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   Fantasy Outlook: Buffalo Bills

September 20, 2017
Al Lackner

The Buffalo Bills have not qualified for the playoffs since William Jefferson Clinton was in the White House. That amounts to sixteen straight years of futility. It makes sense, then, that the team would also represent a wasteland for fantasy performers as well during this millennium.

There is, however, some cause for optimism. The team finished with a 9-7 record last season and managed to beat some quality playoff teams (Lions, Packers, Patriots) along the way. The defense was already fantastic -- and should be even better with defensive guru Rex Ryan now in charge. Most importantly, the team has plenty of talented players -- many of whom could make a fantasy impact -- if they can manage to get competent play from the quarterback position.



Quarterbacks

This really is the white elephant in the room, isn't it? There have been a wide number of factors that have led to the Bills' playoff hiatus over these years. Chief among them has been the poor play at the quarterback position. Aside from one fantastic season from Drew Bledsoe back in 2002, the Bills have not had anything resembling a franchise quarterback.

Matt Cassel

From where I sit, 2015 looks to be more of the same. Kyle Orton was at least competent in 2014 in leading the Bills to a 7-5 record in his 12 starts. However, his sudden retirement a couple of days after the season, left a gaping hole at the position.

Let's start with the lone holdover from 2014: that would be E.J. Manuel, who the Bills selected with the #16 overall pick in the 2013 draft. Manuel passes the eyeball test: at 6'4" and 240 lbs he has prototypical size. He is athletic, has a strong arm and huge hands (perfect for the sometimes arctic conditions in Buffalo). He is also by all accounts smart, hard-working and a natural leader.

The problem? He simply does not have a natural feel for the game, which is why many observers scoffed at the Bills for investing such a high draft pick on him. He has trouble reading defenses, his accuracy is all over the place, and his throwing mechanics seem awfully rehearsed. It certainly is possible that the goon squad of Doug Marrone and Nate Hackett over-coached the young man in his first two years. However, it was his poor mechanics and rawness that had many teams identifying him as more of a late-round developmental player back in 2013. His ball placement was so poor in his four games as a starter last season, that many of the receivers reportedly led a revolt against him as the team's starting QB.

Manuel remains in the mix, but the early word we have heard is that he is having trouble picking up new offensive coordinator Greg Roman's offense. Observers report that he simply is not progressing -- and since he is the only QB on the squad who was NOT hand-picked by the current administration, he could be the odd man out. The fact that he will be the 3rd string QB for the team's first preseason game against Carolina could be telling.

With precious little in the way of available veteran quarterbacks, the team made a move to acquire journeyman Matt Cassel. Cassel started his career in New England as Brady's backup, and was forced into action in 2008, when Brady went down with a knee injury on Opening Day. Cassel kept the team afloat, going 11-4 as a starter that year, and was a fantasy factor (3693 passing yards, 21 TD passes and 2 TDs rushing) -- which opened the door for a big contract when moving to Kansas City the following year. He struggled that first year in KC, but led the Chiefs to the playoffs the following year and posted very respectable numbers (3,116 passing yards and 27 TDs). Since then, however, he has done little. He went into the season as Minnesota's starter last year -- but broke his foot in the 3rd game of the season.

Buffalo's current leadership made a move to get Cassel -- even traded a nominal draft pick to get him. His track record isn't great, but he has shown the ability to manage a game and not lose it, which is likely what Rex Ryan would be willing to accept from his QB at this juncture. Heading into the first preseason game, it could be Cassel's job to lose.

The wild card at the position is Tyrod Taylor. The Ravens thought enough of Taylor that they penciled him as their #2 QB backing up franchise starter Joe Flacco. However, as Flacco is an iron man and hasn't missed a start, Taylor remains a bit of a mystery. The Ravens wanted him back, but he saw Buffalo as a better landing spot given their open competition at the QB position.

Taylor has a similar skill set to Russel Wilson: both are athletic, strong-armed but a bit under-sized (Taylor is 6-1). The big issue for him is consistency. Taylor may wow you on one play by threading the needle -- and then make you shake your head by missing a wide open receiver on the next play. Given his upside and athleticism, he could be a dark horse to land the starting job -- and if he does, he would be an interesting fantasy option based on his rushing abilities.

Bottom Line: Fantasy owners should just say no -- at least until a starter is named, which is unlikely to happen before the 3rd preseason game. If Manuel is named starter, beware of a short leash. If Cassel gets the nod (as currently looks like the most probable case) he presents very little in the way of upside and isn't worth rostering in most leagues. The best hope from a fantasy perspective is that Tyrod Taylor wins the job, as he could be a Sleeper candidate.



