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   2016 Fantasy Outlook: Buffalo Bills

May 28, 2017

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 has finished with non-losing records in each of the last two seasons and managed to beat some quality playoff teams along the way. The defense surprisingly took a step back under first-year head coach and defensive guru Rex Ryan, but the players have had a full season ow to learn the concepts of his intricate system. Most importantly, the team has plenty of talented players -- many of whom could make a fantasy impact -- if they can manage to get continued consistent play from the quarterback position.



Quarterbacks

It is easy to forget that headed into training camp last season, the favorite QB to start was Matt Cassel. Looking back at our analysis one year ago, we made passing reference to Tyrod Taylor (whom we knew that Rex Ryan really liked) as a possible deep sleeper. Before the preseason was over, Rex had indeed settled on Taylor, who turned out to be a decent Fantasy QB for owners in 2015.

Tyrod Taylor

There was precious little film on Taylor, who had served as a backup for the durable Joe Flacco in Baltimore. (Ironically, the year Taylor left is the year that Flacco succumbed to a season-ending injury.) In Buffalo, earned the starting job from Week one and started 14 games, completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 3,035 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. At fist glance those may seem like pedestrian fantasy numbers, but factor in also that he rushed 104 times for 568 yards and four touchdowns -- and you can see why he was such a welcome fantasy surprise in 2015. In fact, Taylor was second at the quarterback position in rushing yards behind only Cam Newton (636 yards).

Taylor may have been a bit inconsistent as a passer, but the rushing numbers helped him to be a remarkably consistent fantasy QB. He posted elite numbers in six games and served as a bona fide fantasy QB1 ( in twelve-team leagues) in eight of his fourteen starts. Taylor finished the season as a borderline starting fantasy QB; if we extend his numbers across a full 16-game season, then Taylor is definitely a start-worthy fantasy QB.

Of course, the 2 missed games do represent a red flag. Taylor's propensity to tuck and run -- when coupled with his relatively small frame -- will continue to make him an injury-risk. There is talk that the the team will strive to have him stay in the pocket more, but that also negates his greatest asset as a dual-threat QB. NFL defensive coordinators are also a bright group: there is now a full season of game film on Taylor on which to study. Lastly, his top receiver, Sammy Watkins (see below) has missed the preseason after having had foot surgery.

While the risks are abundant, remember that Taylor was locked in a 3-way battle for the starting QB spot at this time last year and will benefit from a full menu of snaps in training camp and preseason this year. We would rank him in that group of QBs in the 8-15 range who all have the potential to be fantasy starters but come with an element of risk. If you do elect to draft him as your starting QB in the middle rounds, be sure to pick up a top backup to protect yourself against the possibility of a Taylor injury.

EJ Manuel will be the #2 quarterback this season behind Taylor. Drafted with a first round pick and the de facto starter for the team back in 2013, the coaches and front office have more or less resigned themselves to the fact, that the pick was a bad one. Manuel has all the physical tools, smarts and worth ethic you would look for in a QB -- he's just never been able to put it all together. In filling in for Taylor last season, the Bills were winless in Manuel's two starts. Still, his fantasy numbers were not horrific in those two games: he completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 561 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions, and ran for 64 yards and a touchdown.

Rookie Cardale Jones will provide competition -- and the team hopes that he will eventually eclipse Manuel as the #2 QB. That is unlikely to happen in 2016 as the big-armed Jones is a very rough-around-the-edges prospect who will require some patience on the part of the offensive coaching staff. Rather, 2017 (when Manuel becomes a free agent) will be a better bet.

Bottom Line: Taylor exploded onto the scene last year and is a great candidate as a true breakout fantasy option this year provided that he stays healthy, Sammy Watkins stays healthy -- and there are no second-year bumps. Note also that he will be playing for a contract as he is set to become a free agent at the end of the season unless he and the team come to an agreement on a long-term extension (which IS a possibility).



Running Backs

LeSean McCoy

Here is a nice stat for you: when Tyrod Taylor passed the ball 30+ times last season, the team was 0-5. Conversely, when he passed it fewer than 30 times, the Bills were 8-1. Clearly, the game plan for Greg Roman, the Bills' offensive coordinator, is to run the ball. The Bills ran the ball a whopping 509 times last season -- 2nd only to Carolina (526). The commitment to the run proved to be beneficial, as they led the league in rushing yards: 2432. And, regardless of who was running the ball, ground game was a success.

Leading the way was LeSean McCoy who was up-and-down in his first year in Buffalo. When he was on the field he was quite effective: McCoy had 203 carries for 895 yards along with three TDs and 32 catches for 292 yards and two TDs. It was the first time he failed to rush for 1,000 yards since 2012. The problem is that he was limited to 12 games due to two separate leg injuries -- and even when he played, he was clearly hampered by these injuries.

McCoy shared carries with rookie Karlos Williams, but when the Bills leaned on McCoy in 2015 he delivered, with at least nine Fantasy points in a standard league in eight games in a row - all with at least 18 touches. We'd love to see that kind of workload continue in 2016, but Williams will be a factor.

