|By Shawn Childs, Thursday, October 8, 2015|
The Buffalo Bills are coming off their first winning season since 2004. Their growth was due to a much-improved defense led by four stud defensive linemen who recorded 44 sacks, 125 quarterback hurries and 31 quarterback hits on 559 passing attempts. The Bills finished fourth in the NFL in points and yards allowed, which was their best finish since 1999. Unfortunately, Buffalo remains flat on offense. They ranked 18th in points scored last season. Their highest ranking in points scored in the past 10 years was 14th in 2011. However, last year, they outscored their opponents (+54) for the first time since 2004. The Bills revamped their coaching staff for 2015 by signing defensive-minded head coach Rex Ryan, who went 46-50 in his six years with the New York Jets with two playoff berths. The Jets finished among the top 11 teams in fewest yards allowed each season that Rex was their head coach, but they struggled in each of the last four years in points allowed (22nd or lower). Dennis Thurman will take over as Buffalo's defensive coordinator, a position he held with the Jets in 2013 and 2014. Greg Roman was brought in to run the offense. With the San Francisco 49ers, Roman ran a ball-control offense while struggling to unlock Colin Kaepernick's upside. But even as the 49ers' offense struggled to gain yards, they made the playoffs in three of the past four years.
Buffalo Bills WR Sammy Watkins
In free agency, Buffalo added three upside players on offense: WR Percy Harvin, RB LeSean McCoy, and TE Charles Clay. In addition, the Bills added depth to the fullback position in the form of Jerome Felton. QB Matt Cassel was brought in to compete with E.J. Manuel. RB C.J. Spiller moved on to the New Orleans Saints, and TE Scott Chandler signed with the New England Patriots. Starting guard Erik Pears, who graded out very poorly in both run blocking and pass blocking last season, left to sign with San Fran. On the defensive side of the ball, S Da'Norris Searcy signed with the Tennessee Titans. Receivers caught only nine of 19 passes thrown in his direction last year for 89 yards, no touchdowns, and he recorded three interceptions. LB Brandon Spikes remains an unrestricted free agent. He played very well in run support in 2014. Troubled G Richie Incognito was added for depth on the offensive line.
Buffalo had only two picks in the first four rounds of this year's draft after their big move in 2014 to acquire WR Sammy Watkins. The Bills selected CB Ronald Darby in the second round. Deep down, Rex Ryan knows he must have a quality pass defense if he wants to get by New England for the division title. Darby ran an impressive 4.38 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but he needs to bulk up (12 reps in the bench press). His lack of strength hurts him against more physical wideouts, and Darby is not a great tackler. Buffalo won't need him as a starter this year, so his plus speed should work well on passing downs in nickel and dime coverage.
Buffalo Bills CB Ronald Darby
In the third round, the Bills added G John Miller. He could help the BIlls' power run game, but he doesn't move well enough to be a valuable blocker at the second level of the defense. His pass-blocking skills appear to have two weaknesses: He can get beat by power rushes and with speed off the edge due to his poor quickness. Buffalo took a swing with RB Karlos Williams in the fifth round. He has excellent size (6 feet 1 and 230 pounds) with surprising speed (4.48). His career faded during his senior year at Florida State due to a lack of motivation and some possible character issues. With more direction, he may add a Jeremy Hill-like dimension to the Bills' rushing attack, possessing some value at the goal line. With its last three picks, Buffalo selected LB Tony Steward, TE Nick O'Leary and WR Dezmin Lewis.
Overall, the Bills' offensive line was a huge disappointment in 2014. They allowed 39 sacks, 38 QB hits and 108 QB hurries. Their running backs tallied only 3.7 yards per rush and a total of seven rushing touchdowns. LT Cordy Glenn graded out well in pass protection despite allowing eight sacks. Glenn was drafted in the second round in 2012. In the 2014 draft, Buffalo focused on improving its offensive line by adding three options. With their second-round pick, the Bills selected Cyrus Kouandjio. He was expected to protect Manuel's blind side. He has excellent size at 6 feet 7 and 322 pounds, but questionable quickness and foot speed led to him not playing a single snap in 2014. Seantrel Henderson was forced into the starting lineup for all 16 games at right tackle. He was a huge liability in run blocking and even worse in pass protection, allowing six sacks, 12 hits and 28 hurries. Incognito is expected to start at right guard after sitting out all of last season. He grades out as an above-average blocker on both run and pass plays. Former first-round pick Chris Williams will compete for the starting job at left guard. He missed all but three games last year because of a back injury. His biggest competition should come from 2014 fifth-rounder Cyril Richardson. In just four starts as a rookie, Cyril struggled in pass protection and was below average in run blocking. Richardson and Henderson had first-round potential, but Richardson has struggled with his weight and conditioning and Henderson's off-field issues led to him falling to the seventh round of the 2014 draft. 2009 first-rounder Eric Wood will start at center. Over the past two years, Wood has been nothing more than league average at his position. Buffalo really needs a couple players to make a step forward to hopefully be at league average.
