ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A year ago, the Buffalo Bills were preseason favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
Optimism was high after they filled a major hole by signing pass-rusher Von Miller, finished 2021 with the league's top defense, and watched quarterback Josh Allen go without an interception during a postseason that ended with a close loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last season, the Bills did win 13 games and a third-straight AFC East title while dealing with a series of physical and mental hurdles along the way: the death of Dawson Knox's brother, Luke; two deadly Buffalo-area snowstorms; major injuries to Micah Hyde (neck) and Miller (right ACL); and safety Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest during a Week 17 game that was ultimately canceled. Their postseason ended with their worst performance of the year in a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
After the disappointing finish -- and four-straight playoff appearances without reaching a Super Bowl -- a new question arose: Was the Bills' title window starting to close?
Some players have acknowledged thinking about it. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs agreed there's an urgency for the team to win its first Super Bowl.
"100 percent," Diggs said during training camp. "I also was on a team that had a window just like that. When I was in Minnesota [2015-19], we had a real window. We had the No. 1 defense and a good offense -- good offensive scheme as well, great coaches. We had a great year, an OK year, a good year, an OK year. So, seeing that window and this is a way different team than that team. That's where some of the frustration could come from. I've been here before....
"Obviously, I want to take those next steps and get in there."
The conversation about the Bills' window only became louder after their "Monday Night Football" opponent, the New York Jets, traded for future Hall of Fame QB Aaron Rodgers (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN+). The AFC East is now arguably among the most competitive divisions in the league, and the AFC is loaded at the quarterback position with Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Cincinnati's Joe Burrow, Baltimore's Lamar Jackson and others. The Bills' odds have slipped some from last season; they have the fourth-best chance of winning their conference and reaching Super Bowl LVIII, according to Caesar's Sportsbook.
But is there more to this conversation than this Bills' roster having the makeup to win it all? Instead of the window closing, could it be more like a chapter coming to an end as long-time starters turn over? As the Bills embark on the seventh year with coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane in charge, there are several variables that could impact their contender status heading into the future.
Josh Allen factor: When asked about the Bengals' title window earlier this year, Burrow said: "[The Bengals'] window is my whole career." The same could hold true for the Bills and Allen. As former Bills general manager Bill Polian put it, "as long as [Allen] is playing at a high level, the window is open."
Since being drafted by the Bills with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft out of Wyoming, Allen has developed into one of the league's top quarterbacks and is under contract through 2028. Allen ranks second in total QBR (72.1) since 2020 behind only Mahomes. Allen's progress could be a model for developing quarterbacks, going from a combined 56.3% completion percentage his first two seasons to 65.2% in the three years since.
Jackson is the only quarterback to rush for more yards since 2020 than Allen (1,946).
Allen has been central to what the Bills do on offense. No one has accounted for a higher percentage of an offense's yards (76.6%) and touchdowns (80.2%) than Allen since 2020. On top of that, he has accounted for 26.7% of the team's rush yards.
Going into this season, Allen has some things to work on, including improving his decision-making after leading the league in turnovers (19) in 2022, including five red zone interceptions. Allen has not missed a game since his rookie year, but no quarterback has been hit more than Allen since 2020. As he gets older, staying healthy and avoiding unnecessary hits will be key.
Allen has also become one of the team's best selling points, including helping to bring in Miller.
"Josh Allen came here and became a creature," Miller said in March 2022. "He became a superstar quarterback, and he's one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to be a part of this. I believe in him, I believe in this offense."
Being able to attract players as the team navigates tighter cap space is important. This offseason, the Bills signed pass-rusher Leonard Floyd late in free agency to a one-year deal that includes $7 million guaranteed. The former Ram is the sort of player who may not have been a fit in the past.
"People like to play with Josh Allen," general manager Brandon Beane said. "I think that helps. And I think people see that we've been close. And they're going to look at themselves as maybe I'm one of those players that can help differentiate it in some of the biggest moments."
Allen, 27, is entering his sixth NFL season and should be in the prime of his career. The quarterback said he's never been more focused coming into a season, in some part due to a sense of urgency from the older players.
"Josh is going to play another, who knows, 15 years hopefully," Hyde said. "For him to be saying that, understanding the urgency for the older guys, that's a wise move on his part."
Contracts and age: The reality is that some of the key contributors to the Bills -- outside of Allen -- are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.
"Sometimes they talk about it ... but most of the time it's just like, I'm just so thankful to even be with them for this long. So just that alone and even, it's special this year just because we didn't know if they was gonna come back."
Of the Bills' defensive starters -- including Miller who remains on the physically unable to perform list as he comes back from a right ACL injury -- five are over 30 with five other players over 30 on the roster.
The Bills' roster is the fourth oldest in the NFL (average of 27.1), per Elias Sports. The Jets are the league's oldest team at an average age of 27.5.
The last two Super Bowl champions, the Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams, were the sixth- and eighth-youngest teams at the start of the season, respectively. On the other hand, the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 2018 New England Patriots won the Super Bowl with the seventh- and third-oldest teams at the beginning of their seasons.