Speaking of Karlos Williams... If McCoy splits time with Karlos Williams, that timeshare will not happen until at least Week 5, as Williams will be serving a 4-game suspension after violating the league's PED policy. Williams was already in Coach Ryan's doghouse, as he showed up to OTAs over-weight.

Ordinarily, you would imagine that last season's 5th round selection would be in danger of losing his roster spot over these indiscretions. However, Williams was a revelation running the ball in his first season in the NFL. In fact, there was a point last year where it seemed like every time Karlos touched the ball he found his way into the end zone: he scored three rushing touchdowns in his first 24 career carries. Williams filled in nicely for an injured McCoy at times, and also gave the Bills a nice spark with his big-play ability. Williams rushed for 10 or more yards on 17 percent of his carries, which was the highest percentage of backs with at least 90 carries in 2015.

The Bills invested another 5th round pick on a running back named Williams in this year's draft. This time that Williams was named Jonathan Williams. The Bills believe that they got excellent value here, as were it not for a foot injury that cost him all of his 2015 collegiate season, Jonathan Williams would likely be a more highly-regarded real-life and fantasy prospect. As it stands, he was drafted by the Bills and will compete with Mike Gillislee and potentially Karlos Williams to be LeSean McCoy's backup. He was also charged with a DUI citation in July, which may lead to league-mandated suspension this season. That sinks any immediate redraft value for Williams, but he is a name to watch in training camp and the preseason as many consider him the most talented back to come out of Arkansas this year. Dynasty owners could take a stab at Williams with a late-round flier, however.

With trouble following the Williams boys, the Bills elected to acquire a veteran to serve the role as McCoys's backup and change-of-pace back. The veteran they chose was former first rounder Reggie Bush. Bush is coming off knee surgery and signed a one-year "prove-it" deal with the Bills. Look for the team to plug him in as a punt/kick returner as well. Bush only has fantasy value if McCoy gets hurt and the two Williams backs are both suspended. Also, as a tenured veteran whose 2016 salary is guaranteed if he is on the roster Week 1, look for the Bills to possibly cut him prior to the start of the season with the possibility of re-acquiring him AFTER Week 1.

Even then, let's not forget about Mike Gillislee, who also showed promise when his name was called last season. Gillislee is not a running back that can handle a full load for an NFL team, though. His lack of size, and injury history prevent any franchise from fully committing to him as the back of the future, hence the Bills' trade for Lesean McCoy and drafting of backup Karlos Williams last year. What Gillislee does provide is the occasional offensive spark/home-run play, flashing incredible speed and cuts that evoke memories of other explosive scat-backs from fantasy years past.

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 -- draftable in the late-second or third round n most fantasy leagues. Remember also that Rex Ryan loves to pound the football, and he brought in an offensive coordinator in Greg Roman who is like-minded. The Bills will remain a run-first offense, and McCoy is the focal point of their game plan most weeks. Barring injury, McCoy should see another 300 carries again this year with similar yardage totals to what we saw last year. We 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, we 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.

A healthy (and active) Karlos Williams would be under consideration as a late-round handcuff selection. However, the four-game suspension places a damper on that proposition. Ignore him in all but the deepest of leagues -- and keep an eye on the preseason to see what roles Jonathan Williams, Reggie Bush and Mike Gillislee will have.



Wide Receivers

Sammy Watkins closed the 2015 season playing like a superstar receiver for the Bills, but off-season foot surgery could prevent him from building on that success this year. He had surgery to repair a small bone in his foot that included having a screw inserted. Although he has been cleared to play, it remains to be seen how much action he will see in the preseason, which makes his prognosis for the regular season a bit cloudy. Last year, Dez Bryant and Julian Edelman had similar procedures, and both receivers required a second surgery in the off-season. We hope Watkins doesn't suffer a similar fate and that he's 100% when Week 1 rolls around.

Sammy Watkins

When healthy, Watkins has the potential to be a No. 1 Fantasy receiver in all leagues. Watkins finished 2015 with 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns on 96 targets, and the majority of his production came in the final nine games of the season. He finished the year with at least six targets in eight of his final nine outings, and he had double digits in Fantasy points in six of those games, with five 100-yard performances and seven touchdowns over that span. If you project his stats from those nine games -- 49 catches, 900 yards and seven touchdowns -- over the season, Watkins would have finished with 87 catches, 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns. He developed a solid rapport with Tyrod Taylor, and the two will look to build upon that in 2016.

Robert Woods entered 2015 as a potential third-year breakout receiver. Instead, he was a third-year letdown, and his stats regressed from his sophomore campaign in 2014. Heading into the season -- and given that the team made few upgrades to the receiver position in the off-season -- Woods is set to play the #2 WR opposite Sammy Watkins. Woods had 47 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns in 2015 on 80 targets, which was a decline in production from 2014 when he had 65 catches for 699 yards and five touchdowns on 104 targets. The decline in production can at least be partially blamed on a lingering groin issue that Woods dealt with most of the season. He has since had surgery to repair the groin and hopes to be at full strength this season. Working with Greg Roman and Tyrod Taylor now for a second year should help accelerate production this year. Given that Woods is in a contract year, he should be highly motivated as well. Looking at all of this together, Woods would appear to be a very nice buy-low candidate in fantasy.

