Although there are still two games to play before the NFL trade deadline greets the Buffalo Bills and the NFL on Oct. 31 at 4 p.m. ET, the time to start working on a plan of attack is now. A few weeks ago, the Bills looked like they wouldn’t have to do anything at the deadline, boasting a deep roster with a talented starting lineup.
Since that time, several injuries and some inconsistency over their last few games have created a handful of needs. The good news for the Bills is that due to their schedule, and playing in the Thursday night game in Week 8 ahead of the deadline, they’ll have ample time to concentrate on the deadline and get as much injury information as possible on their own team almost a full five days ahead of the deadline.
How do their needs rate, still with the Patriots and Buccaneers games to go? Here is their potential order of importance, along with some quick thoughts on the upcoming Bills matchup with the Patriots.
1) Defensive tackle
Although the Bills have a lot more youth and inexperience at the other two defensive positions suffering a long-term injury loss, defensive tackle is the runaway top need with two games left ahead of the deadline. Starting one-technique DaQuan Jones was such a critical component to the Bills’ success this season, not only because of how well he was playing as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. But there also was only one of him and his specific skill set on the roster. Three-technique Ed Oliver has been fantastic this season, but he is not a one-technique and needs a bigger body next to him to free him up to create anarchy in the backfield. The three players behind Oliver and Jones, which include Jordan Phillips, Tim Settle and Poona Ford, all seem to be ‘tweeners for the two roles. All of them can play some one-technique next to Oliver, but run stuffing and holding the point of attack against double teams is not the strength of any of them at this point in their careers.
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Phillips is a pass rusher first and second, showing several reps this season against the run where he was pushed to the side far too easily. To Phillips’ credit, he had his best run defending game of his season against the Giants. However, it’s fair to question whether that sudden surge was a byproduct of him turning a corner as a run defender, or if it had to do with facing perhaps the worst offensive line in the league. Phillips has always been a far more effective player when tasked with being the pass rusher from the three-technique position. Settle has the most translatable skills for the one-technique role, but his high variance inconsistency throughout games makes it tough to trust him in a high snap role. As for Ford, through three outings, it seems his days of excellent play when he was with the Seahawks have fallen off a bit. Between the three of them, the Bills don’t have a locked in one-technique defensive tackle, and combined with the youth at linebacker behind them, and the safety play taking a dip this season, it can possibly become a full-scale problem against better offensive lines, which is basically the rest of the NFL outside of the Giants.
In only one game without Jones, the Bills felt like they couldn’t take Oliver off the field against the Giants and he played 86 percent of snaps — a huge jump from his normal weekly output this season (70 percent ahead of the Giants game) and a massive one from his 2022 season (60 percent in games played). The Bills don’t usually like to put that much workload on their defensive tackles. They’re one long-term Oliver injury away from this becoming a full-scale problem. With him out against the Patriots due to a toe injury, it’s going to be a preview of what life could be without both Jones and Oliver. The Bills need another defensive tackle who specializes as a one-technique to help get them through and put Phillips, Settle and Ford in rotational chances to succeed moving forward.
The cornerback group seems to have settled in a bit since Tre’Davious White’s injury with Dane Jackson and Christian Benford being the designated starters when healthy and available. However, that doesn’t mean they should ignore the position should an upgrade come available for a workable cost. Between White, Jones and linebacker Matt Milano, the only one who has been ruled out for the season has been White, meaning they are one long-term injury away from needing to push 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam into a starting role every week. The evidence from Elam’s first two starts this season have shown he might be better off working in the background for now. Trading for a cornerback is a case of being proactive rather than reactive.
If the right player comes available, they could work a deal to include Elam for the other team, much in the same way the Bills did with running back Zack Moss at last year’s deadline in their deal for running back Nyheim Hines. Although it’s not an ideal outcome for the team’s former top pick, it’s quite telling that Jackson and Benford are the unquestioned starters ahead of Elam at this point. Jackson has been solid but unspectacular in all of the starts throughout his Bills career, and the Bills could stand to upgrade that starting position for the right player. For the time being, they trust Jackson to be a good tackler and to be where he’s supposed to be on each defensive play call. A deal for a cornerback upgrade could shift Jackson back into a depth and special teams role and increase the Bills’ abilities to limit an opponent’s passing attack.
3) Offensive tackle
The Bills have received an excellent start to the season from left tackle Dion Dawkins, along with right tackle Spencer Brown playing at a higher and more consistent level than he had in either of his first two seasons. For now, all is good with the Bills’ starting offensive tackles. But that doesn’t mean they should rest on their laurels at the position. As we’ve seen with three of the team’s top defensive starters, the equation can change rapidly. Their top reserve offensive tackle is currently Ryan Van Demark, who had an excellent summer and played his way onto the 53-man roster after spending all of 2022 on the Bills’ practice squad. But Van Demark lacks experience of any kind, and the Bills may not want to find out that he’s not going to cut it in the starting lineup until it’s past the deadline and too late. It would be a preemptive move, but a savvy one given how much more the Bills will need their offense to play well every week.
