Despite major Bills turnover, don’t be so sure they’re going to regress

This offseason, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane seemed to take the old Albert Einstein adage to heart: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Buffalo has made big changes to its roster. 

Why? The Bills have lost to the same team, the Kansas City Chiefs, in three of the past four postseasons. And they’re tired of doing that over and over again. That would be Einstein’s picture of insanity.

It’s not a rebuild. It’s not a blowup. It’s a restructuring.

“This is not a situation where you strip it down to the studs and you start all over,” coach Sean McDermott said immediately after last season. “I mean, 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.”

Those comments came on the heels of a 27-24 loss to the Chiefs in the divisional round of the playoffs. A few months later, up to eight potential Bills starters have departed, including receiver Stefon Diggs, whom the team traded to the Houston Texans in early April.

“Let’s be patient. Let us work through this. Was it easy? No,” Beane told reporters after the Diggs trade. “But you make the best decision for the Bills going forward. You can trust that. And so this organization and our fan base needs to trust that we’re going to trot out a damn good team come September.”

On the surface, trading a receiver like Diggs — and accepting the $31.1 million in dead cap — seems like waving a white flag on the 2024 season. But that ignores the way the Bills reduced Diggs’ role in the second half of the 2023 season — and still saw their offense flourish. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady made a point of moving away from the team’s overreliance upon Diggs, which is part of what cost former OC Ken Dorsey his job.

Of course, it’s one thing to rely less on Diggs. It’s another thing to remove him from the offense entirely. So the Bills have their work cut out for them.

“Any time you make a move like this, as I said, very difficult, you’re trying to win,” Beane said. “And sometimes people may not see that. This is by no means the Bills giving up or trying to take a step back or anything like that. Everything we do, we’re trying to win.”

Bills GM after trading Stefon Diggs: “Are we better today? Probably not”

The Bills will not look the same in 2024, but their torrid run at the end of the 2023 season teased that this new vision for Buffalo could be just as successful, even without the same names. 

So let’s review what’s happened in this busy offseason for the Bills.

Key departures:

WR Gabe Davis
S Jordan Poyer
S Micah Hyde
CB Tre’Davious White
C Mitch Morse
CB Siran Neal
CB Dane Jackson
RB Latavius Murray
EDGE Leonard Floyd
WR Trent Sherfield

Key arrivals: 

WR Curtis Samuel 
WR Mack Hollins 
WR Keon Coleman (rookie) 
RB Ray Davis (rookie) 
RB Ty Johnson 
OT La’el Collins 
OC Sedrick Van Pran-Granger (rookie) 
S Cole Bishop (rookie) 
S Mike Edwards 
LB Nicholas Morrow 
DT DeWayne Carter (rookie)

Buffalo will likely continue to add to its depth chart, particularly as the remaining free agents get itchy to settle for less money and find a team. This is, ultimately, when teams find the best deals in free agency. And quarterback Josh Allen is a fantastic draw for free agents, whether they play on offense or not. 

But Bufalo doesn’t need much in the way of reinforcements.

While the Bills did see a staggering number of departures, particularly among veterans, there is reason to believe they have replacements in place. There might even be sound reason to believe this Bills team won’t miss a beat in the AFC.

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It’s hardest to imagine replacing Diggs, Hyde and Poyer. With the other key departures, you can squint and see how the Bills already replaced White and Murray and have the capacity to replace Davis, Neal, Jackson, Floyd and Sherfield. The Bills even seem to have a replacement plan for Morse. But let’s dig into the receiver position and the secondary, which seem like the biggest spots of personnel overhaul.

If there’s a coach who has a track record of making do on defense, it’s McDermott. Over the past few seasons, he has had to shuffle defenders due to injuries that have thrust younger players into starting roles midseason. The Bills have not suffered when promoting youngsters like Christian Benford, Terrel Bernard, Gregory Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Ed Oliver

McDermott and newly promoted defensive coordinator Bobby Babich will focus on getting more out of safety Taylor Rapp, who was the team’s third safety but now figures to start after re-signing with the team this offseason. McDermott will also have to coach up the newcomer Edwards and the rookie Bishop for big shares of the safety rotation.

It sounds like the rookie, in particular, could be just what Buffalo needed.

“In a perfect world, you’d like your safeties in this system to be interchangeable,” Beane said after drafting Bishop in Round 2. “You like the guys who have the strength and physicality to play down here in the core, blitz … but also go on the back half [in coverage] to take the ball away. And Cole, I would say, fits in to a tee.”

Poyer, Hyde and Rapp were excellent. But the Bills feel good about Rapp, Bishop and Edwards. We may see someone like Justin Simmons, a top-tier free agent, fill out the room — if the price is right. Beane wouldn’t rule out the return of Hyde either. But again, it’s not necessary. Buffalo probably thinks it has what it needs at the position.

The Diggs departure is where you can see the Bills throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. There is no clear No. 1 threat.

Should the Bills be concerned without a top receiver?

Coleman, the 33rd overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, looks like a prospect who is tailor-made for Allen. The Florida State product possesses impressive jump-ball skills, red-zone awareness and creativity outside the structure of the play. But he lacks a top gear in terms of speed, and he’s a rookie. What can the Bills realistically expect from a rookie? 

“He’s probably going to have 150 catches, 2,000 yards. No, I’m just kidding,” Beane said after drafting Coleman. “We’ll bring him along. He’ll have to learn the offense. Can he learn the X [position]? Can he learn multiple spots? … How quick can he get everything [learned]?”

At the start, the Bills might have to lean more on veterans.

Samuel is a really nice match for Brady’s system — he had a breakout year in Carolina when Brady was the OC under Matt Rhule. But Samuel has his limitations. Receiver Khalil Shakir was extremely productive down the stretch last year, but he figures to remain in the slot.

So who will be Allen’s primary option? It’s anyone’s guess.

Because of their depth (and absence of elite talent), the Bills will likely be more matchup-specific from week to week. That’s a demanding way to run an offense for its offensive coordinator. It’ll be a big year offensively for Brady, who will have to figure out how to spread the ball efficiently from Shakir to Dalton Kincaid to Samuel to Coleman to Dawson Knox. And it’ll be a tough year for Allen, who will run the offense and — more than ever — run the locker room.

“I think it’s an opportunity for myself to grow as a leader and to bring along some of these young guys and new guys that we’ve brought into our team,” Allen said during OTAs. “That’s an opportunity, frankly, that I’m very excited about. It’s something that’s going to be very challenging, but I’m very willing to do it.

“It’s just kind of crazy to think that I’m going into my seventh season. … But again, it’s just another opportunity for me to go out there and be the guy that I’m supposed to be and the guy that I believe I am, and I’m going to need guys along the way.”

The Bills won’t have the same caliber of star power in 2024 as they did in 2023. 

Buffalo fans will recognize fewer names on the depth chart at the start of the season. But this season will be about developing a new set of household names. It’ll be about Allen and McDermott lifting this roster despite turnover. And perhaps because of that turnover, maybe the Bills can finally find a way to take down the Chiefs in the playoffs.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.

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