The Bills' front office will have some big numbers to work around when constructing the roster next season. As currently projected by overthecap.com, the Bills would be almost $20 million over next year's cap (which will increase) with 21 players becoming free agents. Allen's cap number continues to jump, going from $18.6 million in 2023 to $47 million in 2024. Diggs' cap hit will jump from $14.9 million to $27.85 million in 2024, while Miller's will go from $7.93 million to $23.9 million. On top of all that, cornerback Tre'Davious White, offensive lineman Dion Dawkins and Knox are each accounting for over $14 million against the cap next season.
In building the Bills to be perennial contenders, Beane has prioritized maintaining a manageable cap from year to year. Going "all-in" and making the cap a mess for years to follow hasn't been his approach.
The Bills are counting on some younger, less experienced and inexpensive players to fill big roles and develop into key players. Coach Sean McDermott announced Wednesday 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard will be taking over the starting middle linebacker job, while 2022 sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford will start in the No. 2 outside corner spot and rookie O'Cyrus Torrence will start at right guard.
"We want to be competitive every single year," Beane said. "We want as many talented players as we can get, but we got to be fiscally responsible. Because if not, it will pile up and you'll be seeing some of the jerseys that people are wearing, those players ain't gonna be with us."
Mixed draft record: Not being over reliant on free agency to fill a starting lineup depends on good drafting. The Bills' draft record has been uneven over the past few years with 24 total draft picks still on the 53-man roster (ninth-fewest, per Elias) -- 17 of those drafted since 2019.
Since selecting Allen in 2018, the Bills have at times focused on attacking needs and plugging holes instead of drafting for value, according to ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller.
"We could've said this about Kansas City recently even as well," Miller said. "... This is not a Beane/McDermott problem. This is what happens when you're drafted in the twenties every year. You don't have a lot of holes on your roster to try to fill."
But the Bills have had a hard time drafting at some positions. The Bills selected pass-rusher AJ Epenesa in the second round of the 2020 draft, and then took pass-rushers back-to-back in 2021 with Greg Rousseau in the first round and Boogie Basham in the second.
Basham (4.5 career sacks) was traded to the Giants for next to nothing on cutdown day. Epenesa (9 sacks) is one of the team's rotational pass-rushers on the final year of his rookie deal. Rousseau (12 sacks, including 8 in 2022) taking another leap forward this season will be key, especially starting the season without Von Miller.
"[The Bills have] thrown so much, so many draft assets and so much capital at the pass-rusher position, so I think that's where you could say, 'Man, this team has really tried to draft for need instead of drafting for value,' and drafting for value is how you find like the Tremaine Edmunds and the Tre'Davious White and guys like that who could, Dawson Knox even, who could become such strong players," Miller said.
While the Bills have had draft successes -- they've extended Knox, 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver and 2020 sixth-round pick Tyler Bass -- there are several question marks among recent Day 1 and Day 2 picks; just three of seven Day 2 picks from 2019-21 are still on the roster. Finding key contributors in the draft allows for teams to have more affordable talent on rookie deals and invest elsewhere. It is fair to keep in mind, as Matt Miller pointed out, that drafting was not the same in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 and less information available.
Basham's trade marks the second straight year the Bills have traded a second-round pick before the start of the season (last year was offensive lineman Cody Ford).
The potential from this year's draft class feels high, with Kincaid and Torrence stepping into starting roles, and linebacker Dorian Williams as a backup to Matt Milano and special teams player, while wide receiver Justin Shorter (hamstring) is on IR. The other two members of the class - offensive lineman Nick Broeker and cornerback Alex Austin - were picked up on waivers by the Texans.
"I thought they did a really good job of not panicking," Miller said of the Bills' 2023 draft class, "Dalton Kincaid was an out-of-the-box pick and it looks like it's gonna be a really good one."
What's ahead: Every contender faces unique challenges in keeping its window open and windows usually don't close shut with a bang. The Bills have experience with this, as infamously the only team to lose four straight Super Bowls (1990-93).
"After we lost three [Super Bowls], going into the fourth season, I wasn't sure mentally how everybody would handle hearing all the negativity during the course of the offseason," Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly said at his annual golf classic. "I knew physically they would be ready to play, not sure mentally until the first day and I said, 'These guys are ready.'"
Polian was fired after the third Super Bowl loss, and age and injuries also caught up to the Bills. Quarterback Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season. Coach Marv Levy retired the year after. Eventually, the opportunity for that team closed, not to truly be reopened again until Beane and McDermott took over and created a new culture.
The reality for the Bills is that the window for some players could be coming toward an end. Players like Hyde and Poyer who have been with McDermott and Beane since the beginning are dwindling. But Allen isn't going anywhere, and this front office has a team-building philosophy that has made them perennial contenders.
But they know the Super Bowl opportunity is still right there for them this season.
"This year I feel like we're doing a great job at just kind of falling under the radar," Diggs said. "And as a team, we've been real, real high but we haven't accomplished the goal. ... We've got a new opportunity, brand new season, spanking new season to go put some good things on tape and show what you could do as an offense and as a team.
"So, for me like, yeah, that's big picture but see the forest through the trees and it starts with Game 1. I know everyone is excited, and I am too."