Running Backs

LeSean McCoy

Shady McCoy is the NFL's quickest running back and is just a year removed from having won the rushing title. That explains why he was drafted #1 overall in plenty of fantasy leagues last season. The Eagles were a mess at times with a depleted offensive line and Mark Sanchez forced to play QB. Still, McCoy managed to rush for 1319 yards, good for third in the league behind Murray and Bell. So 2014 was not all that disappointing. McCoy is just 26 years old, so he still has plenty of fuel in the tank, despite an already impressive NFL resume.

Any way we may try to spin it, 2014 was disappointing for McCoy fantasy owners. His rushing yardage numbers dropped by nearly 300 yards from 2013 to 2014 -- and that was with virtually the same number of carries (314 in 2013 and 313 in 2014). Worse, his receiving numbers also dropped dramatically going from 52 receptions and 539 yards in 2013 to 29 receptions for 155 yards in 2014. Worst of all, in 2013 he scored a total of 11 TDs, and that number dropped to 5 last season. All told, we are looking at a difference in nearly 700 total yards and 6 TDs on just 24 fewer carries. So, the opportunities were there, but clearly the production wasn't. Perhaps that explains why Chip Kelly considered McCoy expendable and traded him to the Bills.

The Bills also have plenty of other running backs in house, including Fred Jackson, Boobie Dixon, former McCoy under-study Bryce Brown, and 5th-round rookie Karlos Williams. Jackson, in particular has cut into the production of other feature backs including Marshawn Lynch and CJ. Spiller, but he is the oldest RB in the NFL and Father Time has begun to creep into play. Jackson has battled nagging injuries the last couple of years -- and he has missed time in training camp with a hamstring injury. Rex Ryan, meanwhile, has singled Brown out for his fumbling woes -- and there is a chance that he will not make the final roster. Dixon, meanwhile, is best used as a short-yardage back. Finally, Williams has loads of talent but saw limited action in college; the team loves his upside.

The Bottom Line: LeSean McCoy figures to be a borderline first round fantasy prospect. In other words, he belongs in the 2nd tier of RB1 options. He may not be in the most ideal situation, but in the end I believe his talent will prevail. Remember also that Rex Ryan loves to pound the football, and he brought in an offensive coordinator in Greg Roman who is like-minded. Barring injury, McCoy should see another 300 carries again this year with similar yardage totals to what we saw last year. I like for him to be much more of a factor in the passing game than he was last year, and with a much more aggressive defense in Buffalo, I think the offense will be better positioned for McCoy to score more TDs than he did last season. So look for his production to lie somewhere between the numbers he posted in 2013 and 2014.

At this stage Fred Jackson is more of handcuff option -- worth drafting in the late rounds in the event that McCoy goes down. Neither Brown nor Dixon are worth owning in fantasy. Karlos Williams, however, is an interesting proposition. He has turned plenty of heads in OTAs and training camp. Depth charts could be deceiving because he is the low man on the totem pole. That said, if McCoy were to go down for an extended period of time, my gut tells me that Williams would eventually supplant Jackson as the chief ball carrier. Williams is not worth drafting in any leagues other than Rookie/Dynasty ones, but keep an eye on him on the waiver wire as a Deep Sleeper.



Wide Receivers

The Bills have a very solid corps here. Leading the way is second-year Sammy Watkins. As a rookie, Watkins racked up 65 receptions for 982 yards and 6 TDs, making him the top rookie receiver in Bills history. Those numbers, however, paled in comparison to those of fellow rookies Odell Beckham, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin. In Watkins' defense, the Bills were not a pass-happy team last season, and the QB play was nothing exceptional. Of course, Watkins likely faces those same challenges this year.

Sammy Watkins

Given the surplus of talent at the WR position in last year's draft, many "experts" have criticized the Bills' decision to trade away their 2015 first round pick to move up 5 spots to land Watkins. I understand why the Bills did it: possessing prototypical size/speed, great hands, and fantastic run-after-the-catch ability, Watkins was identified as a sure thing. And he hasn't disappointed. In fact, over the long haul, he could very well have the best career of any of those other receivers from the 2014 class. It's just that his situation right now isn't as great. Still, bear in mind that he did battle through a nagging injury last season and appears to be back to 100% heading into 2015.

What a difference a year makes for Percy Harvin. One of the heroes of the 2013 Super Bowl, he soon found his way into the Seahawks' doghouse in 2014. By mid-season, they were shipping him off to the Jets for next-to-nothing. He had his moments with the Jets, including a couple of 100-yard performances against the Chiefs and Vikings, but mostly was a non-factor (as was most of the rest of the Jets offense). Harvin has been injury-prone throughout his career -- and has a reputation as a guy unwilling to play with a hangnail. He was even recently voted the Worst Lockerroom Guy in the NFL. Regardless, it was his former Jets coach Rex Ryan who saw fit to pursue him in the off-season.

