As the Bills close the chapter on their 2023 season, they look ahead to what's next. General manager Brandon Beane and his staff will begin to craft a roster around returning players, address the remaining holes and build it into a group that's even more talented than the last.
Buffalo does have quite a few free agents, so the team could look pretty different in 2024. But even with change, there's a core group of younger players that will return.
Head coach Sean McDermott thinks this young group, in addition to others on the team, have proven that there's no need for a rebuild.
"This is not a situation where you strip it down to the studs and you start all over," McDermott said of his team. "We've done a lot of good things and the players have done a lot of good things. I think you really start with understanding the success that we've had and how we've gotten it. And then you make tweaks along the way to try and get ourselves to become world champions."
Buffalo's season ended earlier than anyone wanted it to as they lost in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs to the Chiefs. It was a back-and-forth game as there were six lead changes. And in the end, the Bills lost by only three points and had a chance to take the lead with less than two minutes to play.
Beane said because the game came down to just a handful of plays, it's about identifying the little things that will get them over that hump.
"That game might have been three plays max five plays that changes the outcome and we're not sitting in here right now," Beane shared. "And so you're always looking for those fine little advantages. And that's our job this offseason is to be truthful, be real. Where are we good, but not great."
One area that the Bills feel like will only improve next season is with their young core. Buffalo saw increased playing time for guys like RB James Cook, TE Dalton Kincaid, RG O'Cyrus Torrence, WR Khalil Shakir, LB Terrel Bernard and LB Dorian Williams.
Several coaches and players were very impressed to see the impact they had in their first and second seasons.
"It's exciting to see what type of group we can be," Allen said of the young core. "O'Cyrus Torrence played, I think, every single snap this year, which for a rookie to do that. The rookie wall is a real thing… so for him to come out there and do that, it speaks volumes. He's going to be a heck of a player in this league for a very long time.
"And then again, you look at James (Cook) and Khalil (Shakir) and other young players that have stepped up in a big way. Dalton (Kincaid) had a fantastic season as a rookie. I only expect him to get better."
"Our young guys, they came in when we needed them and they did what we needed them to do," left tackle Dion Dawkins said. "So, that just means that the future's bright."
TE Dalton Kincaid
Kincaid was drafted by the Bills in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft and made an impact right away. The TE started in 13 games and played in 18 total games during his rookie season. He finished the regular season with 73 catches, 673 receiving yards and two touchdowns. In two postseason games, he tacked on eight catches, 104 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Kincaid also broke the Bills single season reception record for a rookie and became one of four NFL rookie TEs since 1960 with 70+ receptions in a season.
Early on, coaches and players saw how the TE did not operate like a rookie due to his ability to understand an NFL playbook from the start and see the fruit of that in games.
"To watch Dalton, like Josh (Allen), trying to will his way for our team to win," McDermott said of what he saw out of the rookie. "He's been banged up this season as well. Here's a rookie making those special plays, and on Sunday night (against the Chiefs). And you're going `He gets it.' I'm excited about the future for him and Josh, their rapport and what they can produce and become on that field."
OG O'Cyrus Torrence
Another player who will be a huge help going forward as he turned many heads during his rookie season is Buffalo's right guard. Torrence started in every single game and did not miss one snap during his first season in the league.
"I say it was a success with how it went," Torrence said reflecting on his first season. "Even though it didn't end how everybody wanted it to go, I still felt like I came in with a goal to earn the respect of a lot of my teammates. And just help the team the best way I could, and I feel like I did it to the best of my ability."
His teammates also felt the same way about the rookie.
"I think that our trench battle capability is insane," Dawkins shared. "The fact that we drafted a rookie, and a rookie played every single snap. Don't turn your head to that because that's crazy…he played every single snap at the highest. He is a legend. People don't do that as a rookie."
RB James Cook
The Bills also had a couple of second-year offensive weapons that showed just how much of a match they are for Buffalo's offense this season. Cook wrapped up his second season in the league with the fourth most rushing yards (1,122) and sixth most scrimmage yards (1,567).
McDermott said he saw plenty of improvements in his RB from year one to year two.
"To come in and say, here's a young man that maybe wasn't the primary back at Georgia but became the primary back this season in his second year in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills, I thought that was very impressive," McDermott shared. "And are there still more hurdles to jump over? Yes. And still more growth? Yes. I think he is primed and prepared to do that this offseason."
Cook became the first Bill to rush for at least 1,000 yards and record at least 1,400 scrimmage yards since former Bills RB LeSean McCoy did so in 2017. Buffalo was 7-2 in games where the Georgia product had at least 17 touches.