Trading for an offensive tackle would allow the Bills to shift Van Demark into more of a developmental role and likely a healthy scratch every week. All the while, they’d add someone who inspires more confidence if one of Dawkins or Brown has to miss any time in 2023. Sometimes, a team’s top trade deadline need is the one that’s only an injury away from becoming a potential liability within the roster. It’s too early to say if Van Demark would struggle in a starting role, but finding out on the fly might be a little too risky, given his lack of experience and the high stakes this season.
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4) Wide receiver
For a second year in a row, there is increasingly loud clamoring for the Bills to add an additional pass catcher. In 2022, it made a lot of sense. But this year, the equation has changed in a significant way. The Bills spent a lot of their offseason resources on giving the skill positions a new and fresh group with more talent, and succeeded in doing so. They added rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid and receivers Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield, along with enhancing running back James Cook’s role to be their lead runner. A strong argument can be made that the answer of helping to jump-start the offense is already on the roster, and he’s wearing jersey No. 86. Kincaid’s statistical output does not mirror his skill set in any capacity, and the Bills should actively find ways to get the ball in Kincaid’s hands over the middle of the field in the intermediate areas. Kincaid can be a true difference-maker for the Bills if they deploy him correctly, lessening the need to trade for another receiver target.
On top of it all, the Bills are quite pleased with the starting duo of Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis so far in 2023. Davis, despite some inconsistencies, is viewed as a critical component to both the offense and in the locker room as one of the team’s elected captains. It would be a relatively big surprise if the Bills were trying to find someone to take Davis off the field. The one thing that could change the equation is if the Bills looked to deal Davis, who is on the final year of his rookie deal, for an upgrade at the second receiver spot to land a big fish in the pond. Given how much they like Davis, and that they’re more likely trying to extend him than replace him, it seems somewhat unlikely. Or if an injury occurs to Diggs or Davis over the next two weeks, that could force the Bills hand. Otherwise, the trio of Diggs, Davis and Kincaid — with Harty, Sherfield and Khalil Shakir mixing in occasionally — is a large upgrade already to what they had in 2022.
It could be a tad surprising that linebacker doesn’t land higher up, but the duo of Terrel Bernard and Dorian Williams have shown enough potential through their playing time this season for the Bills to want to work through the bumps in the road rather than starting over. Williams has been an immediate upgrade over fellow internal candidate Tyrel Dodson, helping to find an immediate solution to losing Milano for the foreseeable future. You can tell there is a bit of excitement in the way the Bills talk about Williams, so he’ll likely have some wiggle room in his first year of starting for varying results. Should Williams falter and the Bills need to pivot, Dodson, A.J. Klein or second-year player Baylon Spector could step in for some reps. Regardless, Williams likely has a much higher ceiling than anything the Bills could get on the open market for a late-round pick, and likely don’t want to use another Day 2 pick on the position just to trade for someone this season.
6) Running back
The Bills are pleased with both James Cook and Latavius Murray, but the neck injury that caused Damien Harris to leave the field in an ambulance could open up room for a third running back on the roster. It could happen through eventually promoting practice squad back Ty Johnson to the active roster, through free agency, or trading something minuscule for a running back who can help out on both special teams and a few snaps of offense.
Next week, we’ll hone in on some targets at each position who would make sense for the Bills, along with any new additions to the need list based on what happens in New England.
Bills-Patriots Projections and predictions
Projected roster moves: Bills place RB Damien Harris on injured reserve, sign CB Ja’Marcus Ingram to active roster
Projected practice squad elevation: RB Ty Johnson, DT Kendal Vickers
Projected inactives: TE Quintin Morris, OT Germain Ifedi, IOL Alec Anderson, DE Shaq Lawson, DT Ed Oliver, LB A.J. Klein, S Damar Hamlin
Prediction: Bills 24, Patriots 14
This is not the same Patriots high-level Patriots defense from past years, but they still have plenty of talent and are a well-coached unit that can prevent teams from blowing them out completely. And in past matchups, the Patriots may have learned their lesson about using man coverage too often against Josh Allen and his receivers. I expect the Bills to come out on offense looking to establish their threat to run, setting up play-action passing through the rest of the game. When the Bills are on defense, expect the Patriots to make the Bills prove they can hold up the middle by rushing the ball with Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott. I think the Patriots will have some success on the ground, leading to an uncomfortable start for the Bills. But eventually, the offense will find a slight groove, and the Patriots’ lack of passing prowess keeps them from really challenging for a victory.
(Photo: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)