Buffalo Bills 2023 season: Big thoughts heading into Jets game

After several years of their arrow pointing up, the Buffalo Bills enter the 2023 season with most people talking about everyone else in the AFC. Whether it be the Chiefs, Bengals, Jets, Dolphins, Ravens or Chargers, the Bills have settled into a minor afterthought from a national perspective to begin the season.

The Bills will get their crack to keep their winning ways going during the first “Monday Night Football.” It’s on the road against offseason hype magnets the New York Jets, who sport a highly publicized new quarterback in Aaron Rodgers.

What stands out from a Bills perspective as they head into the regular season? Here are things I’ll be closely monitoring heading into the showdown against the Jets.

Without question, the Jets defense gave the Bills more problems than most last season. The Bills’ loss to the Jets in Week 9 ushered them away from their early season offensive dominance to, at times, a frustrating and disjointed offensive run to their divisional-round exit. It was a multifaceted issue. They became more predictable. Their lack of depth and versatility at skill positions showed through late in the year. Injuries made their mark. Plus, the offensive line allowed more immediate chaos than Josh Allen saw the previous two years. The Bills made it a point this offseason to address all of those issues, and their marquee addition was first-round pick Dalton Kincaid. Now it’s time for the tight end to debut and for the Bills to unveil their initial plan.

Kincaid was consistently one of the Bills’ best pass catchers throughout summer practices and into the preseason and showed close to an immediate rapport with Allen in spring workouts. He has the size, movement skills and speed to cause some sort of matchup problem regardless if it’s a safety, nickel corner or linebacker guarding him. If he is as effective in the regular season as he was in the summer, it will take a very specific player with height, weight, length, speed and fluidity to match up well with him. For those reasons, there is a strong argument that the Bills are at their most unpredictable with Kincaid on the field in “11.5 personnel,” along with Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Dawson Knox and James Cook. But the big question, considering offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey’s tendencies from 2022, is how much will he be willing to divert from 11 personnel?

The Bills operated out of 11 personnel more often than they did in “11.5 personnel” in the preseason finale with Allen at the controls, though it would be a genuine surprise if the Bills were tipping their Week 1 game plan in one first-unit drive during an exhibition game. The Bills know the Jets gave them trouble last year, and despite players like Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield upgrading what they had at slot receiver, it’s more similar than different to their 2022 offensive look. Those receivers likely aren’t forcing the Jets out of their comfort zone. Kincaid is the new wrinkle, the unknown and the very thing that could catch the Jets by surprise in how the Bills use him, forcing them to decide how to defend him while also dealing with Diggs and Davis. NFL teams are fiending for an advantage, especially against a great defense like the Jets. Don’t be surprised if the Bills come out using a heavy amount of Kincaid in their scripted first 15 plays. From there, it’s on Dorsey to balance his tendencies from 2022 with his usage of Kincaid. Regardless of the result, it will be fascinating to track.

Are the Bills turning over a new leaf with player development?

Speaking of Kincaid, it seems a slight shift is occurring with some of the team’s decisions this summer relative to how the Bills have operated under coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane since 2017. The Bills have shown a higher tolerance for utilizing the youth of their roster rather than going with the flawed yet more experienced player signed to a shorter deal.

It centers around three of the team’s most significant summer competitions — right guard, middle linebacker and the second cornerback job. The victorious parties were rookie guard O’Cyrus Torrence, second-year linebacker Terrel Bernard and second-year cornerback Christian Benford. The trio is signed through at least the 2025 season and, in Torrence’s case, through 2026. In all three circumstances, the Bills had the option of going with someone who had either been in their building for several years, started many games for them or a combination of both.

Ryan Bates has been with the team since 2019 and was a full-year starter in 2022. Dane Jackson was in the starting lineup all last season. Tyrel Dodson has been with the team since 2019 and has started five games. Going with the player they know when a competition is up in the air is a move the Bills have made repeatedly over the years. But with only six starts combined for Torrence, Bernard and Benford, things appear to be changing.

Running back Cook fits into this, as well, as the Bills decided against a big offseason investment and instead went for a pair of veterans on small one-year deals. Cook is now primed for a huge role. Even a smaller example is letting David Quessenberry and Ike Boettger go to keep Ryan Van Demark and Alec Anderson for further fine-tuning in the background of the 53-man roster.

