Buffalo Bulletin: The AFC Arms Race
So far this offseason, the Buffalo Bills have made plenty of moves on offense. Through free agency and the draft they’ve upgraded their offensive line, deepened their receiving core, and expanded their options with a range of talented playmakers. A prolific offense has only improved, but we’re not alone. League-wide, football is becoming more and more a game of offense with each passing season. The Bills are moving forward as they should, but the rest of the conference seems to be doing the same. The AFC is in the midst of an arms race; Can the Buffalo Bills come out on top?
Before we look at the AFC as a whole, we first need to know where we stand.
The Buffalo Bills Offensive Offseason
After finishing the 2022 NFL season with the second-best offense in both yards (397.6) and points (28.4) per game, the Buffalo Bills weren’t satisfied. Their offense stalled out when it mattered most, and they needed the diversity and creativity to thrive in 2023.
Free agency created a few holes that needed filling, but the offense was largely intact.
They cut/allowed the contracts to expire on several offensive contributors:
- Devin Singletary (RB)
- Rodger Saffold (G)
- Bobby Hart (OL)
- Cole Beasley (WR)
- Isaiah McKenzie (WR)
- Jake Kumerow (WR)
These players varied in every way from time on the field to quality of play, but they all needed to be replaced. Prior to the NFL Draft, the Bills seem to have done just that.
The Bills signed the following players in free agency:
- Latavius Murray (RB)
- Damien Harris (RB)
- Trent Sherfield (WR)
- Deonte Harty (WR)
- Connor McGovern (G)
Of the three positions that needed addressing, at least two of them have been upgraded. Connor McGovern is a high-quality starting guard, who will take over from one of the lowest-rated guards in the NFL last season, Rodger Saffold.
Latavius Murray and Damien Harris diversify our running back room, but aren’t definitively better than Devin Singletary was. The expectation is the James Cook will lead the RB room, with one or both of those free agency pickups serving roles behind him.
At receiver, we lost two players who hardly saw the field and one liability, and returned with Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty. These two provide great big play upside, bringing skillsets to the roster that their predecessors didn’t. Harty has returner chops with gadget capability, and a better track record for ball security than Isaiah McKenzie did. Sherfield is a phenomenal blocker and special teamer, with underrated contested catch ability and strong hands over the middle for those desperate short-yardage situations.
In free agency, the Bills seem to have kept pace at a minimum, or even upgraded.
The 2023 NFL Draft
In the 2023 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills stuck with their theme on offense. Diversity of talent and security on the offensive line are clearly sticking points, and the team’s first two selections were no exception.
The Bills’ draft picks are as follows:
- RD1 (25) – TE Dalton Kincaid
- RD2 (59) – G O’Cyrus Torrence
- RD3 (91) – LB Dorian Williams
- RD5 (150) – WR Justin Shorter
- RD7 (230) – G Nick Broeker
- RD7 (252) – CB Alex Austin
Buffalo sacrificed their fourth-round pick to acquire tight end Dalton Kincaid out of Utah. He’s arguably the best tight end in this draft class, and indisputably the best pass-catcher. As a tight end, he’ll outsize any slot cornerbacks and outrun any linebackers, creating a mismatch nightmare that allows the Bills to run wildly different and versatile offensive packages. A second tight end may not have been a big need, but it may signify a huge change in our offensive philosophy.
Managing to score Florida guard O’Cyrus Torrence with the 59th overall pick was a massive success for Buffalo. Torrence was a projected first-rounder, and the best true guard in this entire draft. Combined with the signing of Connor McGovern and the depth provided by Ryan Bates, the Bills may have solved nearly the entirety of their offensive line woes.
Justin Shorter was a rare physical specimen, with unique size (6’4”, 230lbs) and secure hands. With only one drop over his last two seasons, he’s a safety blanket with implied special teams upside. His speed won’t blow you away, but he’ll be there when you need him.
The Cold War in the North
In terms of personnel, Buffalo definitively improved on the attack this year. The interior offensive line has taken a leap, which lends credibility to improvements in our tackle play also. Our running back room is more diverse and experienced, and our receivers offer a wider range of skills. On top of all that, the addition of Dalton Kincaid makes us less predictable than ever, as the Bills can run even more plays out of even more formations.
