How Bills quarterback Josh Allen can take the next step

Does Josh Allen need to be a superstar for the Bills to (0:46)

Does Josh Allen need to be a superstar for the Bills to be a true AFC contender? Not quite, but he does need to bury the "hero ball" trait for good. Video by Marcel Louis-Jacques (0:46)

In an all-in bid on quarterback Josh Allen, the Buffalo Bills have surrounded the Wyoming product with the best supporting cast of his pro career.

With the addition of Stefon Diggs to a wide receiver room that already features John Brown and Cole Beasley, Allen has one of the NFL's top group of pass-catchers. Factoring in the return of all five starting offensive linemen from last season and running back Devin Singletary, among others, Bills general manager Brandon Beane has made a concerted effort to give his biggest draft decision a chance to flourish.

"Honestly, I didn't do a very good job in 2018 [of surrounding Allen with talent]," Beane said following the 2019 season. "There were some restrictions I had, but there were some things I could have done better to give us better up-front protection. I think we hurt Josh a little bit on that and we honestly didn't plan on him to play as quick as he did.

"But that was the best move for us at the time. Last year, I think [playing Allen early] paid off, but I think it was painful early on. Then this year we improved in a lot of areas, but it takes time."

On paper, the 2020 season has the makings of a breakout year for Allen, his third under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

That is, if he is able to improve at the same trajectory in Year 3 as he did in Year 2.

There's little debate Allen was a more polished player in 2019, but there are still steps he needs to take this offseason if the Bills are to be a serious AFC contender.



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The low-hanging fruit -- Allen had the lowest completion percentage in the NFL last season for the second consecutive season. For what it's worth, the fact he improved his accuracy to 58.8% from 52.8% is promising; however, his 26.5% completion percentage on passes beyond 20 yards is concerning.

Allen's arm strength was his trademark entering the league, but defenses won't respect that arm if he can't reliably stretch the field.

"Obviously, the deep ball has been a conversation, so he's very aware of that, his feet," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "There's plenty for Josh to work on. So start there. And Josh is very aware of that. That's the greatest part about Josh is he's aware of it and he's self critical. ... He'll take that and combine it with his tremendous work ethic and I think he'll have a great offseason."

Working in Allen's favor are two of the best vertical threats in the NFL.

Over the past two seasons, Diggs and Brown rank third and seventh, respectively, in touchdown receptions on passes traveling at least 20 air yards. Last season, Diggs had the most and Brown the third most touchdown receptions on such passes. Diggs also ranked fourth in the NFL in 2019 with an average of 17.9 yards per catch.

If Allen can't get the deep ball going in 2020, his pass-catchers likely won't be to blame.

Repressing 'hero ball' gene

During Allen's first season as a starter at Wyoming (2016), the Cowboys' offense featured four future NFL players -- Allen, tight end Jacob Hollister, running back Brian Hill and receiver Tanner Gentry.

He turned in a season that put him on the league's radar, but struggled statistically in 2017 without his NFL-bound teammates. Allen often reverted to playing "hero ball" as it gave his team the best chance to win -- a trait that carried over into his rookie season in 2018. While his ability to extend plays is one of his more endearing traits, it can cause him to force passes.

Repressing the urge to try and do too much was the talk of the 2019 offseason, from both Allen and the Bills. Still, Allen proceeded to throw six interceptions in the first four weeks of the season, culminating with a three-interception performance against the Patriots in Week 4 when he completed 46% of his passes for 153 yards and no touchdowns.

However, another of Allen's traits is his ability to self-assess. He used the Week 4 fiasco as a learning experience.

"That was a game that helped me realize that I didn't need to make every single play by myself, nor should I try to make every single play by myself," he said. "We got 10 [other] guys on the field and we got to trust those other 10 guys to make their plays and do their job.

"It kind of helped me throughout the season just being smarter with the football and taking care of the football and helping this football team win games."

Allen went on to throw three interceptions over his next 12 games, along with 17 touchdowns.

However, he made some erratic decisions in the Bills' playoff game against the Houston Texans, fumbling on a lateral to tight end Dawson Knox on the first play of a potentially score-tying drive in the fourth quarter and attempting a 50-yard pass to double-covered fullback Patrick DiMarco in overtime.

Even with those questionable decisions, Allen put his team in position to tie late in the fourth quarter and led the offense into field goal position in overtime before a controversial penalty pushed back Buffalo 15 yards. But, he can't rely on getting away with that sort of decision-making in 2020.

"That's the next step for Josh," McDermott said. "... it's the understanding that 'I don't have to do it all by myself. I'm a tremendous generator and playmaker, but I've got pieces around me.'

"As we continue, in all honesty, to build the roster, that's what we have to do, is continue to give him pieces he trusts in addition to the ones he already has."

Protecting himself

It's far from a hot take, but Buffalo is in trouble if Allen is unavailable to play -- something the team experienced against the Patriots in Week 4.

On the second play of the fourth quarter, Allen fielded a third-and-8 snap and took off up the middle. It was clear he wouldn't make the first down, but instead of sliding, he put his shoulder down to run through safety Duron Harmon's tackle. He might have picked up the first down, were it not for a hit to the helmet from cornerback Jonathan Jones.

Allen landed in concussion protocol, forcing backup Matt Barkley to attempt a comeback against the league's best defense.

Allen is one of four quarterbacks in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in their first two seasons, so the Bills aren't likely to tell him not to run. However, the play is an example of the danger that comes with his style of play.

He must take calculated risks. The aggressive moves Beane made this offseason were designed to make the Bills Super Bowl contenders. It could all be for naught if Allen misses time.

Win games with his arm

On several occasions last season -- including wins against the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys -- Allen showed an ability to win games by throwing the ball. Still, he has attempted 30 or more passes in 14 games over the past two seasons and the Bills have only won five.

Buffalo's defense doesn't call for much offensive help most weeks, but when it struggles, Allen and this offense need to be able to carry the load. It's another reason Beane has added so many pass-catchers.

"I wouldn't say, 'Hey, the Bills are going to go out and throw it 40 times every week,'" Beane said. "But if it's a game that we have to throw it 40 times, we're playing against one of these high-powered offenses that we've got to keep up, then that's what we want to be able to do. We want to be able to play any style."

With games against the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks, all top-11 scoring offenses last season, the Bills need to be ready for offense-heavy games in 2020.

And the front office is confident Allen will deliver.

"I don't think that there's a hump that Josh can't get over," Beane said. "At the end of the day, it's maturity. Again, it's me doing a better job of increasing the talent around him, too, so that he can trust and have more players that he can trust and make plays for him, where he's just got to get the ball out, hand it off, do whatever and not feel like he's got to do too much."