The decision makers at One Bills Drive have done a masterful job of positioning the club to be a perennial contender poised for playoff success. GM Brandon Beane has been able to maintain his "cap strong" philosophy of keeping the club in a flexible position to make personnel moves when opportunities present themselves.
But the COVID pandemic, which already made the 2020 NFL season as challenging as any seen before it, will also have an impact on the 2021 NFL offseason. Revenue shortfalls for the league are expected to leave the 2021 salary cap far lower than the projected $210 to $215 million figure that most clubs budgeted for this year.
This presents the Bills with an additional issue to work around as they mold their roster in preparation for the 2021 campaign as we address five main questions the team must consider as they head into the offseason.
1. Should a contract extension be completed for Josh Allen?
With Josh Allen completing the third season of his NFL career, the Bills are now allowed to pursue a contract extension with their young franchise quarterback if they choose to do so. The other choice is to delay a long-term extension and exercise a fifth-year option, which would extend his rookie contract that runs through 2021 with an additional year.
With a 2021 salary cap expected to be far below the projected figure due to league revenue shortfalls, it leaves the Bills in a position they did not anticipate. Buffalo has far less cap room for 2021 than projected, as is the case for every other club in the league.
Can the Bills work out a contract extension for their most important player to lock him up long term and still have enough room under the cap to re-sign some of their free agents and plug some positional holes on their roster? Or will they need to exercise Allen's fifth-year option to buy time until the league's salary cap rebounds in 2022 to where it normally sits?
GM Brandon Beane addressed the feasibility of a contract extension for Allen in a recent interview on Bills flagship station WGR Sportsradio 550.
"I think we can make something fit," Beane said. "Without getting into how we would do it, we could make it fit. There are ways that we can do it. We'll have to be creative with it for sure based on our current cap situation, but I definitely think it could be done."
Buffalo must determine how much of their cap space they must devote to improving the roster for 2021 while also assessing whether an extension can be reached with the Allen camp that is cap friendly on the front end, much like the deal signed by Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes in 2020.
2. How much change for the offensive line?
Buffalo's GM has said there will be difficult decisions this offseason, and knowing the average turnover of NFL rosters, it's hard to think that the Bills offensive line will look exactly the same in 2021.
The club has five offensive linemen whose contracts are up. Ike Boettger, who made seven starts at guard, is a restricted free agent.
Starters Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams and reserves Ty Nsekhe and Brian Winters are all unrestricted free agents.
Whether the Bills will be able to hang on to all the players they deem to be critical pieces to the success of the team going forward will hinge on managing cap space and the demand on the open market that free agent players may choose to explore.
"Whether we can get them back, I don't know," said Beane when asked about Feliciano and Williams specifically. "We'll have to see where their markets are, but if not, we'll have to try and find some similar replacements at a cost-effective number."
Buffalo may need to use the 2021 draft to invest in their offensive line.
3. Should a proven pass rusher be pursued?
The Bills defense demonstrated solid improvement down the stretch of the 2020 campaign. They shaved 40 yards off their rushing yards allowed per game, cut their third down conversion percentage allowed by more than 15 percent and reduced their points per game allowed by more than a touchdown (8.2 pts).
One area that did not see an uptick in performance however, was the pass rush. Over the last six games the Bills managed just 11 sacks after logging 27 in their first 10 outings.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier often had to dial up blitz calls using defensive backs to get to opposing quarterbacks with any measure of consistency. Taking those measures runs counter to the core philosophy of this defensive scheme, which relies on getting pressure with their front four.
"That's a critical area for our football team to improve," said McDermott. "We've got to be able to affect the quarterback with a four-man rush. I thought at times we did, at other times we could have been better, so there's still meat on the bone there."
Knowing there will be several proven pass rushers on the free agent market this offseason and a restrictive cap could drive down the market value for such players, it could provide an opportunity for Buffalo to acquire a better pass rushing presence off the edge.
However, the Bills are already heavily invested along the defensive line after they signed Mario Addison, Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson in free agency last offseason and drafted AJ Epenesa with their top pick. Some difficult decisions might be made if Buffalo's front office sees a viable and affordable opportunity to improve their pass rush productivity.
Otherwise they may have to invest a high draft choice in a pass rusher that can provide immediate impact.
4. How hard should the Bills work to re-sign Matt Milano?
A part of Buffalo's original draft class in the Sean McDermott era, Matt Milano has overachieved as much as any former fifth-round draft choice in the league. Although the linebacker's productivity was somewhat compromised by injury in each of his first four seasons, his value to the Bills defense is unquestioned.
"He makes a difference," said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. "He's done a terrific job for us and his presence was felt, whether we were bringing him in pressure or if he was in coverage. He's a vital part of our success on defense."
Milano missed six games with hamstring and pectoral injuries this season, but it's not expected to negatively impact the demand for his services on the free agent market.
"Matt is a very good player," said Beane. "His biggest thing is playing 16 games. That will be the first thing he'll tell you. We'd love to be able to get Matt back. He knows that. I shared that with him and I'm sure Sean (McDermott) has as well. The business side matters. He wants to and he's earned the right to go to free agency and see what his market bears. We'll do our best to retain him. There are going to be some tough decisions unfortunately for us, whether it's letting guys go on this roster or having to watch guys leave."
5. Where to add speed and physicality to the roster?
Coach McDermott said the speed quotient of the Kansas City Chiefs was obvious to anyone who played against them this season. Receivers Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman as well as defensive backs L'Jarius Sneed, Charvarius Ward, Bashaud Breeland and Juan Thornhill all run sub 4.45 40 times. Three of them run in the 4.3s.
"I think the speed element showed up on the field," said McDermott in reference to the AFC title game. "I don't think it took a coach to recognize that speed and size. That's what this game is speed, size and physicality."
Matching that amount of speed can prove difficult in the span of one offseason, which is why Brandon Beane indicated that schematics may have to play a role in combatting it as well, particularly on defense.
"It's hard to close the gap on a guy like Tyreek Hill," Beane said. "That guy is a unicorn. I can't tell you that I can find a DB that can run as fast as him. That's where scheme will come into play as well. You're not always going to have a guy that matches up against Travis Kelce and a guy that matches up against Tyreek Hill and that matches up against Mecole Hardman."
But adding a third back with more explosiveness and speed is feasible and wouldn't require a high draft pick to do so. Whether the Bills want to shuffle the deck at receiver with respect to speed remains to be seen.
As for size, that's a bit easier to find and Buffalo may have to seek it out for their offensive line to more consistently win the weekly battle at the line of scrimmage. Though Buffalo is expected to have Star Lotulelei back in the fold in 2021 after he opted out for 2020, Buffalo may need to seek out more size for the defensive interior.
Again with the team already heavily invested with veteran contracts on the defensive line, the draft may again be the path by which they try to find upgrades. Otherwise they may need to alter some current contracts or again make some difficult decisions.