WR Khalil Shakir
Shakir was another bright spot in Buffalo's offense. The WR was a reliable target for Allen in just his second season in the NFL. He finished his sophomore campaign with 39 catches, 611 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns in the regular season.
"I think it was more just repetition, just getting more reps as the year went on and getting used to the flow of the game and things like that," Shakir said of why he popped in year two. "I've said this 1,000 times but the word comfortable doesn't rub me the right way. And I'm not a fan of it, but it just allowed me to, I guess, get a little bit more feel for the game as the weeks went on."
Shakir also had the best catch rate (86.7%) among wide receivers in 2023.
"I think the coaches and Josh started feeling like you throw this guy the ball, he's dependable," Beane said of his 2022 fifth-round draft pick. "He's gonna be where he's supposed to be. That's just what he is. He's one of those guys, he's sneaky fast…he's one of those guys, he's covering more territory than you realize and he's only gonna get better.
"And I mean, some of the plays he made against the Chiefs…he was one of those guys that he was laying it all on the line and just made some excellent plays to help keep drives going."
Shakir had 12 targets, 10 catches (83% catch rate), 75 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs this season.
LB Terrel Bernard
You can't forget about the defense either because Buffalo had several guys who stepped into starting roles and filled spots when their teammates were injured. The Bills defense finished as the fourth best allowing an average of only 18.3 points per game. They also had the third most takeaways (30), fourth most sacks (54) and allowed the second least passing touchdowns (18).
Bernard was one of the younger players who played a big part in Buffalo's success on D. He finished with a team high 143 total tackles, which was the most by any Bill in a season since 2017.
"I want to give him a lot of credit for how hard it is for a first-year guy," Beane said of the 2022 third-round pick. "He's a second-year player, but first-year starter. To go in there into that huddle…it's hard to go in there and look at Von Miller, Micah Hyde or Jordan Poyer and say, `This is what we're doing,' and lead that group.
"And you saw him transform into that role. Guys fed off him, they wanted it. They encouraged him to do that.He's going to come in at a totally different place this offseason. And everyone knows he's the quarterback of that defense. And so that's just going to help our whole defense going into next year."
In addition to the 143 tackles, the LB also had six and a half sacks, nine quarterback hits, three interceptions, three fumble recoveries and five passes defensed in his first season as a full-time starter. Bernard joined Greg Lloyd (PIT-1989), Richard Dent (CHI-1990) and Seth Joyner (PHI-1991) as the only players since 1982 to record at least six sacks, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries in one season.
"I feel like I made a lot of progress, mentally, physically, emotionally," Bernard said of his 2023 season. "Just trying to be a centerpiece for this defense and trying to be a guy that all my teammates, all the coaches and everybody in the building can count on. There's a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of things that go into trying to be the middle linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. There's a standard of how we do things and how we handle ourselves.
"And, I feel like, I've learned that. It's been an incredible year of growth for myself personally and then just as a team and as a defense. So, I look forward to continuing that and becoming an even better version of myself for next year."
LB Dorian Williams
Another rookie who is looking forward to building on his first year is linebacker Dorian Williams. The LB started in two games but played in all 19 games with a role on special teams. Williams saw increased time at LB toward the end of the season when the position group suffered multiple injuries.
Beane thinks the rookie will make a jump from year one to year two.
"I think when he comes back next year -- just using Terrel (Bernard) as a test case there -- he's going to be a lot more knowledgeable, a lot more comfortable," Beane said. "The game is going to slow down for him. He is a fast, explosive player."
Thanks to who the Bills have suiting up in blue and red next season, players and coaches are feeling good about the future.
"The future's bright for these guys and for myself included," Allen said one day after their loss. "I'm just happy that we got a chance to play with these guys. And I think, it could be pretty special moving forward. I know this sucks and losing sucks, but (there's) a lot to look forward to."
First and second year players on offense and defense proved to be valuable additions to the Bills this year with the numbers they put up and the roles they successfully stepped into. Like players and coaches, Beane doesn't think their window of opportunity is closing any time soon.
"I don't get into that window is closed mindset," Beane said. "Your team is always changing and evolving each class with draft classes, free agents, whether they're one-year deals or multiyear deals. Some guys age out, some guys play themselves to where you can't afford them. So, you're constantly changing the roster. But this is a quarterback league, and I believe in the guy we've got under center."
It all goes back to QB1, and Buffalo loves who they have at the helm. Many agree that with 17, anything is possible. It's one of the many reasons why the future remains bright in Buffalo.