The above chart shows the Bills' 2015 offensive strength of schedule in terms of rushing attempts (RATT), rushing yards (YDS), yards per attempt rushing (YA), rushing touchdowns (TDs), completions (COMP), passing attempts (PATT), passing yards (YDS), yards per attempt passing (YA) and passing touchdowns (TDS).
This information is based on 2014 stats, which we will work with as our starting point for 2015. We'll look at all the changes on offense for each team in the NFL plus the upgrades and downgrades each team has made on the defensive side. We'll update this table when we finish researching all 32 teams.
2014 Average: The league average of each stat from all 32 teams in 2014.
2014 Results: The results for each specific team in the NFL.
2015 Adjustment: The difference between a team's result and the league average in a certain statistic. This number will show if a team is above or below the league average in each stat and will serve as the basis for the strength of schedule.
Based on their opponents' 2014 numbers, the Bills' ground game has a positive strength of schedule, but the data is heavily impacted by meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. Conversely, the Miami Dolphins should be a tough matchup versus the run following the addition of Ndamukong Suh. Buffalo's passing matchups look to be just above league average.
Last year, Buffalo ran the ball 41 percent of the time. By comparison, the New York Jets, who were coached by Ryan, ran on 50.5 percent of their plays. The San Francisco 49ers, whose offense was coordinated by Roman, ran the ball 49.1 percent of the time.
QB E.J. Manuel - Bust (overvalued)
In his 14 career starts, Manuel has a 6-8 record with 16 career TDs and 12 interceptions. He's completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 2,810 yards. He doesn't have a single 300-yard game in two seasons. In 2014, Manuel lost his job after Week 4 to Kyle Orton. Manuel failed to make plays down the field, averaging just 6.4 yards per attempt. Buffalo added three strong receiving options in LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin and Charles Clay to go along with the talented Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. If E.J. wins the starting job in camp, he'll be surrounded by the most talent he's had in his career. For him to win the job, Manuel has to be a solid game manager who makes minimal mistakes. The Bills want him to control the clock on offense while depending on their strong defense to keep them in most games. Even with a run-first mentality, E.J. will need to hit some big plays downfield to keep defenses honest and be able to throw for TDs in the red zone. In college, Manuel had much better accuracy (66.9 percent) and showed more willingness to run (213 combined rushes in his junior and senior years). Spending most of the 2014 season on the bench may have helped Manuel understand what he needs to do to win in the NFL. His offensive line isn't great, so the Bills' success will fall on the play of their skill players and E.J.'s right arm. He does have enough talent to deliver some upside as a backup fantasy QB. Buffalo has a favorable fantasy playoff schedule (at Philadelphia Eagles, at Washington Redskins, versus Dallas Cowboys).
RB LeSean McCoy - Stud (low risk)
UPDATE (10/8): LeSean McCoy has been sidelined by a hamstring injury. Now in his seventh season, McCoy was off to a decent start before his injury. He is not a full-blown workhorse, but Fantasy owners can depend on him for 15 to 20 touches every week. Even after he returns, hamstring injuries do have a tendency to flare up again. With the emergence of rookie RB Karlos Williams as a decent backup, he may be used more often as a change-of-pace option behind McCoy moving forward.
