BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Six years ago, coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane were paired to rebuild the Buffalo Bills, a team that was largely stuck in the bottom half of the division with only two winning seasons since 2000.
The Bills had the sixth-worst winning percentage from 2000 to 2016 (41.2%), but in McDermott and Beane’s first season the team went 9-7 and surprisingly made the postseason. Three more winning seasons in the next four followed, including two straight division titles. The foundation was set, however, during that 2017 season with new additions, including the likes of signing free agent safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde and drafting rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White in the first round.
This year, it’s hard to find a ranking or list that doesn’t have the team as the Super Bowl favorite -- but that’s on paper. And while the core is in place stemming from the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Bills will need several players to step up to reach their goals. Here are a few players to keep an eye on.
Gabriel Davis, wide receiver, Year 3
Davis drew national attention last season after his four-touchdown performance in the playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He has the opportunity to lock down the No. 2 receiver role behind Stefon Diggs and should be a popular fantasy option. The Bills didn’t have Davis on the field enough early last season. How will he handle increased playing time, pressure and a vital role opposite Diggs? Can he have his first season with 600-plus receiving yards and/or more than seven touchdowns? Beane is a big believer.
“The thing about Gabe is every time his number's called, and I'm talking about back to his rookie year, every time his number was called, he answers the bell,” Beane said. “He's been working hard. He's been here, I think every day. ... Nothing seems too big for Gabe every time you give him more.”
Spencer Brown, right tackle, Year 2
Protecting quarterback Josh Allen is the No. 1 priority for the Bills offense. The quarterback was hit on 92 plays during the 2021 regular season, seventh-most among quarterbacks. Part of that is partially because of how much he runs the football — third-most among quarterbacks last year. The Bills found their optimal offensive line in the final quarter of last season, and Allen went four straight games without getting sacked at the end of the season (including the playoff win against the New England Patriots), which marked the longest streak of his career.
Here's where Brown comes in: While he did not start initially during his rookie year, he did start 10 games. Consistency was an issue, however. In his first four starts, he had a 91.1% pass block win rate (PBWR), but after missing two games on the COVID-19 list, he finished the season with a PBWR of 84.3%, lowest among the Bills tackles during that stretch.
Brown, who didn't participate in the offseason program because of injury, will need to be more reliable for the offense to reach its full potential under new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
Kaiir Elam, cornerback, Year 1
The Bills didn’t trade up to select Elam in the first round for him not to compete for a starting job. With White continuing to recover from a torn left ACL, Elam and 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson will start camp as the starters at outside corner.
For Elam, joining last year’s No. 1 defense will come with significant responsibility and early pressure. He’ll be competing with Jackson for that starting job once White returns, and the expectations will be high.
“Obviously, you spend a lot of time looking at the No. 1 pick. Always take a look and see how he's progressing and watching him myself and then talking to the coaches. But he definitely sticks out,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said when asked what new players he is focusing on. “… I can't say just one guy other than we need Kaiir to step up and play well for us early.”
Beane, who was hired in 2017 after the draft, had not invested a high pick at cornerback until taking Elam this year, thanks to the stellar play of White, Poyer and Hyde. But the unknowns surrounding White’s return makes Elam’s development that much more important.
Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker, Year 5
Edmunds is entering a contract year. The team picked up his fifth-year option, but he is scheduled to become a free agent in 2023. In ESPN senior writer Jeremy Fowler’s recent survey of 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players around the league, Edmunds was ranked as the seventh-best off-ball linebacker.
"Elite physical talent who had taken a few years to grow into being a signal-caller and nerve center of the defense," an NFC scout said. "His skill set has always been more natural as a [weakside linebacker], but he's improved in his reactionary quickness, angles and ability to defeat blocks to be a solid [middle linebacker]."
His numbers don’t always flash, but the Bills view him as an asset. Perhaps the biggest area Edmunds needs to work on is making more splash plays, with Frazier noting that would help “take us to another level as a defense.” Edmunds has four career interceptions, tied for 12th among linebackers since 2018, and two forced fumbles, tied for 78th in his position group.
Isaiah McKenzie, wide receiver, Year 6
While McKenzie’s speed has always been impressive, the offense under new coordinator Ken Dorsey will call for him to be a more complete receiver and route runner. The battle between McKenzie and Crowder will be one to watch during camp, and McKenzie’s history with the team should help him.
“I want that chemistry [Allen and Beasley] had, even though they been together for like three years," McKenzie said. "They built a great chemistry, and that’s what I want with Josh. When camp comes, I want to keep communicating with him and keep learning from him and just help the team win the best way I can.”