2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: Buffalo Bills
August 12, 2015 | Chet
The Buffalo Bills went 9-7 in 2014, their first winning season since 2004. Off that promise, head coach Doug Marrone still opted out of his contract, taking $4 million with him. With his departure, Buffalo turned to the freshly available Rex Ryan to take the reins in hopes of making the postseason for the first time since 1999. While the hire of Ryan means big things for an already established defensive unit, can we count on his old fashioned approach to curtail any fantasy relevancy from this offense?
2015 Bills Schedule
Here’s the token advice not to weigh early schedule outlooks with too much importance. The Bills offense opens with a reasonable slate to do what we expect them to want to do often, which is run the football. After their bye week, however, this run game meets some potential brick walls regularly. If they aren’t able to establish the run or their defense falters, this entire offense could be comprised. To tack onto their late season outlook, five of their final seven games come on the road.
It’s always worrisome for fantasy when you’re tying yourself to an offense that will be relying on favorable game script that is more or less going to be initiated by the defense first and not the offense itself. You’d like to see this offense generate some of that leverage on their own, and in 2014, Buffalo was far from efficient with the football.
Ryan brought in Greg Roman to run this offense and it’s a match made in heaven for what Ryan wants to do in terms of overall philosophy. This team is very reminiscent of that 2011 49ers team that Roman called plays for as well, on a lot of levels. In the four years Roman was calling plays in San Francisco, the 49ers ranked third, third, second and seventh in percentage of run plays on offense. The flip side to that is they also ranked 25th, 30th, 31st and 19th in total offensive plays.
Despite being more mundane and methodical and running the third fewest amount of plays over the past four years, the system in place still frequently generated a lot of big plays in the passing and rushing games with fairly comparable personnel to what Buffalo will have on offense this season outside of offensive play. In terms of generating gains of 20 or more yards, San Francisco was a top-five club overall and in both passing and rushing play percentage of such gains under Roman.
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The Real McCoy
The big offensive move the Bills made this offseason was trading for 27-year old LeSean McCoy and then inking him immediately to a five-year, $40M extension with $26.5M guaranteed. That big deal is intriguing since McCoy himself is coming off of his least efficient and most run-reliant season so far.
McCoy is going from one of the premier rushing opportunities in the league to a sketchy situation overall outside of bankable usage. While Roman and Ryan are a perfect run-heavy marriage, the overall play volume of Philadelphia is what got McCoy those back to back years of 300 plus carries as the Eagles ran 112 more plays than the Jets and 215 more than the 49ers over the past two seasons. McCoy has always had some bust to his running style, but last season saw the explosive runs in his game fall to career lows.
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That lack of bigger gains is worrisome to a degree considering that McCoy only faced base defensive personnel on 44 percent of his carries last season per Mike Clay. That percentage was the 10th lowest among running backs and he boasted just 3.2 yards per carry in those situations. For comparison sake, Frank Gore faced base personnel for 83 percent of his attempts. In this system and with the attached passing threats, McCoy can expect to see much more attention from defenses this season and as mentioned above, the back half rushing slate isn’t inspiring.
Buffalo is a downgrade in terms of offensive line play from Philadelphia, even in a season in which the Eagles struggled to have continuity. That rotating door across the front in Philadelphia can be attributed to some of McCoy’s struggles, but he also failed to force missed tackles at the rate in which he normally did, forcing one every 7.2 touches as opposed to once every 4.9 touches in 2013. The semi-good news there is that although Buffalo’s offensive line was subpar, they have junked Erik Pears and its likely Kraig Urbik returns to a backup role. They added two big guards in Richie Incognito and rookie John Miller, so the interior looks better heading into 2015 while also adding fullback Jerome Felton who spent time blocking in part of Adrian Peterson’s big 2012 season and has been a good blocker since.
McCoy also benefitted from the Eagles providing consistent scoring opportunities as they reached the red zone 3.7 times per game under Chip Kelly over the past two seasons. McCoy hasn’t been a great touchdown producer in his career either outside of one outlier season in 2011 when he had an abnormal amount of short yardage opportunities. Here’s his yearly rushing production inside of the five-yard line for his career:
Not to just stockpile shade towards Shady’s change of scenery, but Roman has never incorporated backs into the passing game, even after inheriting a veteran back in Gore who had pass catching acumen. Backfield totals over his four years in San Francisco were just 67 targets per season for the group with a high of 73 looks. In that regard, it’s hard to see a big bounce back for McCoy on his career low passing game output from a season ago.
All of those things add up to McCoy being a risk as a running back you’d have to take within the first five to six selections overall like in prior seasons, but that’s not the case anymore. Now, McCoy’s price tag is at RB9 overall and is an early second round selection. That’s a price that is more than fair as I see him as a safe floor fringe RB1, with an obvious ceiling to be more as he’s showcased during his career. If I’m going back to back running backs near back half of the first or went after a big receiver first, McCoy will still be in play for me, but I still prefer backs such as DeMarco Murray and C.J. Anderson over him in a vacuum given all are still options.