From a fantasy perspective, there is very little else worth noting. Seemingly made of glass, Marquise Goodwin has world class speed -- but has never been able to stay on the field. If he can stay healthy and be what the team hoped he could be when investing a 3rd round pick on him back in 2013, he could be deadly, given Tyrod Taylor's nice touch on the deep ball. Alas, virtually no healthy track record over the last couple seasons has us skeptical.

A number of veteran stalwarts -- all of whom have had some measure of success in the past -- are on hand. Greg Salas was a late-season acquisition for the Bills in 2015 -- and made his presence known against his former team, the Jets. Leonard Hankerson played well enough early in the 2015 season for Atlanta that he more or less by-passed Roddy White on the depth chart. Alas, by mid-season, Hankerson fell out of favor and was released by Atlanta (and eventually New England as well). Jarrett Boykin was once considered an up-and-coming target for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay's potent office, but that never panned out. Greg Little, who has reportedly turned heads in OTAs, never lived up to his potential in Cleveland or Cincinnati and is looking for one more chance in Buffalo.

A deep sleeper could be Dez Lewis, who got lost in the numbers game last season but has outstanding size (6-4, 214 lbs) for the position. He, too, has reportedly looked sharp in OTAs. 6th round rookie Kolby Listenbee is a speed burner and will have a shot to make it onto the active roster.

Bottom Line: As we have already mentioned, the offense is centered around the running game. It will be rare to see the Bills' receiving corps compile more than 20 total receptions in a game. Still, a high percentage of those receptions will be at the hands of Sammy Watkins who is every bit as good as fellow 2014 wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr. and Mike Evans. While Watkins has historically been a better FPPT (Fantasy Points per Target) guy, the lower volume of targets in relation to these other guys minimizes his upside a bit. If he stays healthy in 2016, he has a chance to post over 80 receptions -- given his past rate per reception -- that could very well put him in the range of second tier fantasy WR1 candidates. Given the injury risks, we like him better as a rock-solid WR2. While no other Bills wide receiver is worth drafting in most leagues, we do like Robert Woods as a potential post-draft free agent flier.

Tight Ends

Charles Clay

Charles Clay will look to improve in his second season for the Bills after an inconsistent debut in Buffalo in 2015. Clay was limited to 13 games because of a back injury, and he finished with 51 catches for 528 yards and three touchdowns on 78 targets. It wasn't exactly what the Bills were hoping for when he was signed to a massive contract at five years, $38 million with $20 million guaranteed. As a result, Clay restructured his contract this offseason, but he still has to live up to lofty expectations of being one of the top paid tight ends.

We could see Clay be the No. 2 receiving threat for Buffalo behind Sammy Watkins, but he had just three games with double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league in 2015. He had seven games with at least six targets and scored at least seven Fantasy points in four of them. We hope he continues to develop a rapport with Tyrod Taylor, as Clay could emerge as a No. 1 tight end in all leagues. But heading into Draft Day he should only be considered a No. 2 option worth a late-round pick in deeper leagues.

Otherwise, there is little to discuss here. Second year Nick O'Leary will hope to have a greater impact this season. Chris Gragg will do well to make the final roster -- and may have to battle it out with Blake Annen, a former Bear who did little during his time in Chicago, for that roster spot.

The Bottom Line: The only fantasy-worthy player here is Charles Clay. He has the upside to be a lower-tier fantasy TE1, as we 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

Dan Carpenter

Dan Carpenter agreed to lower his 2016 base salary from $2.025 million to $1.775 million, which may be enough to justify his returning as the Bills' kicker in 2016. A candidate to be released, Carpenter had to make some concessions if he wanted to stick with Buffalo. In addition to a $250,000 pay cut that can be recouped through incentives, he also agreed to move his upcoming $250,000 roster bonus back to September. Carpenter will still have to fend off competition for his job, as last season's 85.2-percent conversion rate on field goals would look a whole lot better if he hadn't missed six extra points. Given that the team has had to use a kickoff speculation, there was some speculation that the team would bring in a worthy challenger who could fill both roles and vacate a roster spot, but that has yet to materialize. In Carpenter's defense, prior to last season, he had been money for the Bills in 2013 and 2014.



Defense

Bills Defense

What a difference a year (and a defensive coordinator) makes. In 2014, the Bills led the league with 54 sacks, but posted just 21 with largely the same front seven under Rex Ryan in 2015. Even with Mario Williams out of the picture, the team should bounce back a bit from that disastrous low. The team picked up some pass rush help in Shaq Lawson, their first-round pick, but he had to undergo shoulder surgery this off-season and likely won't return to the starting lineup until mid-season. Reggie Ragland, drafted in the 2nd round as a hopeful starter at LB will likely be out of the year after suffering a knee injury in training camp. That puts a bit of a wet rag on what otherwise would be a pretty enticing fantasy unit. The Bills could be scooped up as a flier in the hopes Rex Ryan and co. turn this unit back around, otherwise they'll be a prime streaming candidate, especially when they play at home.


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