Written by John Sparaco
Wrapping up the “State of the Bills” series on offense, it is finally time to take a closer look at the trenches. Tasked with the crucial job of protecting Josh Allen, the Buffalo Bills offensive line did not disappoint in 2020. After taking 28 sacks in just 11 games during his rookie season and 38 sacks in 2019, the Bills offensive line only allowed 26 sacks in 2020. This new career low in sacks was a welcome sight for the fans, organization, and of course Josh Allen. A few different factors contributed to this improvement in pass protection, the first being continuity. Given a full offseason with the same coaching staff and most of the same players, the familiarity within the Bills’ offensive line allowed them to gel rather quickly compared to the season prior. Additionally, the Bills passing attack benefited from the addition of Stefon Diggs, as his ability to quickly create separation allowed Allen to get rid of the ball much faster than years past. Then, there was the addition of Daryl Williams, who was finally able to return to the All-Pro caliber performance he showcased before his injuries in 2018. Each of these factors played a key role in the success of the Bills’ passing attack, which carried the Bills all the way to the AFC Championship game. Still, the offensive line was not perfect by any means. Despite ranking towards the top of the league in pass protection, the Bills were unable to jumpstart the ground game all season long. Many have debated whether those struggles have more to do with the interior offensive line or the shortcomings of the running backs, but there is no denying that there is always room for improvement no matter which side one chooses to believe.
Part of the inaugural draft class of the McDermott era back in 2017, Dion Dawkins has firmly established himself as a cornerstone for the Buffalo Bills franchise. Dawkins was rewarded for his strong play prior to the beginning of the regular season, inking a four-year, $60 million extension to man the left tackle position for the foreseeable future. Named a captain in each of the past two seasons, it is clear that Dawkins brings plenty to the table as both a player and a leader. Determined to meet the expectations of his contract, Dawkins stepped up his performance in 2020. Dawkins finished the season with a career high pass blocking grade of 79.2 and overall grade of 80.6 according to Pro Football Focus, landing him at number 83 on their list of the top 101 players of 2020. Turning 27 years old at the end of April, Dawkins is just beginning to enter the prime years of his career. Needless to say, the Bills should be very comfortable having Dawkins protecting Josh Allen’s blindside for years to come.
To this point, Cody Ford’s NFL career has been defined by three things: inconsistent play, injuries, and lack of positional stability. Initially drafted as a right tackle, Ford struggled to find his footing and adjust to the speed of the game in his rookie campaign. Scouts had projected that Ford was better suited long term as a guard at the next level, and it is evident that the Bills now feel the same way. Ford began the 2020 season as the starter at right guard, but he quickly made his way over to the left side where he started from Weeks 3-6. Unfortunately, Ford was unable to settle into his new position as he battled injuries for the next several weeks before tearing his meniscus during practice in Week 12, ultimately ending his season. Heading into his third NFL season, the Bills have still not had a proper chance to evaluate what they have in Ford. When asked about Ford in his end-of-season press conference, Bills GM Brandon Beane stated that he would be “surprised” if he was not a starter next season. Beane added that Ford has likely played as many games injured as he has healthy, as he also played through a shoulder injury during his rookie season. When healthy, one of Ford’s best traits has been his mauling physicality in the run game, which is exactly what offensive line coach Bobby Johnson preaches to his guards. Perhaps a fresh start at guard now knowing that Daryl Williams is the man at right tackle heading into the season will be exactly what Ford needs. The only question that remains: which side will he play on?
Once made the highest paid center in the league at the time in 2019, Mitch Morse is now entering his third season with the Buffalo Bills. Knowing that the team was strapped for cash heading into the offseason, Morse became one of quite a few Bills who generously agreed to a paycut to help keep the team intact, ensuring that the team will move forward with him as their starting center. The debate on whether or not to keep Morse this offseason was never a matter of his production, but rather his ability to stay on the field. Morse has a concerning history of concussions, leaving many wondering whether he will be able to make it through the entirety of his contract without being forced into retirement. In his absence, Jon Feliciano has filled in seamlessly, which would have opened the door for the Bills to bring back Feliciano to take over as the full-time center had they moved on from Morse. However, this does not imply that Morse would not be missed. While he may not possess the same level of physicality as Feliciano, Morse’s intelligence and awareness have allowed him to remain as one of the most effective centers in the league. Penciled in as the starting center for the next two seasons, the Bills can only hope that Morse is able to stay healthy moving forward.
