After the Bills' best season in 25 years, Buffalo decided to address the trenches in the 2021 NFL Draft in a major way. GM Brandon Beane doubled up on edge rusher and selected three offensive linemen. For a Super Bowl contender without any glaring holes, it wasn't a crazy philosophy, but the Bills didn't get everything right.
Let's look at first what they didn't do, then list the one clearly shrewd decision made during the draft.
What Bills didn't do: Draft a high-profile cornerback prospect
Levi Wallace lives to see another day. As usual. The 2018 undrafted free agent always seems ripe to be replaced at the vital cornerback spot opposite Tre'Davious White. Yet he continues to stick around and earn that No. 2 cornerback job when the season rolls around. Since Wallace's arrival into the starting lineup late in the 2018 regular season, the Bills haven't used a pick earlier than the sixth round on a cornerback.
Buffalo has instead scoured the low-cost veteran market for competition for Wallace -- Kevin Johnson, Josh Norman -- over the past two years and is likely to go that route again after not selecting a cornerback until the sixth round in this draft.
Now, I like Wallace. He's an overachiever. Unspectacular, yes. But he's provided relatively steady play in his three seasons in Buffalo's secondary. On a little over 1,200 coverage snaps, Wallace has surrendered nine touchdowns in his coverage. Not amazing. But he also has four picks and 15 pass breakups. However, it's obvious Buffalo could upgrade from him talent-wise.
While Wallace hasn't ever been outright replaced, the Bills haven't been afraid to go to a platoon at his position. In 2019, he split time with Johnson. Last year, when healthy, Norman saw the field and ultimately played 32% of the snaps in just nine games.
When facing Buffalo's secondary, opposing passing offenses look Wallace's way -- they justifiably make a concerted effort to avoid White. And while he's represented a relatively good floor, the best way for the Bills to take their secondary to the next level would have been to pick a cornerback with one of their first three selections in the 2021 NFL Draft. That didn't happen.
Does that erase the possibility of Buffalo improving its pass defense this year? No. But it does decrease the possibility. The Bills did allow the fifth-lowest passer rating in the NFL during last regular season. However, Sean McDermott and Co. likely have the disastrous defensive effort in the AFC title game loss to the Chiefs in forefront of their mind -- Patrick Mahomes completed 76% of his throws at 8.55 yards per attempt with three touchdowns and no interception en route to a 127.6 rating in that contest -- but decided addressing the pass rush was more vital than finding a top talent at the cornerback spot.
What the Bills got right: Ignored running back and tight end
I bet you're wondering if I completely forgot about the Bills not picking a running back or tight end. I didn't.
The Bills are a passing team by every conceivable measure. Josh Allen threw it 572 times during the regular season (sixth-most in the league). Per Sharp Football, counting the playoffs, they attempted a pass 64% of the time in neutral situations -- point margin between +8 and -8 points -- and to cap it off, had the league's highest passing rate on first down with the game within one score and on every first-down occasion. Allen's 7.9 yards-per-attempt average was the fifth-best in football. Buffalo passed often and efficiently. Qualitatively, there was not one 2020 Bills game I watched where I thought to myself "man, the Bills need to run the ball more."
And after the top three ball carriers in this class -- Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams -- there were no prospects close to being sure things at the increasingly devalued position. As individuals, Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are quality make-you-miss, contact balance runners. Matt Breida can hit home runs on well-blocked plays. There's even Antonio Williams, who showed promise as an authoritative back in the regular-season finale.
In short -- Buffalo didn't need to upgrade its running back position. To bolster the effectiveness of that secondary element of its offense, the blocking needed to be addressed, and Beane wasn't shy about creating competition in the trenches with three offensive line selections.
As for tight end being omitted, the tight end class was weak and extremely top-heavy. And going a step deeper with the Bills attack, not only is it distinctly pass-heavy, it's wide receiver centric. In 2020, the Bills rolled out a three, four, or five receiver set on 88% of all plays (runs or passes), including the playoffs. That was the highest rate in football. Of course, the lack of a star tight end likely contributed to that receiver reliance. Regardless of why it happen, it worked. Buffalo scored over 500 points and finished second in the league in total points scored for the first time since 1991.
Out is John Brown. In is Emmanuel Sanders. And Buffalo even provided one last reminder of its passing and receiver preference over the ground game and the running back spot by selecting a wideout, Marquez Stevenson, in the sixth round.
Given their roster makeup, and how they win, prioritizing the offensive and defensive lines was much more prudent drafting and reaching for a tight end or running back at any point outside the first round in this draft for the Bills.