The Bills are filled with youth but who can stand out in 2021?
By: Caleb Holfoth (@cmhfilm)
The Buffalo Bills are filled with youth all across the offense and defense. Franchise cornerstones Josh Allen, Tre’Davious White, Dion Dawkins, Stefon Diggs, Matt Milano, and Ed Oliver are all under the age of 28. However, the roster is filled with players who have been drafted within the past three seasons whom all have made an impact. With Buffalo turning into one of the major contenders in the NFL Buffalo needs to have some of their younger players make major impacts. Buffalo has a very well-rounded team and young players either starting or backing up in several positions. Some players certainly have played below expectations in their careers and are going to be expected to step up this season.
AJ Epenesa, Defensive End
AJ Epenesa played a total of 17 games last season including the playoffs making only one start over the course of his rookie season. A second-round draft pick in 2020 Epenesa was not allowed to participate in any of the normal rookie camps or offseason programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Epenesa was touted as a developmental player and the lack of offseason work with the team was part of the reason for the slow start to his career. Epenesa only tallied 17 tackles, one sack, three TFL, and five QB hits while playing only 27% of defensive snaps. Epenesa also came into the season not exactly how the Bills wanted when he cut much more weight than they anticipated.
Epenesa not only has a big year because of his poor showing in the first half of last season but also because the Bills doubled up on defensive ends in the first and second round of this offseason draft.
Now, why will Epenesa have a breakout year? Well, it starts with the fact that he gets a full offseason for the first time in his career. Epenesa started behind last season and was not able to show some potential until the end of the season. With Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison both on the wrong side of 30 and on the last year of their deals. There is some availability for snaps at the position.
Epenesa showed some flashes last season and has the potential to be a solid run defender as well as a pass rusher which is exactly what McDermott wants in his defensive ends. With a higher number of snaps not only should Epenesa improve on the field, but he should get better every single week. Just like last season Epenesa will likely start slowing but become more valuable down the stretch having most of his success closer to the playoffs.
Projected Stats: 31 Tackles, 5 Sacks, 8 TFL, 2FF, 1FR, 48% of Snaps
Cody Ford, Offensive Guard
Cody Ford started fifteen games his rookie season for the Bills at right tackle and followed by starting the first six games of the season at guard for the Bills. Ford was declared out for the season when he tore his meniscus in practice. Ford was a second-round pick by Brandon Beane and Buffalo hopes that he can solidify the left guard position next to Dion Dawkins for the future. While Ford did come into the league with high potential, he has been slightly disappointed for Buffalo. In his rookie season, Ford could not ever definitively take the right tackle job from Ty Nsekhe.
Ford has the tools to be a very good guard in the NFL, but he needs to improve his footwork as well as his power when pass blocking. Ford has been overpowered by some of the larger defensive tackles since moving to guard. Ford has been more comfortable since moving to left guard and his performance in 2020 was certainly more impressive than his rookie season.
Ford will return stay at guard in 2021 with the other four positions across the line already locked up in long-term deals. Ford has real potential to make a jump from the below-average play that he has exhibited throughout his short career. If Ford can shore up his fundamentals at guard and become more comfortable and acclimated with the position, he could easily become a strength of the Bills offensive line. Expect Ford to take a jump this season because of the full offseason program as well as much more competition along the offensive line.
Projected Stats: 14 Games Started, 7 Penalties, 4 Sacks Allowed
Dawson Knox, Tight End
Dawson Knox has been oozing potential since his rookie season. Regardless he has still yet to reach that potential. Knox’s career stats dating back to college have not been that amazing.
Ole Miss Career: 17 Games, 39 Receptions, 605 Yards, 0 Touchdowns
2019: 15 Games, 28 Receptions, 388 Yards, 2 Touchdowns
2020: 12 Games, 24 Receptions, 288 Yards, 3 Touchdowns
Knox has made some incredible plays since coming to Buffalo. However, those plays have come in a very limited manner. This season things may open up for Knox a little more than in previous seasons. Last season Knox was outperformed by receivers because there was so much talent at the position. The addition of Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis made it difficult for Knox to get more targets in his second season. In addition to that, Buffalo moved away from some tight-end sets opting instead to have more receivers on the field. Although Knox did play fewer games, he registered nearly 200 fewer snaps than his rookie season.
Knox does have serious potential to break out in 2021. First, the emphasis on stopping All-Pros Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley could mean that Knox will often have mismatches or be unnoticed by the defense. Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll is a genius at creating winning matchups for Bills players. With Knox still relatively regarded as a non-factor to many in the Bills offense Daboll could creatively use him to create big plays. In addition to that, Knox is now in year three of Buffalo’s system. Knox should not only be able to play from the tight end position but also as a standup player in the slot. While will not have the impact of a player such as Stefon Diggs expect him to make a jump from a relatively unknown tight end to a weapon in Buffalo’s offense.
Projected Stats: 15 Games, 48 Receptions, 623 Yards, 4 Touchdowns