Had this article been written a week ago, Daryl Williams’ looming free agency decision would have been the primary topic of discussion. After agreeing to a brand new three-year, $28 million extension on Friday, there is no longer a debate who will be starting at right tackle for the Bills next season. The former second-team All-Pro in 2017 bet on himself with a one-year deal last season, hoping to regain his form after losing most of his previous two seasons to injury and being forced to play out of position. That gamble paid off, as Williams emerged as one of the Bills’ unsung heroes in 2020. Not only did he return to form as an outstanding right tackle, but Williams made arguably one of the most important plays of the season, showcasing incredible awareness by diving on a late fumble in the AFC Wild Card game which could have turned disastrous for the Bills. One of Williams’ signature performances came against Pittsburgh in Week 14, where he stymied AFC DPOY runner up TJ Watt all night long. It is very difficult for teams to find not just one but two reliable tackles in the NFL today, and there is no question that the Bills are in good hands with Dawkins and Williams manning the tackle spots for the next few years.
The definition of versatility on the offensive line, Ryan Bates has the rare ability to play all five spots when needed. A chess piece of this kind is invaluable to a team when faced with injuries, as Bates can step in right off the bench at tackle, guard, or center. While he is expected to remain a depth piece as of now, Bates could emerge as a sleeper to start at one of the guard positions this upcoming season. The 24-year-old out of Penn State has filled in nicely when called upon in the past, and should the Bills decide to refrain from spending a bulk of their remaining cap space on a proven guard, Bates could be ready to seize that opportunity.
After bouncing around the league for the past several seasons, Jordan Devey clearly made a positive impression on the Bills coaching staff. Devey spent most of the season with the Bills practice squad, but was eventually promoted to the active roster in January before signing a one-year extension with the team at the conclusion of the season. The journeyman lineman brings versatility at both guard and center, and figures to be in the mix as interior o-line depth in 2021.
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2020, Trey Adams spent the entirety of the season with the Bills’ practice squad. At the University of Washington, Adams was once viewed as a potential first or second round pick. However, injuries derailed the last few years of his collegiate career, subsequently tanking his draft stock. Due to the limited media access and lack of preseason, it is unclear how Adams has looked during his time with the Bills thus far. After signing a reserve/futures deal at the conclusion of the season, Adams is expected to compete once again for one of the backup tackle spots.
Impending Free Agents
Potentially the toughest decision remaining on the Bills’ free agent checklist, the Bills may have landed themselves out of Jon Feliciano’s price range following the extensions to Matt Milano and Daryl Williams. It did not take long for Feliciano to become a fan favorite in Buffalo, endearing himself to the Bills Mafia with both his fiery attitude and physical play. As previously mentioned, Feliciano brings versatility at both guard and center, thriving wherever he was asked to play in the starting lineup. Feliciano is the ultimate teammate, proving he is willing to do anything to protect his quarterback, including most recently where he body slammed Chiefs DE Alex Okafor for taunting Allen at the end of the AFC Championship game. Feliciano is someone that the Bills would love to have back, but he has earned the right to seek a large payday. It would be foolish to completely rule out the possibility of a return given Beane’s recent display of cap gymnastics, but it does not appear to be likely at this point.
UPDATE: “Big Baller Beane” strikes again. Jon Feliciano agreed to a three-year, $17 million extension to stay with Buffalo hours after this article was written.
One of the most intriguing stories in all of football, Ty Nsekhe’s journey from the arena league all the way to earning an impressive payday with the Bills at age 33 is nothing short of remarkable. Playing the role as the Bills’ swing tackle the past two seasons, Nsekhe has seen his fair share of playing time at both left and right tackle. At age 35, Nsekhe’s career is likely beginning to wind down. Nsekhe could very well land another contract in free agency, but it is likely that the Bills aim to get younger at the position in 2021.
A seven-year starter with the Jets, Brian Winters decided to join the AFC East rival Bills after being released in August. While Jon Feliciano missed the beginning of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, Winters filled in as the starter at right guard. Winters ended up starting nine games in 2020, remaining a frequent plug-in when needed throughout the season. Winters disappointed with his performance for the most part, getting tossed around and outmuscled by opposing defenders on a regular basis. Entering the free agent market once again this offseason, it is likely in the Bills’ best interest to look in a different direction this time around.
Ike Boettger (RFA)
Believe it or not, Ike Boettger was the highest graded guard this season according to Pro Football Focus. Boettger started seven games during the regular season and all three playoff games, providing a much more productive alternative to Brian Winters. Currently a restricted free agent, the Bills have the right to match any offer that Boettger receives from other teams this offseason. As long as his asking price is not too high, Buffalo will likely try to bring Boettger back for 2021 and potentially beyond. If he is retained, Boettger will be in the mix to start at one of the guard spots unless Buffalo adds a bigger name in free agency or the draft.
There is not too much expected to change with four of the five starting offensive line spots already set, but the Bills will have some decisions to make in the upcoming weeks. The way Brandon Beane decides to approach the other starting guard spot will tell a lot about how the organization views their struggles in the run game. If the Bills decide to bring back Feliciano, the pathway to Buffalo drafting a running back on Day 1-2 may become wider than ever.