After leading the league with 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 yards from scrimmage in 2013, McCoy's struggled last season as he watched his yards per carry drop from 5.1 to 4.2. A lingering turf toe injury might have had a lot to do with that. Even with 339 touches in 2014, LeSean finished 12th among RBs in Fantasy Football World Championships scoring, averaging 12.85 fantasy points per game. His lack of explosiveness was really visible in the passing game (5.5 yards per catch in 2014; 10.4 in 2013). Over the last three years, McCoy has scored only 21 times after he recorded 20 TDs in 2011. For his career, LeSean is averaging 4.6 yards per rush with four 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The Bills completed 114 passes to the RB position in 2014, but their new coaching staff doesn't have the same philosophy. Jets and 49ers running backs combined for 101 receptions last year. McCoy is a very talented back with great change-of-direction quickness. The Bills don't have a great offensive line, and LeSean isn't a lock to get the goal-line carries. McCoy is a great player, but he may not be an elite RB1 in 2015.
SCOUT Fantasy: 2. There's a lot of skepticism in the Fantasy Expert community about LeSean McCoy. Even with the certainty that Rex Ryan will focus on a run-first scheme, is the skepticism justified? Isn't McCoy guaranteed to see a high volume workload both as a runner and receiver?
Talbot: I don't think the skepticism is justified. The team has said that they want to give McCoy over 300 carries in 2015. Last season, the run game couldn't get going due to the play of the offensive line. In the offseason, the team upgraded at both guard spots with rookie John Miller and Richie Incognito. Cyrus Kouandjio has also looked vastly improved at right tackle as well. In addition, the team has brought in two of the best run blocking fullbacks in the NFL in Jerome Felton and John Conner. While it's doubtful that the team carries both fullbacks, they've essentially added another blocker for McCoy. Right now, McCoy is going towards the end of round 1, and I believe that's exceptional value for McCoy in 2015.
RB Fred Jackson - Over the Hill (decreased production)
Jackson has shown plenty of decline over the past three years, gaining only 3.8, 4.3 and 3.7 yards per rush. But his value in the passing game continues to grow, even at age 33. He hauled in a career-high 66 passes in 2014. Over his last 30 games, Fred has averaged 15.3 touches and 76.8 total yards per. Jackson missed time this spring due to some sort of minor surgery. He'll start the year at age 34 and with dwindling upside in all areas in the game. I don't see him as a threat to McCoy in any area, and I expect Buffalo to work Fred in only when LeSean needs a series off. It's time to leave this pony in the barn on draft day.
RB Bryce Brown - Low Potential
Brown has been in the league for three years. He flashed high upside in 2012 when he rushed for 347 yards and four TDs in two games while filling in for McCoy in Philadelphia. Last year, Bryce had a great opportunity to earn more playing time while C.J. Spiller was hurt, but he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. He did catch 13 passes over a two-game span during the middle portion of the season, but he totaled just 52 touches for the year. In his two seasons with McCoy in Philly, Bryce took 211 touches for 1,018 yards and six touchdowns. He has enough talent to be Buffalo's backup RB this year.
SCOUT Fantasy: 3. Last year, we thought Bryce Brown would emerge as a deep sleeper, were we a year early on that call or will he remain the odd man out behind McCoy and Fred Jackson?
Talbot: Bryce Brown seemed like the best breakout option among Buffalo's running backs before the McCoy trade, but now it'd be a surprise if he even makes the roster. Jackson will be the team's No. 2 running back and Anthony Dixon will probably be the team's third running back. Dixon is more likely to beat out Brown for a roster spot due to his ability to play on special teams. Last, Buffalo drafted Karlos Williams in the NFL draft. Williams may now be the long-term 'sleeper' of the group due to McCoy's workload, Jackson's age and Dixon's inability to be an every down back.
WR Sammy Watkins - Solid/Safe Pick
UPDATE (10/8): Sammy Watkins is not having a very good 2015 season. The second year receiver out of Clemson is recovering from a calf injury. There isn't an argument against Watkins' being the Bills' best receiver. That said, this offense needs to show a little consistency and certainly demands a healthy LeSean McCoy in order to give Watkins' the clearest path toward success. Downgrade Watkins considerably when he returns to the starting lineup. He is a WR3 at best.
Sammy was outplayed by four rookie WRs in 2014. His lack of success was partly due to rib and groin injuries. I have to respect that he played through those ailments. Sammy had surgery to repair a small tear in his hip labrum over the winter. Buffalo expects Watkins to be ready around the start of training camp. Last year, he had five games with double-digit targets and four 100-yard performances. Sammy finished the year with 65 catches for 982 yards and six touchdowns while catching only 50.7 percent of his 128 targets. He ranked 27th among wideouts in FFWC scoring (12.5 fantasy points per game). Watkins has explosive upside, but he will lack consistency in fantasy due to the Bills' conservative style of play. However, Sammy still has a chance to be a top-15 WR in 2015 if he stays healthy.
