The Buffalo Bills needed to make major changes along the offensive line and they followed through with a complete overhaul.
The Buffalo Bills offensive line was a mess last season. It’s the only way to say it.
General Manager Brandon Beane used the word “jell” when describing the failures of the front. A good offensive line comes together with chemistry and cohesion. It was clear last year that the Bills had none of that.
“This year, we weren’t able to jell,” he said back in January. “We recognize that, and we’ll continue to work on improving that. We’re going to try to bring in competition like we’ll do across the board and we’ll try to improve that. We have to be honest.”
An honest assessment
Coming off of a season in which Football Outsiders ranked the Bills at No. 30 overall in run blocking (poor LeSean McCoy) and No. 23 in pass protection (poor Josh Allen), it makes sense for Beane to go all in on the remake. Being honest starts by identifying what didn’t work, but it’d actually be quicker to list the elements that did work.
Not only did the Bills suffer from an overall lack of talent across the offensive line in key places, but the talent they had failed to work together in any meaningful way. The release of Richie Incognito and trade of Cordy Glenn both turned to be major losses for a front that also saw Eric Wood retire at center. The Bills tried to patch things together with leftover talent as well as some new faces, but the end result was a patchwork line with mismatched strengths that made it relatively easy for opposing defensive coordinators to easily adapt and create mismatches.
Only one team generated less yards per carry (3.53) from their stable of running backs than the Bills (not good for a team that carries the biggest cap hit at the position)—the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s a full 1.5 yards behind the league leading L.A. Rams. Bills ball carriers were stuffed at or behind the line 21 percent of the time in ’18 (23rd in the league).
Even worse, the Bills were the league’s worst team at generating yards in the second level (5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and third-to-last in open field yardage (10+ yards past LOS), per Football Outsiders. In short, the Bills ground game was among the NFL’s worst overall at generating yards of any kind with very little hope of even breaking the occasional long run. That’s very, very poor form for a team with a rookie quarterback in Josh Allen located so far north geographically (weather).
It got so bad this offseason that LeSean McCoy couldn’t help but comment on the situation.
LeSean McCoy deleted the original tweet, but we grab screenshots around these parts. pic.twitter.com/pIguDZtn4u
— Buffalo Rumblings (@BuffRumblings) January 8, 2019
Also … pic.twitter.com/LeJiIKUDEV
— Buffalo Rumblings (@BuffRumblings) January 8, 2019
It’s not often that you see one teammate call out another on Twitter or openly pine for a specific draft transaction, but McCoy had to be miserable. Any running back would have been. McCoy had averaged 5.4 yards/carry in 2016 and now that total had dropped to 3.2.
In the end, o-line coach and running game coordinator Juan Castillo was relieved of his duties after two seasons with the team.
A flood of new faces
Beane’s honest assessment has led to a makeover like few others around the NFL. Perhaps no other positional group on any franchise has been through the ringer like the Bills front line. Remember, last offseason was also filled with plenty of turnover after losing Glenn, Wood, and Incognito, but that didn’t stop Beane from bringing in imports for every single position.
The offseason began by replacing Castillo with a familiar face in Bobby Johnson, who began his coaching career in Buffalo as an assistant o-line coach. He spent last year in the same role with the Indianapolis Colts, who themselves have experienced an incredible turnaround up front.
Dion Dawkins remains entrenched in the left tackle position, but from there, the Bills could have all new starters across the offensive line.
Mitch Morse was the team’s biggest catch, a free agent signing from the Kansas City Chiefs who becomes an immediate upgrade at center. Morse is an intelligent leader who will command this line from day one. A strong pass blocker who hasn’t allowed a sack since his rookie season, Morse is an underrated gem who should be in line for his first Pro Bowl soon if he can remain healthy. If the Bills can turn heads by revitalizing their offensive front, Morse could find his own stock rising.
From there, the Bills sought to find Dawkins’ bookend and signed former Washington Redskins tackle Ty Nsekhe in free agency. Nsekhe is a late bloomer at the age of 33 and a long history of trying to make a career of it in Arena League Football, but his abilities finally caught up to his mammoth frame (6-foot-8, 330 pounds) and the Bills likely found a sleeper hit here. If nothing else, he’s not Jordan Mills.
Quinton Spain has his issues as a run blocker, but his pass blocking has consistently been above average at the pro level and he should work well alongside Morse who has similar strengths. On the other side, the Bills are expected to slide second round pick Cody Ford—who had first round grades from nearly everyone—in at another guard position. The good news on Ford especially is that he’s got a ceiling as high as anyone along this line with the versatility to kick out to tackle if necessary.
From there, the Bills also added former Jets lineman Spencer Long, who can play all over the interior line; LaAdrian Waddle, who should spell both tackle spots just like he did in New England; and Jon Feliciano, who has played all over for the Oakland Raiders in recent years.
Even more, the team also signed tight ends Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith in free agency. Kroft’s presence should further stabilize the front while also giving Allen another outlet in the passing game. Injuries limited his performance last year, but he’s graded out as an excellent pass blocker especially in years past, per Pro Football Focus. Meanwhile Smith returns to Buffalo with a reputation as an all-around good-to-great blocker.
The end result
This is the second straight offseason with a major shakeup across the offensive line, and there’s no guarantee that this collection of talent will “jell” in the way that Brandon Beane envisioned. It takes teamwork, chemistry, and coaching, but all of that begins with a vision for the greater collective.
What is clear is that this is going to be an above average pass blocking unit with the potential to even be a top 10 line in that facet. In terms of run blocking, McCoy might not be running behind the Steelers front, but it’s hard to be worse than last season. Even if weaker running links like Spain aren’t working out as needed, the Bills brought in serious depth who should compete for those starting spots. More than anything, Morse’s leadership should secure an important relationship on the field between center and quarterback.
As this line begins to coalesce into a starting unit, it will be interesting to see how the Bills offense improves. If nothing else, you can’t fault Beane for not trying. He said more competition was coming and the full-scale renovation is now complete. At least until next year.