Behind McCoy, there’s a line of backs that do one or two things well, but no one that has complete relevancy in the event that McCoy goes down. 34-year old Fred Jackson has been terribly inefficient as a runner in two of the past three seasons as he’s been a pass game only back for fantasy contributions. As described with McCoy, the overall impact for all of the backs to be involved heavily in the passing game is compromised. Jackson could be expendable because Buffalo still has east to west runner Bryce Brown, who they traded a fourth round pick to acquire last spring. Brown has his limitations as a runner, but is still just 24-years old with home run hitting qualities and can catch the ball. Anthony Dixon actually was second on this team last season with 105 attempts and his job is safe because he’s one of the best special teams performers on the roster. Looking at just the performances of these three backs in addition to McCoy, and there may just be truth to the whispers that Jackson is fighting for a roster spot this summer.
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To compound matters, Buffalo also used a fifth round pick on running back Karlos Williams. Our Chad Scott profiled Williams prior to the draft and was one of his late round favorites at the position. Williams is a big bodied back as he was a converted safety and still raw in his transition to the position. He has strong straight line speed for his size and should push to make the roster. I believe one of Jackson or Brown will be out by the end of preseason. In the event McCoy is lost at some point, I believe we’d see a smash up of the backups rather than one player elevate, especially if somehow all of these backs are on the roster at the end of preseason.
Backing Away From the Bills Passing Game
The Bills sunk serious cost in acquiring Sammy Watkins during last year’s draft and were treated with what many would call a successful inaugural campaign for the rookie receiver as he posted a 65/982/6 line. For fantasy purposes, Watkins still met his draft cost as he turned in six top-24 scoring weeks on his way to a 27th overall finish at wide receiver. His rookie season was strong in context for a rookie receiver, but Bills and dynasty investors likely feel a little slighted with Watkins being attached to an unprecedented class of receivers in terms of immediate production.
In terms of raw opportunity, Watkins ran the most routes of this group, yet was smack in the middle in terms of all other output across the board. Watkins was getting the necessary volume to be a fantasy WR2 in terms of season long totals, but was crushed by inefficiency. His catch rate was at the bottom with Kelvin Benjamin, but like Benjamin, it’s unfair to place all of the inefficiency squarely on Watkins. 43.6 percent of his targets were deemed uncatchable Per Pro Football Focus, which was the fourth highest percentage at wide receiver last season.
The problem in that regard is that the Bills quarterback situation coming into 2015 isn’t arguably any better than it was last season. Watkins had comparably lateral production with both Kyle Orton and EJ Manuel, and now has Manuel competing with Tyrod Taylor and Matt Cassel for starting duties this season. This situation is less than optimal for increasing those rate statistics for Watkins.
Watkins also just cratered the back half of 2014, posting five games with less than 40 receiving yards and seven games with three of fewer receptions over his final eight games. From the front to the back half of the year, his relevancy as a fantasy option disintegrated. He suffered his hip injury in week 13, but that can’t be a huge out as he put up 127 yards on seven catches a week later. He also battled through broken ribs and a groin injury during the season that also could have built up wear and tear down the line as well. Another portion of his dip in effectiveness will be tied to Kyle Orton’s diminishing play and a chunk is warranted, but Matt Harmon also expresses that isn’t the entire part of the story.
There’s also some concern that the volume could even be compromised with the lower overall expected volume coming from this offense. Ryan never had a 1,000 yard receiver in New York with just two reaching 100 targets in a season, but I’m really not overly concerned about that past history because Roman is creative play designer and turned out three consecutive seasons of 80 plus receptions and 1,000 yards from separate 49er receivers. As a positive for Watkins, Michael Crabtree went nuclear at the end of the 2012 season, a player that before injuries was comparable to the abilities Watkins has entering the league. I believe the quarterback position and injection of new options to be a bigger threat to the bottom line for Watkins than volume or usage concerns related to Ryan or Roman.
There’s some ancillary concern over his hip injury. Dr. Jeff Budoff broke that injury down here and there still could be potential ambiguity around his injury as a labral tear being the actual source of his pain, but we should have a good indication of that come training camp.
The final issue in play is that Watkins has shown to consistently be reliant on splash play scores and not being much of a red zone factor dating back to college. Just 9.4 percent of his targets came inside the red zone last year, 102nd of all players with 50 or more targets. That is partially offense induced, but the Bills were also a top-12 in red zone opportunities per game. Watkins turned just three of 12 red zone looks for scores, and in college turned just five of 19 into touchdowns. Being big play dependent and red zone intolerant can be overcome in creating a WR1, but you need to be attached to a good quarterback play like T.Y. Hilton is more often than not to keep that maintainable.
