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Bills continue to fortify, but QB Allen still the key

scottteaser-215x160The Buffalo Bills may have been better off last week had they drafted another Josh Allen—the superb pass rusher from Kentucky—to go along with the quarterback of the same name they chose in the first round last year. Admittedly, having two Josh Allens on the roster might have been a tad confusing at times, especially when coaches or teammates were trying to get their attention. But what an impact the edge rusher could have made coming off the corner. Alas, it was not to be, as Allen the defensive end wound up being selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars seventh overall, two spots ahead of the Bills.

No worries, because Buffalo was able to land an awfully good consolation prize in Ed Oliver, the former University of Houston defensive tackle who will be counted upon to plug the enormous void created by the retirement of six-time Pro Bowler Kyle Williams. Like Williams, an all-time Bill, Oliver is undersized for his position, but is as agile as a cat and has a Rolls Royce motor that just won’t quit. Interestingly, Williams already has reached out to his successor, offering to help in any way possible.

Oliver has drawn comparisons to two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and is the crown jewel of a promising draft class that includes second-rounder Cody Ford, who’s expected to start immediately at right offensive tackle; third-rounder Devin Singletary, whose shiftiness at running back reminds some of a young LeSean McCoy, the rapidly declining Bills veteran running back he may replace, and third-rounder Dawson Knox, who could see considerable playing time at tight end, one of Buffalo’s thinnest positions. All four 2019 selectees were rated among the Top 100 NFL prospects on a composite draft board compiled by the Buffalo News, with Oliver leading the way at fourth, followed by Ford (20th), Singletary (46th) and Knox (82nd).

I stopped long ago assigning instantaneous grades to drafts because the truth is I don’t know, you don’t know and even the people responsible for knowing and making the picks don’t know how this is going to turn out. Let’s just say, the Bills addressed some needs and may have found some impact players, though I still would have liked to see them draft an edge rusher and wide receiver. Nonetheless, it’s been a solid off-season, with the addition of nearly 20 veteran free agents, eight draft picks and a handful of undrafted rookie free agents, including Tyree Jackson, a University at Buffalo quarterback who seems a potential candidate for the practice squad.

The McBeane Team of coach Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane clearly have been true to their process while conducting an extreme makeover of the mediocre roster they inherited from Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley. Last year was a transition year, as the Bills endured injuries and the growing pains of a rookie quarterback while plummeting to 6-10 following their magical but fluky playoff run in 2017. Despite the lumps, the Bills coach and general manager stayed the course.

Only a handful of holdovers remain from the Ryan-Whaley regime, and if McCoy winds up being traded or cut—a distinct possibility given the additions of Singletary and free agents T.J. Yeldon and ancient Frank Gore—that will leave linebackers Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes as the only starters from that era.

Buffalo’s free agent signings have been solid. I believe center Mitch Morse can be the most impactful of the bunch. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback/NFL Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes raved to me about his former teammate during last month’s appearance at the Rochester Press-Radio Club Day of Champions, predicting Morse will become the anchor of the Bills line and give Allen superb pass protection in the middle. Interestingly, Morse hasn’t yielded a sack since 2015. His experience as an O-line signal-caller is essential because left tackle Dion Dawkins figures to be the only returning starter.

Wide receiver remains a concern, but this group is more talented and experienced than the one Allen threw to last season. The field-stretching John Brown averaged 17 yards per catch for the Baltimore Ravens a year ago, and former Dallas Cowboy slot receiver Cole Beasley will give the Bills second-year QB more short and intermediate options. Robert Foster showed promise in December, with two 100-yard receiving games, and it’s time for Zay Jones to produce in his third year. I still don’t see a true No. 1 target among the bunch, but it appears the Bills will attempt to run the ball more—preferably with their backs and not as much with Allen.

The defense was second-ranked in the league, and should be good again, particularly with up-and-coming linebacker Tremaine Edmunds only getting better. It will help if Oliver is able to apply some quarterback pressure from the interior because Buffalo’s best pass-rushers—Jerry Hughes and Lorenzo Alexander—are both on the wrong side of 30.

When people ask how the Bills will fare this year, my stock answer is: “Depends on Josh Allen.” I realize I’m not being profound, but it’s true. The second-year quarterback from Wyoming showed some encouraging signs last season, especially with his legs, his moxie and an arm that can launch a football from Chili to Cheektowaga. Now, with a year under his belt, and with a better supporting cast on offense, we’ll see if he can deliver more accurate passes from the pocket and be less reliant on his legs.

Yes, the Bills might have been better off with two Josh Allens on the roster, but it wouldn’t have changed their biggest need. It still would have come down to the original Josh Allen—the one they drafted in the first round last year, the one they’re banking on becoming their franchise quarterback.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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