The Bills missed being the number one defense in football in 2018 by a mere 19 yards. Though it was impressive that Buffalo's defense finished second in the league in total defense (yards allowed per game) to only Baltimore, the Bills defensive unit wanted to be number one.
It was the first time the Bills defense ranked in the top five since 2014. The question now is can Buffalo repeat as a top unit in 2019?
Below we examine three reasons why a top five finish for Leslie Frazier's group is not only possible but likely.
A key component in repeating as a top five unit is keeping both the defensive scheme and the majority of the defensive talent intact on your roster from one year to the next. The most recent NFL clubs that have been able to maintain top five rankings from one year to the next like Seattle (2012-2016), Denver (2014-2017), Minnesota (2016-2018) and Jacksonville (2016-2018) have largely kept the same defensive scheme and the majority of their starting lineup intact over those spans.
As camp opens later this week, the Bills will have 10 of 11 starters returning to the defensive unit. And that unit has coordinator Leslie Frazier running it for a third consecutive season.
"For most of us it's our third year in the system," said Jordan Poyer. "For Tremaine (Edmunds) it's his second year in the system as our 'mike' linebacker. So there's nothing new anymore for him. Last year we had the number one pass defense in the league and the number two total defense in the league. Our standard is to be number one."
Jerry Hughes was one of the highest rated pressure ends in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer again teamed to be one of the top safety tandems in the NFL. Matt Milano was leading the league in takeaways before suffering a fractured fibula. Tremaine Edmunds led the team in tackles and pass breakups. Tre'Davious White had one of the lowest target rates in the league and Taron Johnson had one of the lowest catch rates allowed as a rookie.
All of those players are returning to the Buffalo lineup in 2019, and they're not alone.
2. Improved depth
Buffalo's defense wasn't a major focus of the club in free agency, but they were able to scoop up some good value on the open market in the form of EJ Gaines and Kevin Johnson to provide experienced depth at corner.
Maurice Alexander is a hybrid safety-linebacker who could help in sub packages and Eli Harold is a pass rushing addition who could challenge for a rotational role.
Obviously, top draft pick Ed Oliver is the premium defensive piece and figures to move into the starting lineup in time. His chief competition, Jordan Phillips was also re-signed. Buffalo used some of their later round draft choices on linebacker Vosean Joseph, safety Jaquan Johnson and defensive end Darryl Johnson to try and put some depth players in the pipeline.
Add in up and coming younger players like Mike Love, Ryan Lewis, Siran Neal, Denzel Rice and Corey Thompson and there are encouraging answers Buffalo's defense can turn to in the event of injury.
3. Better offense
While no one knows just how big a step forward Buffalo's offense will take in 2019, it cannot be worse than last season when the unit finished 30th in total offense and 30th in points per game. In 2018, Buffalo's offense also committed the second-most turnovers in the league with 32 that season, including 23 interceptions, which also was second-most in the NFL.
It handed Buffalo's defense an inordinate number of short fields to defend, and often put Leslie Frazier's charges in a position where they were playing from behind. That enabled most of their opponents to stick to their game plans and play balanced football.
Josh Allen and Buffalo's improved talent base on offense should lend to more consistent play on that side of the ball and more points. Hopefully that puts the Bills ahead on the scoreboard more often in games and forces their opponents to throw more, thereby kicking in Buffalo's pass rush and chances for takeaways themselves.
With very little change on defense, improved depth and a more productive offense, there's no reason Buffalo's defensive unit can't be one of the top five in the league again in 2019.