Shaq Lawson, Robert Foster, Harrison Phillips, Levi Wallace highlight players to watch next year.
For the Buffalo Bills to rebound from a 6-10 season in 2018 and return to playoff consideration, the team is going to need to surround quarterback Josh Allen with skilled playmakers at wide receiver, solve the running back situation, and add several pieces along an erratic offensive line.
The defense certainly did its part to keep the Bills in many games last year, and it appears that Sean McDermott’s defense will once again be the strength of this team heading into 2019.
There are solid contributors in the secondary: cornerbacks Tre’Davious White, Levi Wallace, and Taron Johnson and safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde; at linebacker: Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, and Lorenzo Alexander; and on the defensive line: Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Harrison Phillips, and Star Lotulelei.
Every year, there are players who show glimpses of their potential one season, then take a major step forward the following year. This article is one writer’s take on who those breakout players will be in 2019. While I firmly believe that Allen will continue to make strides with his play, for the sake of this article I am focusing on eight other players.
TE Jason Croom
With another unproductive season from Charles Clay in the rear view mirror, Croom has a chance to elevate his game and potentially take over as Buffalo’s starting tight end. Croom actually led Buffalo’s tight ends in receptions (22), yards (259), and touchdowns (one) last year, appearing in 15 games (three starts). Croom, 24, was more than serviceable in the blocking game, and he was more than capable as a route runner. Croom, who was a wide receiver at the University of Tennessee, was a preseason breakout candidate last year, and should have an even bigger role in Brian Daboll’s offense in 2019—especially with how his size (6-foot-5) can present match-up problems to the opposition. Croom would make a logical replacement for Clay if the Bills decide to part ways with the veteran.
Foster was a revelation as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Alabama, catching 27 passes for 541 yards (an average of 20 yards per catch) with three touchdowns. Foster posted three 100-plus yard games during his rookie season, making him the first undrafted wide receiver to rack up three games with 100 or more receiving yards since the 2001 season, and the first undrafted free agent in team history to post back-to-back games with 100-plus yards. Once he was brought back onto the team after being released in October, Foster was dedicated to making an impact on the field. With a strong rapport with Allen and with continued developments this off-season, look for the speedster to get even better next year.
DE Shaq Lawson
The former first-round pick finally delivered a breakthrough season in 2018, hopefully turning the corner on his first two mostly forgettable years in Buffalo when the “B” word (bust) was being tossed about in connection to Lawson’s play. After appearing in 14 games (six starts) and finishing with four sacks, 12 QB hits, 30 total tackles (five for a loss), five passes defended, and two forced fumbles, Pro Football Focus graded Lawson as the league’s 20th-best edge rusher. After enjoying an even timeshare with veteran defensive end Trent Murphy on the left side of the defensive line, Lawson should be in line for even more action in 2019—especially after he displayed the same athleticism that made him a standout at Clemson, leading the defensive line in balls batted down at the line of scrimmage. When Lawson wasn’t sacking the quarterback, he was causing chaos in the opposing backfield.
WR/RB Isaiah McKenzie
The Bills made no qualms about their interest in McKenzie, first trying to sign him off of the Denver Broncos’ practice squad before eventually claiming him off waivers. McKenzie showed why Buffalo liked his potential, catching 18 passes for 179 yards and adding ten rushes for 66 yards with two touchdowns. He also accounted for 324 combined punt and kickoff return yards. Whether as a potential slot receiver, a speedy running threat, or a dynamic return man, McKenzie should once again contribute in multiple areas in 2019.
On a team with two running backs over the age of 30—LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory—opportunity is there for Murphy to take over a large share of the ball-carrying duties in 2019. Murphy demonstrated that he is just as elusive and runs with a more decisive and aggressive style than Ivory or McCoy in 2018, racking up 250 rushing yards on 52 carries (an average of 4.81 yards per rush) while also catching 11 passes. Murphy was Buffalo’s most efficient running back, is not getting paid much, and should have every opportunity to expand his role in 2019.
With fellow DT Kyle Williams retiring, opportunity is there for Phillips to step in and assume Williams’s spot on the defensive line. Phillips appeared in all 16 games, making 35 tackles (four stops for a loss) to go with two quarterback hits and one fumble recovery. The former Stanford Cardinal standout was just as productive as Williams in terms of overall tackles, and with another strong off-season showing, Phillips, otherwise known as “Horrible Harry” should be able to stake his claim to a starting role on defense.
Teller displayed a ton of promise in eight games (seven starts), allowing only eight quarterback pressures with no sacks and five committed penalties. The fifth-round draft pick proved himself capable in pass protection, though his run-blocking has room for improvement. He was on the field for 45 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps as a rookie, and given the uncertainty at both guard spots heading into next year should give Teller ample opportunities to prove himself worthy of a starting role. I see big things for Teller.
CB Levi Wallace
Wallace outperformed expectations in 2018, especially considering he went undrafted and didn’t even initially earn a scholarship to the University of Alabama—but impressed head coach Nick Saban enough to not only earn a scholarship but start for the national championship Crimson Tide team in 2017. Called up from Buffalo’s practice squad prior to the Week 10 win over the New York Jets, Wallace started the team’s final seven games, finishing with 37 tackles, three passes defended, and one quarterback hit. Earning a grade of 83.5 from PFF, best among all rookie cornerbacks and fourth overall among cornerbacks, Wallace was outstanding in pass coverage, and definitely proved himself to be a more than capable member of the secondary.