There is a clear emphasis on the development of their younger players, and it seems quite intentional. The Bills have not gotten the most out of some of their recent earlier picks, with a few settling into backup roles for all of their Bills careers. If it’s more than just a coincidence, sticking by their young players through some growing pains could result in a few more draft hits down the line, which could do very well to extend their winning window past the point of their aging veterans moving on during the next one to three years.

How aggressive will McDermott be on defense?

While the Bills and Dorsey figure things out on offense, how McDermott operates in his first regular-season game as defensive coordinator is immensely intriguing. Since 2017, it has always been the same defensive scheme rooted in similar principles. As a head coach, McDermott has shown specific “aggressive” tendencies with game management, and that could be a window into his personality for how he could operate as the defensive play caller. How McDermott handles risk could be much different from how Leslie Frazier operated because, ultimately, McDermott is answering to himself. In terms of pressure and sending more than four pass rushers at the quarterback, there could be a tangible difference from how it used to be.

On third downs specifically, the Bills usually were content to keep everything in front of them and force the team off the field with a punt under Frazier. Though it resulted in getting the ball, it may have canceled some opportunities to push the opposing quarterback into a mistake in the face of pressure. And now, with multiple questions in the back seven — a first-time starter at middle linebacker, an inexperienced starter at cornerback and some wear-and-tear beginning to show on their safety duo — that plus McDermott’s aggressive decision-making could yield a bit higher of a blitz percentage than we’ve seen with the Bills. The strength of their defense likely will be their defensive line, so it wouldn’t be surprising if McDermott leans into that and tries to create havoc for the opposition with just one extra rusher a bit more often, especially on third downs.

A third running back or a fifth safety?

The Bills’ final game day roster decision will be legitimately tricky. To me, it boils down to either running back Latavius Murray or safety Damar Hamlin being on the active list for the opener — and both have solid cases for different reasons. Without Murray, the Bills would leave themselves thin with only two running backs on game day. The Bills had three running backs active (not including Taiwan Jones) in 17 of their 18 contests in 2022 — with Week 6 against the Chiefs being the lone exception. But in 2021, it was more of the norm, as they dressed two running backs in 14 of their 19 contests.

In Hamlin’s case, he has more potential special team functions than Murray if asked, even if he’s not in their original plan to do so. Hamlin could also be good depth should Micah Hyde’s back injury flare up and Taylor Rapp is forced to enter the game. The emotional aspect of allowing Hamlin to dress in his first regular-season game back without a significant role is a piece of the puzzle. Ultimately, I think they’ll make Hamlin active. Plus, Cook’s Week 1 role may wind up being bigger than we’re used to for a Bills running back, lowering the need for a third back to take snaps. However, it’s a close one no matter how you look at it.

Bills projected inactives: RB Latavius Murray, OT Germain Ifedi, IOL Alec Anderson, DE Kingsley Jonathan, CB Kaiir Elam

There are five other active cornerbacks outside of Elam, and the backups give the Bills more on special teams than he does. The Bills have to take from somewhere and are heavy at cornerback.

Prediction: Bills 24, Jets 20

Although the Jets have plenty of hype, I think the Bills view this as a chance to reassert themselves in the AFC. They may never admit it publicly, but they see everyone talking about all the other AFC teams. As cliché as it is, this Bills team under McDermott has thrived on disrespect, specifically on a national stage. The Jets are a formidable opponent who gave them trouble in 2022. However, the Bills have an element of surprise on two fronts: their new-look offensive personnel to change tendencies and a new defensive play caller in McDermott. That, plus the talent level of the Bills roster, leads me to them beginning the year 1-0.

As a brief aside, I’ll be stepping away for a little while as my wife and I welcome our first child, but I will be back soon enough in the season! A special thank you to all for reading, subscribing, engaging and, most importantly, your kindness and thoughtfulness to me throughout the years. It’s my 14th year on the Bills beat, and I will never take the job for granted. And don’t worry, that film won’t watch itself. I’ll be back with plenty of things to discuss from what I’ve seen, and in the meantime, my friends and extremely talented colleagues Tim Graham and Matthew Fairburn will have you well-covered. Talk soon!

(Photo of Sean McDermott: Bryan M. Bennett / Getty Images)

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