A six-pack of players whose best is hopefully yet to come this season
With six games remaining in the 2020 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills find themselves in solid position. At 7-3, they are in first place in the AFC East and third in the AFC overall. However, they can’t be comfortable, as the Miami Dolphins (6-3) are breathing right down their necks for the division, and five other AFC teams currently have a 6-3 record as well.
In order for the Bills to take the next step in their development, they’ll need to slay a few dragons over the next month and a half. Fending off Miami and the New England Patriots, who at 4-5 are not quite dead yet, is the first goal, as the Bills will want to avoid falling into the Wild Card mess in a crowded AFC field.
We ran down the ten players who had a big impact on taking the Bills to where they are ten weeks in, and now it’s time to look into the crystal ball Swami-style to predict those players who are going to have a big impact on the remaining schedule. No repeats here, so this is a holiday six-pack of players who will take the Bills over the top in the season’s final six games.
G/C Jon Feliciano
I can’t believe I have to “slash” Mongo, as we all thought it was pretty clear that he’d be coming in to solidify the right guard position, which has not been good this season in his absence. However, with injuries to Cody Ford and Mitch Morse occurring after Feliciano returned from a torn pectoral muscle, the Bills have yet to have their ideal offensive line play together. That should change in Week 12, when the Bills could go with (from left to right) Dion Dawkins, Feliciano, Morse, Ford, and Daryl Williams. Veteran Brian Winters has been the clear weakest link along the offensive front, committing seven penalties, allowing three sacks, and clearing the way for just 1.9 yards per rush on runs his way (to be fair, the Bills have only gained 2.9 yards per rush on carries off right tackle, but it’s also fair to wonder how much of that is influenced by Williams having to cover for Winters). After last week’s confusing scenario where Morse was active but held out of the game against the Arizona Cardinals as a “football decision,” it would be nice to see the Bills’ offensive line come out in its strongest form. Feliciano is the missing piece to the unit, so everything should fall into place starting next week.
It’s been a really disappointing second season for Singletary, as those who expected him to take a clear lead in the Bills’ backfield have instead watched him cede carries and playing time to rookie Zack Moss. Singletary is only averaging ten carries per game, and while that’s a sharp downturn from his average in the latter half of 2019, it actually puts him on pace to have just a few more carries than he had as a rookie. Singletary had 151 carries for 775 yards last season, and he’s on pace to carry it 158 times for 642 yards this year. His per-carry average is down a whole yard per tote, and while that’s partly due to the issues discussed above along the offensive line, part of the blame has to fall on offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. The lead play caller has done an outstanding job scheming the passing game, but his run design leaves much to be desired, as Buffalo often runs the same rushing play (or style of rushing play) multiple times in the same game—even out of the same formation—with little success. Singletary needs to find the explosiveness that he showed last season, and a little help from his play caller would push him in the right direction.
TE Dawson Knox
Injuries have slowed the second-year tight end, but more concerning is that he has shown many of the same issues this year that plagued his rookie season. Knox’s hands are inconsistent enough that my six-year old refers to him as “the slippery hands guy,” which is never a good moniker to earn as a pass-catcher at any level. Knox has only seen 16 targets in six games this year, catching eight of them for 109 yards. His athleticism is above-average for the position, so an awakening after the bye week would add another potent layer to an already dynamic passing game that has plenty of mouths to feed. With Stefon Diggs, John Brown, and Cole Beasley averaging a combined 22 targets per game, there aren’t going to be many more tosses to go around, but if Knox could start threatening a modest line each week—think four catches for 50 yards—then it would give defenses another major cause for worry. Knox stepping up takes this passing game from excellent to elite.
LB Matt Milano
The Bills have only played one half of football with both Milano and Tremaine Edmunds at full health this year. If you want one major reason for their defensive struggles, I’d wager that’s in the running for the top spot, with “who is healthy enough to play CB2” running neck-and-neck (more on that below). With Edmunds rounding back into form over the last few weeks as his shoulder injury heals, adding a healthy Milano—on injured reserve thanks to a pectoral strain he suffered in Week 4 against the Las Vegas Raiders—will help to solidify the Bills’ underneath coverages. The team has really struggled this year in the intermediate-middle of the field, and part of that is because they only have one elite linebacker playing instead of two. Milano is eligible to return after Buffalo’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers, and if he can come in and play at a high level, Buffalo’s defensive output should improve significantly in the season’s final month.
CB Dane Jackson
Of the myriad players to line up across from Tre’Davious White this season, the one I’ve been most impressed with consistently is Jackson, who gives the Bills an element they lack with any other option on the field. If it’s Josh Norman, the Bills almost have to play zone, as the veteran corner has shown himself to be well past the time where he could stick with just about anyone man-to-man. If it’s Levi Wallace, it’s also probably a zone, as Wallace’s lack of physicality, especially against bigger targets like those in Miami, allows teams to pick on him constantly. If it’s Daryl Worley Jr., well…there’s a reason the young veteran is on his third squad in the last calendar year. Of the options the Bills have, Jackson gives the team something that the others can’t, as his ability in man coverage helps the team to be more multiple in their defensive calls while also disguising what those calls are pre-snap. The team obviously trusts him, as they allowed Jackson to handle DeAndre Hopkins one-on-one in a red zone scenario against the Arizona Cardinals last week—a matchup that Jackson won by breaking up his third pass of the season. I think the Bills will put Wallace back into the starting lineup against the Chargers, but they’ll ultimately need to give Jackson more looks as the season progresses. The young man deserves it.
DT Ed Oliver
It’s so difficult to analyze the play of interior defensive linemen. We want Oliver to be Aaron Donald, but the defensive call doesn’t always ask for Oliver to be the disrupter, as it’s sometimes his job to be the guy who shields for his teammates instead. Skarekrow did a better job analyzing Oliver’s play than I ever could, so check that out if you haven’t done so yet. Without Star Lotulelei, whose role on the interior defensive line was the most clearly defined, the Bills have been patching together the interior piecemeal. Sometimes it’s Vernon Butler playing the one-tech, and sometimes it’s Justin Zimmer…and sometimes it’s Ed Oliver or Quinton Jefferson. If the Bills can find a rhythm and free Oliver to be the disrupter rather than the space-eater in the season’s final push, then maybe we’ll see that breakout on the stat sheet. Otherwise, we’ll have to be content with Oliver continuing to be the high-motor shield for his teammates throughout. I’d love to see Oliver come right out and notch a multi-sack game against Justin Herbert next week to start him off on the right foot for the end of the season.