Despite all of those black clouds circling Watkins, C.D. Carter points out that there’s still some equity to be had in his price tag this season. Watkins is currently at WR26 off the board, which leaves some room for return, but also is right around his median outlook. As evidence by his opening half as a rookie, there is some ceiling still to squeeze from Watkins being eventually undervalued and Anthony Amico states that case here. In most drafts I’ve done up to this point, the room seems to draft Watkins more than another owner. I can’t say that I will be pursuing much of Watkins myself, but if he’s your third receiver, I don’t hate him. When the point of the draft comes to where I’d look to take him (as my WR4), he’s never there. At his price point, I still am cautious on him with so many more new targets coming into town and the Bills ambiguous quarterback situation and will likely be left as a DFS play for me when all of my drafts end.
The Bills also signed Percy Harvin to a one-year “prove it” deal coming off of the worst year of his career in which he was released from a big time contract. The additions of Harvin and Charles Clay to go with the strengths of Watkins and Robert Woods paired with their quarterback situation, this is really setting up to a passing game that plays very close to the line of scrimmage, relying on quick easy throws and yards after the catch from their receivers. Harvin may turn out to be a good football move since I believe he’s going to be used in a similar fashion to how he was in Minnesota in this offense and not like he was in Seattle. The issue there for fantasy is that there’s just no way he comes close to the necessary volume that made that type of usage functional for your lineup on a weekly basis. He could match and return investment on his WR48 cost with overall numbers, but he’s just not the type of player I’m pursuing in drafts since he’s so reliant on usage and volume in creating weekly substance.
Robert Woods took another step forward in his sophomore season, tallying a respectable 65/699/5 line on 104 targets. When Watkins disappeared over the back stretch, Woods had 10 more receptions and two more scores on eight fewer targets. Over those eight weeks Woods had four top-24 scoring games and five within the top-36 scorers. The issue with Woods is that he’s a far better real football player than a fantasy one. If you’ve been following this series along, you know I dub these guys “Eddie Royal All-Stars” in which he’s good enough that we have to acknowledge him, but not quite good enough for us to use. Woods is a solid real life secondary option, but it will be hard for him to see close to the target total he did in 2014 this upcoming season with the other offensive additions.
The Bills also went out and gave big money to tight end Charles Clay this offseason. Clay is another versatile piece to add to this offense as he was an H-back in college (he had 10 rushing scores at Tulsa). We’ve seen the tight ends be fixtures in Roman’s scheme before, with Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker combining to post a 62/892/8 line in 2012 and Davis posting a 52/850/13 line in 2013 before seeing him underused in 2014. Clay isn’t the lid lifter Davis is, but can be used creatively and near the red zone. 23.3 percent of Clay’s targets came in the red zone in 2014, which was the third highest rate in the league. He may be a touchdown dependent asset for fantasy, but at TE19 pricing, Clay is a decent grab in a platoon at that spot or off of early season waivers to if his role matches that of his contract.
Of course, all of these players are tethered to whoever claims this quarterback job, but I don’t believe the outcome of this battle significantly alters the above players outlooks because there likely isn’t an elevator of counting statistics among the group. You can sift through all of the coaching comments made on this group in one place from Jeff Hunter, but for fantasy, the end result is going to be the same for no matter who wins. That is, the quarterback here will be a streaming option only. The new rookie wage scale made it much easier to bench EJ Manuel after just four starts into his sophomore season and doesn’t give Manuel a monetary edge to walk into 2015 with the job, especially with a new regime at the helm. Manuel was clearly a reach at the spot in which the Bills took him.
The most intriguing option here is Tyrod Taylor by a good amount. The former sixth round pick has thrown just 35 career passes in the NFL, but has the wildcard ability to be an asset on the ground. The one game in which Taylor did play (week 17 of 2012), he ran nine times for 65 yards. Taylor ran 2,196 yards at Virginia Tech and ran a 4.47 entering the league. I was sifting through my quarterback model and actually noticed I had a higher grade on Taylor entering the league than Manuel, though that says more about Manuel than it does Taylor. Manuel doesn’t have that added ability with his legs as he never was a big runner in college (best season was 310 yards) and he hasn’t run in the NFL either, with just three games of 25 plus yards. We’ve seen Roman stem play designs off of having a running quarterback, so that could aid Taylor coming out ahead in the job. For fantasy, that’s the best case scenario for this job having implications in our game. Eventually Taylor will need to win and hold the gig with passing, but that running alone can propel fantasy usage at the quarterback position.
By all accounts, Cassel has been a disaster so far, but is a veteran quarterback that still could factor into things when the preseason comes around and bullets really fly. Cassel is going to draw the first preseason start this weekend which could be his final chance to prove himself. I still wouldn’t rule out all of these players making the roster and all making a start at some point in the season, which would be unfortunate. I’m projecting Taylor to win the job for now, but it’s still a vague situation today and it’s one that won’t generate much fantasy excitement no matter the outcome outside of Taylor.