Buffalo Bills need to find answers on offensive line to improve 2021 running game
You can go back to any point in the history of football and come to the same conclusion about what makes a running game work. A great back certainly helps, but more than anything, you need good blocking.
It doesn’t matter if the running back is Red Grange in the 1920s and '30s, Steve Van Buren in the 1940s, Jim Brown in the ‘50s and ‘60s, O.J. Simpson in the '70s, Eric Dickerson in the '80s, Emmitt Smith in the '90s, or today’s stars such as Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb.
If the big brutes up front aren’t creating space for the backs to operate, it can be awfully tough to consistently move the ball on the ground.
We saw this in 2020 with the Buffalo Bills and the top two men in the football operation – head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane – both mentioned the need to improve the ground game in 2021.
“I can tell you right now, we’ve got to run the football better,” McDermott said last week in his season-ending Zoom call with reporters. The next day Beane doubled down when he agreed, saying, “I just think as an offense, we never got in sync running, and I think there’s blame all around.”
It’s easy to point the finger at running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, neither of whom present a dynamic threat in the ground game. They combined for 1,168 yards and a 4.3 average per carry which is OK, but a deeper dive reveals some troubling numbers.
Factoring in the scant contributions from T.J. Yeldon and Antonio Williams (133 combined yards) the Bills ranked 25th in the league in yards gained by running backs. The fact that the Bills were 20th in rushing yards and average per carry was attributable to Josh Allen’s 421 yards which were eighth-most among quarterbacks.
In terms of rushes of 10 yards or more, Singletary and Moss combined for only 33, basically two such plays per game.
And here’s the one stat that is most telling. The Bills had the fourth-highest percentage of runs that were stuffed, meaning zero or negative yardage, one every 9.7 attempts.
This is where the spotlight glares on the offensive line as it had an alarmingly difficult time holding up at the point of attack. When you couple that with backs like Singletary and Moss who lack big-play ability, it’s a problem.
Due to injuries and some below average individual play, the Bills used seven different line combinations in 2020 and the seventh was the one they finally settled on down the stretch.
Starting with the San Francisco game and extending through the AFC Championship Game loss to Kansas City, the Bills used the same five starters – from left to right it was Dion Dawkins, Ike Boettger, Mitch Morse, Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams.
Counting the postseason, Dawkins and Williams started all 19 games and were solid throughout. The issues came in the interior, where Feliciano missed the first seven games, Cody Ford missed 12, Morse was out for two, and after some trial and error Boettger sent underperforming Brian Winters to the bench around midseason.
As the Bills begin making their plans for 2021, the offensive line has to be an important priority as Beane and McDermott need to get a five-man group solidified, and it’s going to take some work.
Both Williams and Feliciano are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March, as are backups Winters and Ty Nsekhe. Those last two probably don’t figure into the future, but the Bills would love to somehow retain Williams and Feliciano.
“Whether we can get them back, I don’t know,” said Beane. “We’ll have to see where their markets are and things like that. But if not, we’ll have to try and find some similar replacements at a cost-effective number.”
To bring back either or both, Beane will need to create salary cap space by cutting several other players, a group that could include wide receiver John Brown, tight end Lee Smith, and defensive linemen Quinton Jefferson and Vernon Butler.
That savings – about $23.5 million if all four were released – would get the job done as sports contract website Spotrac.com estimates the market value of new deals for Feliciano and Williams at a combined $16.1 million average annual salary.
Of course, that would likely mean the Bills would have to move on from linebacker Matt Milano because his projection is $13.8 million. Also, re-signing both Williams and Feliciano would hamper the Bills’ ability to pursue other free agent signings either inside or outside their organization. As Beane said, there are some tough decisions ahead.
Some have speculated that the Bills might create more cap space by moving on from Morse, a player they made the highest paid center in 2019, but who has a history of concussion problems (he suffered one this past season) and did not have a great year (Pro Football Focus graded him 22nd out of 37 centers who played at least 50 percent of the snaps).
Cutting Morse would save $4.8 million, but it also means a dead cap hit of $5.5 million.
“I thought Mitch played really well down the stretch,” said Beane. “Mitch is more of an athletic center than a power center. Mitch is never going to be a guy that’s going to mow a nose tackle three yards down the field. At the end of the day I thought he played well overall this season, and especially the second half of the season.”
The only way they could release Morse is if they re-sign Feliciano and move him to center. And the only way that makes any sense is if they have decided Ford and Boettger are good enough to be the starting guards, something that sure seems debatable.
Ford has been hampered by injuries and has been an underwhelming performer since being a second-round pick in 2019. The Bills have tried him at right tackle and both guard spots and he hasn’t really excelled at any, though Beane points squarely at his health and not his talent.
“He’s played probably as many games hurt as he has healthy, in fairness to him, and he doesn’t say a word,” said Beane. “We could have shut him down a year ago with the shoulder injury that he had, but he refused. … I think that’s one of the things that gets lost when the so-called evaluators out there evaluate these guys. Not everyone has all the details of what they’re dealing with.
“Cody played a good portion of his rookie year with a shoulder that needed a six-month recovery from operation and then this year he’s already had two surgeries since he was injured. I think he’s showed that he can handle either guard; we like his versatility. I would be surprised if he’s not a starter on our line next year. Talent-wise, yeah, he’s probably one of our best five.”
As for Boettger, Beane said, “Ike did a really good job. We like guys with versatility, and he’ll do anything. I thought once he got in the groove he played better and better.”
The Bills also have returning backups Ryan Bates and Jordan Devey, plus practice squad player Trey Adams who was signed to a reserve/futures contract last week. Whether any of those three are ready to compete for a starting job is unknown, but based on track record, they all seem destined for backup roles.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.