They’re far from the only team to see improvements, however. As this AFC arms race heats up, we’ll need more than a good roster to take home the AFC Chamionship, and win a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Rest of the Arms Race
Why? Because we have 15 more teams to compete with for the AFC title, and they’re not in the business of losing football games. We’re going to revisit every offense in the AFC to see how they match up after an offseason chock-full of changes. Feel free to skip to the end, where we’ll look at how this race truly matches up.
Note: We’re discussing offense only, be mindful of that.
We’ll start with an unfortunate upgrade. When we talk about the ‘AFC arms race’, there are few better examples than the New York Jets. This offseason, they’ve traded for Aaron Rodgers, making arguably the largest single-position improvement in the NFL with their QB upgrade. We said the same thing last year about the Denver Broncos, which didn’t work out so well, but things are different in the big apple.
The Jets have made a clear and intentional effort to give Rodgers weapons that he’s comfortable with, but they don’t have any home-run hitters right now. Their weapons haven’t really upgraded, just changed, and barring a major surprise their offensive line is still an area of concern. They invested some draft capital, but we’ll see if it pays off.
Meanwhile, in Florida, the Miami Dolphins kept on track, but didn’t grow. They re-signed nearly their entire offensive class of pending free agents, and added Robbie (Chosen) Anderson and Braxton Berrios at WR. With their limited draft picks, they brought in a third-round running back and didn’t make any notable upgrades on offense. Let’s not pretend that they needed them, though. Despite losing their starting QB for a number of games, the Dolphins were still explosive, and placed sixth in yards per game.
Offensively, the New England Patriots were as average as they come last year. They lacked a consistent starting QB, an identity on offense, and even a qualified play-caller. Somehow, despite all of that, they were an average offense. Though they still don’t have the answer at QB, they’ve made some real upgrades, adding OTs Riley Reiff and Calvin Anderson, TE Mike Gesicki, RB James Robinson and WR Juju Smith-Schuster. In the draft, they used their abundance of Day 3 draft picks to bring bodies to their interior offensive line and took a swing on some late receivers. It’s a real, concerted effort to refurbish an offense that desperately needed changes. They expect to be much improved in 2023, behind play-caller Bill O’Brien.
The lone offense that outstripped the Buffalo Bills last season was that of the Kansas City Chiefs. When they went head-to-head, Buffalo got the better of them, but a season tells a story, and the Chiefs are prolific. They parted ways with two important receivers in Mecole Hardman and Juju Smith-Schuster, but don’t expect a step back. They shored up both tackle positions in free agency with Jawaan Taylor and Donovan Smith, and replaced their receiving depth. There’s no reason to believe Kansas City is less of an offensive threat than they were a year ago.
A team that may surprisingly be in this race is the Denver Broncos. They lost little, but invested in offense via free agency to secure OT Mike McGlinchey, G Ben Powers, RB Samaje Perine, TE Chris Manhertz, and WR Marquez Calloway. Can Russell Wilson use these additions to get back to the form we all expected to see in 2022? This time, there won’t be Nathaniel Hackett breathing down his neck.
If Justin Herbert can’t win after this offseason, there won’t be much more to say about him. The Los Angeles Chargers lost little and invested in weapons in the draft. Primarily, Quentin Johnston’s first-round selection looks to give Herbert no excuses.
The biggest mystery of the AFC West, the Las Vegas Raiders swapped out their longtime starter Derek Carr for the intriguing Jimmy Garropolo. Arming him with WR Jakobi Meyers, and three reasonable tight ends in Austin Hooper, O.J. Howard, and Michael Mayer, may elevate an already-loaded offense. It was already difficult to stop Davante Adams, who hauled in 1500+ yards and 14 TDs last season, with Josh Jacobs putting in 1650+ and 12 TDs on the ground.
What can be said about the Cincinnati Bengals that hasn’t already been said? They were the seventh-best scoring offense last season, and were responsible for one of the ugliest beatdowns of the postseason. With security brought to the offensive line with the signing of Orlando Brown Jr, they’re poised for an encore.
