent at tight end and running back is also subpar.
But elite quarterbacks are expected to elevate the talent around them, and that’s exactly what Allen is. After finishing second in MVP voting, he’s undoubtedly one of the game’s best pass-throwers.
But it’s debatable how much Allen will need to elevate his receiving corps, anyway. While Brown enjoyed an 1,000-yard campaign in 2019, his production fell last year to just 33 catches for 458 yards in nine games. Sanders, meanwhile, has only gained less than 500 receiving yards twice in his career: his rookie and sophomore seasons.
Oh, and Diggs is still here, ready for an encore performance.
Even at No. 9, the Bills still possess the best collection of offensive talent in the AFC East. The New England Patriots are ranked at No. 27, despite their record-setting spending this offseason.
Ultimately, the Bills just have to be better than their competition, and that’s exactly what they are — regardless of where their skill players fall on a preseason list.