INDIANAPOLIS—Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane spoke about the importance of adding explosive players on the offensive side of the ball in his press conference at the NFL Combine on Tuesday.
When asked for a specific trait that makes a player appealing, Beane specifically mentioned run after the catch ability, saying those players make “home runs and big chunk plays.”
The Bills lacked players who could create big plays after the catch in 2022. Buffalo’s starting receiving options in their 11 personnel package ranked 79th (Dawson Knox), 88th (Stefon Diggs), 108th (Isaiah McKenzie), and 130th (Gabriel Davis) in yards after the catch per reception among wide receivers and tight ends last season.
Given the team’s investment in Knox, who signed a four-year, $52 million extension with the Bills in September, and their reluctance to invest in the running back position during Beane’s tenure in Buffalo, Gabriel Davis’ No. 2 receiver position has been pinpointed as the skill position spot where the team could add a playmaker in 2023.
Davis had a relatively pedestrian 2022 season, posting a PFF grade above 70 in only two of the team’s 16 games and ranking 56th among qualified receivers with 1.43 yards per route run. Davis particularly struggled against man coverage, with his 0.76 yards per route run when facing man coverage ranking 89th among receivers. Davis’ seven drops tied him for the sixth most in the NFL. Outside of a few weeks in which his production spiked (including a Week 5 performance that accounted for more than 20% of his receiving yardage total on the season), Davis seemed out of his depth facing opponents’ No. 2 cornerbacks for the first time in his career.
Beane said the team still has confidence in Davis. According to Beane, one reason for Davis’ disappointing 2022 season may have been a high-ankle sprain he suffered before the team’s Week 2 game against Tennessee. Beane said the sprain “hobbled” Davis, forcing him to take an extra step out of his cuts and allowing defenders to be more sticky with him in coverage.
The Bills have several options to upgrade their wide receiver room early in the 2023 NFL Draft. With the 28th overall pick in the draft, Buffalo could conceivably be in range to add one of Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt, Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, or Boston College’s Zay Flowers. Each of these players would add a different element to Buffalo’s offense.
Smith-Njigba could conceivably step into the pure slot receiver role vacated by Cole Beasley, giving Allen a reliable middle-of-the-field and third-down target. Hyatt could provide a vertical stretch element last present in the offense in John Brown’s heyday. Flowers presents the electric run after the catch element that is sorely missing from this offense– he is my personal favorite fit for Buffalo in this group.
While adding a wide receiver to upgrade Davis’ spot in the offense could help elevate the unit to new heights, adding a running back or a tight end could bring an added level of multi-dimensionality to Buffalo’s offense. The Bills attempted to do this last offseason, signing tight end OJ Howard to a contract that guaranteed him over $3 million at signing, and agreeing to terms with pass-catching specialist J.D. McKissic on a contract that would pay him $3.5 million per year before he reneged on the deal and elected to return to Washington under the same terms.
“We’re always looking for playmakers,” Beane said, “whether that’s a receiver, a running back, or a tight end.”
With starting running back Devin Singletary scheduled to hit free agency when the league year opens, adding a running back to complement James Cook and Nyhiem Hines seems like an inevitability. However, the team’s biggest improvement at running back may be in-house: Cook, the team’s 2022 second-round pick, is likely primed for a bigger role on offense this season.
“We’re excited about Cook,” Beane said, “and looking forward to what he can do in Year 2, especially with an expanded workload and more touches.”
An expanded workload for Cook may be the juice Buffalo needs from its backfield. Cook’s 5.7 yards per carry average ranked second among all running backs with 70 or more attempts on the season.
The tight end position may be one for Buffalo to dip their toe in again this offseason. Although the Bills use 12 personnel at one of the lowest rates in the NFL, fullback Reggie Gilliam played the fifth most snaps of any fullback in the NFL in 2022. This, along with the signing of Howard last year, shows a willingness from the Bills to expand their offense from a standard, base 11 personnel unit. The Bills could once again be in the mid-tier free-agent market for tight ends, hoping for better results than they got from Howard last year. Jordan Akins and Austin Hooper could make sense as options too.
This is also considered to be one of the deeper tight end drafts in recent memory– Beane mentioned it as one of the positions in this year’s draft. That may present a unique opportunity to add more of a longer-term running mate at the position for Knox. Using the 28th overall pick on a tight end would represent a radical ideological shift for Buffalo, but Michael Mayer, Dalton Kincaid, and Luke Musgrave might be the type of transformative players who could warrant that type of investment, if available. If the Bills are more inclined to invest in the position on day two or three of the draft, Sam LaPorta and Brenton Strange are two players who profile as the strong run after the catch threats Beane identified as appealing on Tuesday.
With Buffalo’s only major offensive contributors slated to hit free agency being Singletary and left guard Rodger Saffold (the offensive line’s weak link last year), the Bills have the opportunity to add to what was already one of the best units in the NFL last season.
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