Harvin is listed as co-starter with 3rd year WR Robert Woods. Woods has what it takes to be a solid possession receiver; he runs crisp routes and has good hands. The issue for him has been consistency. Some of the consistency issues may have been related to opportunity as he inexplicably landed in Doug Marrone's doghouse last year. Marrone was such a contrarian, that it is hard to hold that against Woods.

Chris "7-11" Hogan was an interesting surprise in the second half of the season. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he saw no action at all in the first four weeks when E.J Manuel was QB -- and recorded at least one reception in every game once Orton was named starter. The overall production -- 41 receptions for 426 yards and 4 TDs -- was nothing to write home about, but Hogan did make the most of his opportunities, converting over two thirds of his targets into receptions.

Bottom Line: The QB situation places a damper on the fortunes of every Bills wide receiver. I think Roman will make ample use of the screen game, which is why I like Watkins, Harvin and Woods better in PPR formats. Watkins is popping up on plenty of "Bust" lists because of the QB situation -- but I wouldn't go that far. Is the QB situation this year really going to be any worse than Manuel/Orton last year? Besides, the team now has a competent offensive coordinator, and hopefully (unlike last year) Watkins will be injury-free this year. That is why I like him as a borderline WR2/WR3 in fantasy.

Harvin is an interesting fantasy prospect. I never understood why so many owners gambled on him as a WR1 option during his Minnesota days. The talent has always been there as has his versatility in the passing, screen and even running game. Heck, he's even approached Ryan about playing some cornerback! The issue has always been durability and availability. Still, if he can stay healthy (and avoid distractions) he could be a late-round gem in fantasy rather than a fantasy bust once again.

I like Woods in the later rounds in PPR formats. Hogan isn't worth drafting in most formats, but he could be an interesting waiver wire option if any of the other 3 WRs go down during the course of the season.

Tight Ends

Charles Clay

Even before the McCoy trade happened and Percy Harvin became available, the Bills identified Charles Clay as their most important target in free agency. As a Restricted Free Agent, Clay's right of first refusal was owned by the Miami Dolphins -- and it took a hefty contract to lure him without risk of the Dolphins matching the offer. In fact, the resulting contract (five-year, $38 million) was such that Clay became one of the highest paid tight ends in the NFL. Critics have argued that the Bills overpaid. Maybe so, but he is the guy they were targeting -- and they got their man.

In defense of the naysayers, Clay's resume would not indicate that he merits such a contract. He has had one solid year (2013) when he caught 69 passes for 759 yards and 6 TDs (plus another TD rushing). He took a bit of a step back last season (58 receptions for 605 yards and 3 TDs), but should be a focal point in the Bills' passing game. Clay is not much of a blocker, which could be a deterring factor in Greg Roman's scheme. There have been whispers from observers that Clay has underwhelmed the coaching staff in training camp.

When the Bills zeroed in on Clay, Scott Chandler became expendable; he is now a Patriot. The team also parted ways with top blocking tight end Lee Smith, leaving only Chris Gragg and Marqueis Gray returning from last season. Gray is more of a HB. The Bills also drafted Nick O'Leary, who hauled in plenty of receptions last year from J. Winston at Florida State. Gragg and/or Gray could very well wind up as camp casualties.

The Bottom Line: The only fantasy-worthy player here is Charles Clay. He has the upside to be a lower-tier fantasy TE1, as I expect the Bills to do their best to get their money's worth out of him. More conservatively he serves best as a backup in fantasy that you will plug in based on match-ups.



Special Teams

Marshawn Lynch

Dan Carpenter has been a revelation since joining the Bills in 2013. He has been both accurate (67 of 74 on field goals in 2013 and 214) and consistent (33 field goals and 32 extra points in 2013; 34 field goals and 31 extra points in 2014) during his time with the Bills. The Bills may once again employ a kickoff specialist, which helps to alleviate any chance of Carpenter injuring himself on kickoffs. If your strategy is to wait until the final round of your fantasy draft to address the kicker position, then Dan Carpenter could be your man.



Defense

Mario Williams

It is hard not to be enamored with this defense from both a real football view as well as a fantasy perspective. The front four of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Jerry Hughes have all individually made trips to the Pro Bowl. Each is capable of recording double-digit sacks, and defenses cannot afford to key on any one of them. The team was wise to re-sign Hughes to a hefty contract extension in the off=season.

The team has a strong, young linebacking corps, including second-year Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham, who had a breakout campaign last year. Rex Ryan will rely heavily on Brown to identify offensive formations and get the defense in proper position. The secondary is also young but perhaps a bit underrated.

Rex, a renowned defensive strategist, will be employing an even more aggressive brand of defense. His goal is to boast a defense that surpasses that of the Chicago Bears' 1985 D, which was coordinated by his father. A tall order, no doubt. From a fantasy standpoint, this unit is Top 3.


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