SCOUT Fantasy: 4. Sammy Watkins had a great year for a rookie, but within the context of other rookie WRs, he has been overshadowed by guys like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans and even Kelvin Benjamin. Can he outshine them all this year to become a top-15 fantasy WR ? If defenses keyed on McCoy and Charles Clay over the middle, doesn't this give Watkins more breathing room outside?
Talbot: Watkins could outshine any of the wide receivers listed but all of them have something Watkins doesn't: A quarterback. No one yet knows who will win the quarterback competition in Buffalo. Can the winner get the ball to Watkins consistently? No one knows. If the team is successful running the ball, things could really open up for him in 2015 but the team has a lot of weapons. As you mentioned, McCoy and Charles Clay are new offensive additions, and the team will also try to get the ball to Robert Woods and Percy Harvin as well. Watkins has the ability to be a top-15 fantasy WR, but I'd be hesitant to draft him over any of the other receivers you mentioned due to the uncertainty at quarterback.
WR Robert Woods - Bye Week Fill-in
After struggling over the first five weeks in 2014 (14 receptions total for 156 yards), Robert was a serviceable flex player over the final 11 weeks as he averaged 11.8 fantasy points per game with Kyle Orton under center. His best performance came in Week 13 against the Jets as he caught nine passes for 118 yards and a score. Woods had three catches or fewer in eight of his 15 starts but was a worthy bye-week fill-in for some fantasy owners. Robert averaged just 10.8 yards per catch partially because the Bills' leaky offensive line didn't allow the downfield throws to develop often. Woods will enter his third season at age 23 and with upside, but his opportunities are likely to dwindle because of Buffalo's increased depth at wide receiver.
SCOUT Fantasy: 5. How will the Bills maximize Percy Harvin's talents while keeping him healthy? And digging deeper, is this a make or break year for guys like Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin?
Talbot: The Bills have already stated that they plan on using Harvin in a variety of ways. First, you can pencil him in as a kick returner and as in a gadget role from time to time. That said, they want to utilize Harvin as a receiver, both in the slot and on the outside. The biggest reason that Harvin joined the Bills was to reunite with WRs coach Sanjay Lal. Lal really worked with Harvin on his route-running in New York and he had a few productive games with the Jets, especially on the outside. He gives the Bills another legitimate weapon. Due to Buffalo's QB situation, it'd be wise to focus on short passes to guys like Harvin and Watkins and let them create in space. They have the ability to stretch the field but there's no guarantee the quarterback can consistently get them the ball down the field.
As for Goodwin, this is most definitely a make or break season. He only logged one catch in 2014 but injuries played a role in this, as well as falling out of favor with former head coach Doug Marrone. Rex Ryan has hyped up Goodwin's play this offseason and Goodwin himself said he likes the Greg Roman's offense because he's actually involved. He's not a fantasy option, but he has a chance to really rebound this season.
Woods doesn't really fit into the 'make or break' category. He had a terrific season in 2014 with 65 receptions, 699 yards and five touchdowns. That was an increase of 25 receptions, 112 yards and two touchdowns. He'll alternate between the outside and the slot with Harvin.
TE Charles Clay - Sleeper (undervalued)
UPDATE (10/8): Charles Clay is red-hot right now. Over his last three games, he has 17 receptions for 213 yards and two scores. Those are solid TE1 numbers. At this point, he's a safe start until the wheels fall off. Clay seems to have developed quite the chemistry with QB Tyrod Taylor.
Fantasy football is such a tough game due to injuries. Clay is the perfect example of a player who fell short of expectations because of a health issue. He sustained a knee injury early last season, which led to him catching just 22 passes for 205 yards and one touchdown over the first seven games. Charles also missed two games later in the year due to a hamstring strain. However, he appeared to be healthy in Weeks 16 and 17 when he caught a collective total of 12 balls for 173 yards on 17 targets. He finished 15th among tight ends in PPR leagues after rankings eighth in 2013 when he tallied 69 catches for 759 yards and six TDs. Last year, the Bills completed 69 passes for 705 yards and two TDs to their tight ends. This year, Clay will be no better than the fourth option in this passing game, trailing Watkins, Harvin and either McCoy or Jackson. He will probably finish just outside of the top 12 in TE scoring.
