Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll enters his third season with the Buffalo Bills, and over the past two seasons his offenses have built a distinct identity -- strong on the ground, below average through the air.
Since Daboll's arrival in 2018, the Bills rank sixth in the NFL in rushing yards and third in rushing attempts thanks in large part to Josh Allen, who ranks second among quarterbacks in rushing yards and carries over that span. However, with the arrival of wide receiver Stefon Diggs, Daboll has no choice but to adjust the offense's identity to his personnel.
After failing to do so in his first three NFL seasons, Diggs broke 1,000 receiving yards on a career-high 102 catches in 2018 and followed it with a 1,130-yard campaign in 2019. He has been one of the most productive receivers in the league in that span, ranking 12th among players at the position in both yards and touchdowns and ninth in receptions.
While Buffalo has been one of the league's top rushing offenses over the past two years, it has only been moderately efficient. The team's 4.33 yards per carry ranks 19th in the NFL and its 28 touchdowns rank 18th; these efficiency woes were in large part a result of the players at Daboll's disposal.
John Brown and Cole Beasley, newcomers to Buffalo last season, represent 42% of all receiving yards from Bills wide receivers over the past two seasons. Buffalo's leading receivers from last season helped push its passing offense from 31st in 2018 to 26th in 2019. Those rankings were a contributing factor in general manager Brandon Beane's decision to trade for Diggs in March.
Beane knew his team needed to score more points in 2020, and doing so with a ground-based attack had not gotten the job done over the previous two seasons. Adding one of the league's top receivers in theory elevates the Bills' passing game to a point where it balances their attack.
"We don't want to just throw it every game. It will still be team-specific, opponent-specific," Beane said. "I wouldn't say, 'Hey, the Bills are going to go out and throw it 40 times every week,' but if it's a game that we have to throw it 40 times, we're playing against one of these high-powered offenses that we've got to keep up, then that's what we want to be able to do."
Beane added the Bills still want to identify as a physical team. And with nine games against top-15 offenses from the 2019 season, the Bills needed the versatility to win games through the air.
There is not much precedent of wide receivers thriving in Daboll's scheme, however. In fact, Brown and Beasley weren't just the Bills' leading receivers last season -- their totals of 1,060 and 778 receiving yards rank second and fourth, respectively, in a single season under Daboll.
Diggs putting in work with the new look
Stefon Diggs takes to the field with his new Bills helmet as he does some drills.
So where does that leave Diggs, who is coming off consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with the Vikings? Only two receivers, Brown and Brandon Marshall, have eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in any of the six seasons Daboll has spent as an offensive coordinator. The leading receiver in a Daboll offense averages 111.5 targets, 61.6 catches, 852.3 yards and 4.6 touchdowns.
That's a good stat line for a team's No. 2 receiver -- not a receiver a team trades a first-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round pick for, as the Bills did to get Diggs.
However, the Bills' projected starters at wide receiver likely represent the best group of pass-catchers Daboll has ever coached, and he has shown a willingness to get his playmaking receivers the ball when they're available. Brown set career highs in targets, receptions and yards in his first season with Daboll in 2019. Marshall and Dwayne Bowe, Daboll's leading receivers in 2011 and 2012, respectively, led their team in targets by a wide margin.
With players returning to their team's facilities this week and padded practices expected to start Aug. 16 following a "ramp-up" period, Daboll can finally start to piece together what looks like a strong Bills offense on paper. It might be an easy task for the 20-year NFL coach.
A large part of coaching is knowing your players, and Daboll is known for making frequent video calls to players throughout the offseason. If a coach's relationship with his players is the first step toward putting them in a position to succeed, Daboll is well on his way.
"It's not just you're a coach and you're a player. They're great friends of mine, too," he said. "And calls matter. I think concern matters. Friendship matters. Because you go through some tough times, and you have to be real. That's what I try to be with these guys, is real. And I hope that they know how much I care about them, and I believe they do."