Trade a first-round pick for a star wide receiver to pair with a third-year top-10 pick at quarterback and you’d expect good results for a passing offense. But that wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion heading into the 2020 season for the Buffalo Bills. The gamble and investment have paid off, though. Through Week 13, the Bills are fourth in Football Outsiders passing DVOA, third in passing EPA, and first in the rate of passing plays with positive EPA per Sports Info Solutions.
The production goes deeper than just Josh Allen and the addition of Stefon Diggs. Buffalo has built a deep and talented wide receiver corps that has excelled in all areas of the field. It wasn’t by accident, either. The trade for Diggs was a blockbuster move but the Bills had previously made an effort to improve the receiving corps around Allen in previous free-agent periods. Last season, Buffalo brought in John Brown on a three-year/$27 million deal and Cole Beasley on a four-year/$29 million deal. Only two teams have more cap space invested at wide receiver than the Bills in 2020, according to Over The Cap.
Buffalo is getting its money’s worth at the position. No team has targeted their wide receiver on a higher percentage of their pass attempts than the Bills this season at 71.13%. On top of that high usage, Buffalo is among the most efficient teams on a per-play basis when targeting wide receivers. The Bills are sixth in EPA per attempt and first in positive play rate on throws to the position.
There is a belief that the best way to construct a wide receiver group is to mimic the construction of a basketball team with each player bringing something different to the table but also the ability to be versatile and fill a variety of roles. That’s where the Bills are with their current crop of wide receivers, a group with a diverse set of strengths that have allowed offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to get creative with deployment and create multiple correct answers for Allen on a given play.
Where he wins: Intermediate routes
Diggs, of course, is the headliner here. Diggs spent his career with the Minnesota Vikings as a deep threat and there was a thought when he was acquired that his ability to get separation on deep routes could potentially help Allen become a more accurate downfield passer. That has worked to an extent, though Diggs hasn’t been the biggest part of that.
Allen is sixth in on-target rate and third in completion percentage on throws of at least 20 air yards this season after he ranked 22nd and 28th, respectively, out of 29 quarterbacks with at least 30 such attempts last season.
Only nine of Diggs’s 121 targets have come at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Instead, Diggs’s route running has been deployed as the league’s most dangerous intermediate weapon. The Bills have used the thought of Diggs going deep to put defensive backs in a bind. Diggs has a league-leading 12 targets, seven receptions, and 110 yards on intermediate curl routes, which use a vertical stem before the route breaks off to create an open throw. He’s also 5-for-5 on crossing routes in that area for 108 yards.
Overall, Diggs leads the league in targets (35) and receptions (24) on throws between 11-19 air yards. He’s second only to Travis Kelce in receiving yards on those throws.
Allen was surprisingly efficient to the intermediate level of the field last season and the addition of Diggs has completely unleashed that as the most valuable place to attack for the Buffalo offense in 2020.
Where he wins: Short middle
Among players with at least 50 targets, no one has a higher percentage of targets that have produced positive EPA than Cole Beasley at 72% (Diggs is fourth at 65.5%). Beasley has been the safety net for Allen on underneath throws and since there are so few targets to tight ends and running backs, Beasley has also served as the checkdown option on some plays. But as the positive play percentage notes, he’s not just getting empty receptions.
Beasley is tied for 13th on targets between 1-10 air yards, 11th in receptions, and 11th in yards. He’s third in EPA and second in positive play rate, just a tenth of a percent behind Diggs, 74.2% to 74.1%. Diggs has also been a short area threat with 62 targets that are tied for the fourth-most in the league, but Beasley has been the more involved option in the middle of the field. On throws considered short middle by SIS, Beasley is 10th in targets and third in EPA.
What has also made Beasley so effective is the elimination of negative plays. Beasley’s 1.4% drop rate is the fourth-lowest among players with at least 50 targets on the season.
Where he wins: Catch and run
Brown has spent most of his career as a deep threat but in an injury-plagued season, that hasn’t been his role this year and he hasn’t been able to convert when he has gone deep. He’s tied for the team lead with 10 deep targets over 20 air yards, but he only has two receptions on those targets. Brown still has the second-highest average depth of target on the team at 12.4 yards, but he’s done his best work this season using his speed after the catch.
43.8% of Brown’s receiving yards have come after the catch this season and he’s been the biggest threat on screens. He only has six screen targets this season, but all six have been receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown with 121 yards after the catch. Brown had a three-game stretch from Weeks 8-10 with a screen pass that went over 20 yards: a 21-yarder against the Patriots, a 37-yarder against the Seahawks, and a 31-yarder against the Cardinals. The latter two were big conversions on third and long.
Find a new way for Brown to win as he hasn’t been 100% is a credit to the offensive coaching staff, the player, and the rest of the receiver group since the Bills have not lost much as a whole when going deep.
Where he wins: Deep
Davis might be the biggest surprise of this group given his status as a rookie fourth-round pick. Early in the season, Davis got some run as the Bills embraced for 10 personnel packages — they’re still second in the league with a 17% use of 10 personnel, behind only the Cardinals at 22% — but Davis has continued to see his role grow throughout the year. Over those first few weeks, he was used around the line of scrimmage but that has expanded to a more valuable role in the offense, too.
He has stepped in to fill a healthy Brown’s role as the outside deep threat. He’s tied Brown with 10 deep targets on the season but he’s turned those targets into seven receptions for 218 yards and three touchdowns. Davis is eighth in EPA on deep targets and leads the league with a 70% positive play rate among plays with at least 10 deep targets on the season.
No player in college football had more targets on go routes than Davis did at UCF in 2019 with 21. Those only turned into nine receptions for 335 yards and three touchdowns, though he still finished with one of the highest yards per route run figures in a great draft class of receivers. This season, the Bills have opened up Davis’s route tree. Only two of his 10 deep targets have been on straight go routes. He’s been able to use posts and corners to create separation for defensive backs to widen his window at the catch point.
Where he wins: The Jet Guy
McKenzie is more of a special teamer and only has 19 targets on the season, but seven of those have come on jet sweep passes. No other Bill has a reception on a jet sweep pass this season. Those seven receptions have only gone for 36 yards but one was a 3-yard touchdown reception in Week 5.