SCOUT Fantasy: 6. Charles Clay could be Buffalo's best TE going all the way back to the Pete Metzelaars' years back in the late 80s and early 90s. That's assuming he lives up to the hype and his contract. What does an option like Clay over the middle do for this offense that was lacking previously?
Talbot: Buffalo's previous coaching regimes really haven't utilized the tight end position. It's exciting to get an offensive coordinator like Greg Roman who wants to use the position. Clay gives the Bills another terrific weapon in the passing game and he's an underrated run blocker. He gives the Bills a YAC option at tight end, something Scott Chandler really wasn't known for. Clay has the athleticism to beat linebackers on a consistent basis and his play could alter the personnel that opposing defenses put on the field. That could really open things up in the run game.
PK Dan Carpenter - Solid/Safe Pick
The Bills did a great job of snatching up Carpenter after he had a down season with Miami in 2012. Over the past two years, Dan has made 67 of 74 field-goal attempts and all of his 63 extra points. His leg has been one of the best in the league from the 50-yard line in Buffalo; he's 10-for-14 from that range. For his career, he's made 84.7 percent of his attempts. Last year, Carpenter finished third in the FFWC in kicker scoring (10.2 FPPG), which was a step up from his No. 11 ranking in 2013. The Bills had 200 possessions in 2014. They led to 38 TDs and 34 field goals. With the talent that Buffalo has added, Dan should get more scoring chances. Part of his success last year was due to the Bills' struggles to run the ball, an area that should be improved in 2015. Carpenter has an excellent chance to finish among the top 10 kickers in fantasy scoring.
Buffalo - Solid/Safe Pick
DEFENSE / SPECIAL TEAMS
Based on last year's results, the Bills' defense will face the seventh-toughest schedule in terms of their opponents' collective rushing yards per game. But they also have the eighth-easiest schedule in terms of their opponents' passing yards per game, which should favor Buffalo's pass rush. This data will be updated after we research all 32 teams for 2015.
The Bills had the best pass rush in the league in 2014 as they recorded 54 saves. They gave up only 16 passing TDs while notching 19 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. Mario Williams led the way with 16 sacks, seven quarterback hits and 37 QB hurries. The other three starting defensive linemen combined for 30 sacks, 24 QB hits and 78 QB hurries. Buffalo finished 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed. They permitted just 4.1 yards per carry and 10 TDs on the ground. Tom Brady was the only quarterback who scored more than 20 fantasy points against the Bills. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was a top run defender and racked up 10 sacks as well.The Bills have weakness at the linebacker position with Brandon Spikes not on the roster and Kiko Alonso now in Philly in exchange for McCoy. Linebackers Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown will return to the starting lineup with slightly above league-average value. Buffalo needs cornerback Leodis McKelvin to bounce back from his fractured ankle. Cornerback Corey Graham is coming off the best season in his NFL career, which was assisted by the Bills' dynamic pass rush. Buffalo also needs former first-round pick Stephon Gilmore to rebound from a disappointing 2014. This defense is fantastic when comes to getting after the quarterback, and it has talent at the cornerback position. Harvin will add value in the return game, giving the Bills a chance to be one of fantasy's top D/ST units.
SCOUT Fantasy: 7. Lastly, Buffalo has a great defensive line, but their whole defense could make a big leap depending on the development of young guys like Preston Brown, Nigel Bradham, Stephon Gilmore, Corey Graham and Aaron Williams. This D limited opponents in yards but was average at best in points allowed. How does the defense take the next step to become a full-fledged top-10 unit?
Talbot: Last season, the Bills didn't rely on blitzing. They allowed their defensive line to create havoc on their own and at times, they were very successful in doing so. However, there were also games where quarterbacks were able to pick the Bills apart. This year, you'll see a wide variety of blitzes from the Bills defense. That pressure will force opposing quarterbacks into mistakes and Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Ronald Darby, Aaron Williams, Duke Williams and Corey Graham should really benefit from this in the secondary. Gilmore ended the 2014 season on a tear and McKelvin's best NFL season came in Mike Pettine's defense, a defense somewhat similar to what the Bills will run in 2015. If the Bills want to make the next step defensively, they'll need to create more turnovers in the secondary in 2015.