Five months ago, no-one was sure what was happening with Lamar Jackson and friends. In seemingly no time at all, the Baltimore Ravens have brought their MVP QB back, found him a bevy of weapons in Odell Beckham Jr. and first-round rookie Zay Flowers. If they can find consistency in the offensive line, they’re set to horrify defenses in 2023.
The Cleveland Browns are in an uncomfortable position for innumerable reasons. They’re an unattractive free agent destination, didn’t have many draft picks, and their current crop of talent vastly underperformed last season. Barring some fresh chemistry and a year of practice, there’s not much reason to believe that things will improve.
Something of a red-headed step-child, the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t seem to have anything new to offer offensively in 2023.
The Tennessee Titans were in a tough spot this offseason, and couldn’t do much about it until the end of April. When the time came, they invested all six draft picks into the offense, securing a QB, WR, RB, TE, and two OTs. Call it a refurbishment, with the hopes that Will Levis can shock the world and take over from Ryan Tannehill. The Titans are only a year removed from being a tough ground-and-pound offense, and have the capability to get back there.
With the second overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Houston Texans took C.J. Stroud, their hopeful quarterback of the future. The Texans lost essentially no offensive talent and added a number of qualified starters (like WR Robert Woods) in free agency and through the draft. They’re still two steps behind the best of the AFC, but on offense they have the capability to make strides. Before they step up, they need to put it all together.
In 2022, the Indianapolis Colts were amongst the worst of NFL offenses. Their new coaching staff failed to make moves in free agency, but the draft was their time to shine. They took QB Anthony Richardson fourth overall, and gave him a slot receiver in Josh Downs two rounds later. They added security to the offensive line and still have what it takes to force a powerful run game. Expect them to lag at the bottom of this group.
If we’d told you entering 2022 that the Jacksonville Jaguars would be the NFL’s 10th-best scoring offense, few would have believed it. Here they stand now, having put up a great season, and they’ve added well through their draft class. If any offense has what it takes to go from above-average to great this season, it’s the Jaguars.
The Finish Line
As far as our preliminary dive goes, the AFC’s offenses are varied but prominent. In this arms race, there are few great moves left to be made; Little will change until September rolls around. The field is set.
There are last year’s returning contenders:
- Kansas City Chiefs
- Buffalo Bills
- Cincinnati Bengals
- Miami Dolphins
- Jacksonville Jaguars
Teams who had a good offseason:
- Baltimore Ravens
- Los Angeles Chargers
- Las Vegas Raiders
- New York Jets
- New England Patriots
- Houston Texans
- Tennessee Titans
And lastly, those few teams who don’t stand much of a chance:
- Indianapolis Colts
- Denver Broncos
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Cleveland Browns
There are 12 AFC offenses capable of producing great seasons this year. As far as we’ve seen, however, there are still only three teams at the top of the heap. The Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, and Cincinnati Bengals are in a class of their own.
These three offenses were peers, no more and no less, at the conclusion of last season. In the time since, they’ve all made moves to stay competitive; There was little room to get better.
Little room, to be sure, but room nonetheless. The Bengals didn’t get better, they simply didn’t get any worse. Kansas City followed suit, coming out with a better offensive line, but indisputably less proven weapons.
Following 2022, only one offense was at the top of the league and still found a way to climb, and that’s the Buffalo Bills. Their weaponry is more diverse. They’re more capable of creating mismatches. They’ve taken strides in terms of interior blocking, which allows them to further establish a run game. Buffalo has a real case to be the NFL’s best offense, outstripping the AFC entirely.
The arms race is almost over, and no team is looking better equipped to win the ensuing war than the 2023 Bills.
Like this piece? Check out the previous Buffalo Bulletin on the Bills linebacker situation entering 2023, and who will start the season at MLB.
The Buffalo Bulletin on Buffalo Fanatics is a weekly editorial by Iestyn Harris. Check back regularly for hot topics, riveting discussion, and, occasionally, some actual insight.
Original Featured Images: Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire, Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports, ESPN; Composite by Iestyn Harris