June 29, 2013

Fantasy Football Team Preview: Buffalo Bills

Three Buffalo Bills players finished among the one hundred highest-scoring fantasy players last year: Ryan Fitzpatrick (who is not with the team anymore), C.J. Spiller, and Steve Johnson. That's still better than ten other teams performed last year, but not enough to declare the Buffalo Bills an offensive powerhouse. But with a new coaching staff, a new franchise quarterback, and a young and talented receiving corps, the Bills hope to improve their offense in the coming years. I just don't see it happening this year.

If you had to describe the Buffalo Bills offense from last year with one name, it would be C.J. Spiller. He accounted for 31% of the team's yards from scrimmage, had almost 700 total yards more than the next best player on the roster, and scored the most touchdowns. Spiller should also be the focal point of the Bills offense in 2013. Reports out of Buffalo suggest that Spiller's role on offense will be expanded this year, including increased looks as a receiver. While that may decrease his potential for 20+ rushing attempts per game, it should keep opposing defenses from zeroing in on Spiller as a running back and allows the Bills to use his full potential.

How big that potential can be was on display last year. Here is what I wrote in my fantasy value analysis of C.J. Spiller: "Despite getting over 200 carries, Spiller managed to maintain a 6.0 yards-per-carry average over the whole year. Only a handful of players have accomplished the same feat in NFL history, including all-time greats like O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, and Jim Brown. He racked up over 1,700 yards from scrimmage on only 250 touches, fifth-best among running backs in 2012. He did this with at least seventy fewer touches than any of the four running backs ahead of him. In fact, the next-best running back with a similar workload to Spiller was Reggie Bush who had 262 touches in 2012 but amassed over 400 fewer yards."

If Spiller can maintain that level of production - and the signs are positive as Spiller also managed a rushing average of over 5.0 yards-per-carry in 2011 and ranked far ahead of other players with a heavier workload in terms of fantasy scoring that year - he could be fantasy dynamite. If his rushing attempts increase by 20% to around 250 carries and he maintains a rushing average somewhere in the middle of his 2011 and 2012 production, for example at 5.5 yards-per-carry, Spiller would finish with almost 1,400 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. If you add in his production as a receiver, he could easily finish with around 2,000 total yards and at least 10 total touchdowns - good for 260 fantasy points.

Of course Spiller would need to be handed the starting job for those projections to materialize and then keep up his incredible production despite defenses viewing him as the Bills' main offensive weapon. But even if Spiller falls back to his 2011 level of production (5.2 yards-per-carry and one touchdown every 27 carries), an increased workload of roughly 250 carries would produce 1,300 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. In other words, as long as Spiller gets enough touches, he'll be a high-end No. 1 fantasy running back.

The main competition for Spiller in the Bills' backfield in Fred Jackson who played very well over the last four years but missed six games in each of the last two seasons due to injury. Jackson is a late-round fantasy draft prospect given the emergence of Spiller but could become very valuable if Spiller is forced to miss some time due to injury. Over the last four years, Jackson averaged 16 fantasy points in games in which he received 15+ carries. As a full-time starter in place of Spiller for a team that has to rely on Jackson for leadership and will lean on the run due to having a rookie quarterback and a mostly inexperienced receiving corps, Jackson could be a very valuable fantasy player.

The second big name on the Bills' roster besides C.J. Spiller is wide receiver Steve Johnson. The seventh-round draft pick from 2008 needed to two full seasons to arrive in the NFL but did so with a big bang. In his first two seasons, Johnson combined for 112 receiving yards with two touchdowns. Over the last three years, he exceeded 70 catches and 1,000 yards each year but saw his touchdown production fall each year from ten in 2010 to six in 2012. Johnson is on our list of undervalued players based on ADP as he was underdrafted in each of the last three seasons.

Johnson is now the unquestioned leader of the Bills receiving corps and will be the go-to guy for rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel. He may see some extra coverage but has shown that he can produce against the best defenders, most notably Darrell Revis. You can get Johnson as a low-end WR3 in many fantasy drafts this year and he's a great option for everybody who wants to invest in running backs and tight ends early and wait on wide receivers. He's a virtual lock for another season with 1,000+ yards and I'd even expect his touchdown production to rise a bit.

The rest of the Bills receiving corps is extremely inexperienced. All other receivers on the roster combined scored only 21.90 fantasy points more over their careers than Johnson did in his best statistical NFL season (2010). The average age of all Bills receivers is 24 years and Brad Smith is the only receiver besides Johnson with more than three years of NFL experience and he never caught more than 32 passes in a single season.

But the Bills still have plenty of talent at the position. They selected Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin in the 2013 NFL Draft. Woods has been compared to Reggie Wayne and arguably was the most polished and technical sound wide receiver in the draft. He could start right away for the Bills and could produce similar results to what Kendall Wright did last year. Goodwin is a former track star and brings excellent speed to the position. Together with T.J. Graham, he'll be the Bills big-play deep threat.

T.J. Graham didn't play very well during his rookie season (-15.2 rating by Profootballfocus), but reportedly performed well during OTAs. I wouldn't expect big things from him, but think he's worth a good look in dynasty leagues. Finally, the team brought in talented but troubled rookie wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers as an UFA. He'll be on a short leash but may have the best size-speed-talent combination of any receiver on the team's roster outside of Johnson and Woods. If Rogers can pull himself together, he could end up being a nice surprise in 2013. After all, he was projected to be a third-round pick and described as a "virtual Julio Jones clone". I would definitely invest a mid-round dynasty draft choice in him.

Of course, the fantasy production of the Bills' receiving corps also depends largely on the team's quarterback situation. The team released former starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick during the offseason and added Kevin Kolb during free agency and E.J. Manuel in the 2013 NFL Draft. I fully expect Manuel to be named the team's starter prior to the beginning of the season. The recent success of dual-threat rookie quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson will undoubtedly affect Manuel's fantasy stock and I do think he has some potential although I don't expect him to play as well as either of those three guys and wouldn't draft him in seasonal leagues where you only have limited bench spots available. I would invest a (late) first-round pick to select Manuel in rookie drafts.

Manuel did display his athleticism at the NFL Scouting Combine and was named Senior Bowl MVP so he certainly brings some qualities to the table. If he can improve his accuracy, he could develop into a very capable NFL quarterback. By the way, you may want to read this great article that shows how much better young quarterbacks are prepared for the NFL these days and explains a little bit why they've had so much success recently. That would bode well for E.J. Manuel's fantasy value.

At the tight end position, the Bills looked set with Scott Chandler who was immense potential. However, Chandler tore his ACL late in the 2012 season and therefore missed a lot of the offseason workouts. Although reports suggest that Chandler is ahead of schedule, I'd be more cautious right and now and won't move him up my rankings until he fully practices in training camp. He has the size and athleticism to be a great fantasy tight end, however, and improved in every major receiving category in each year that he played as a Buffalo Bill. It's a shame that he misses time getting used to Doug Marone's new offense. The Bills also drafted tight end Chris Gragg in the 2013 NFL Draft, but I wouldn't expect big things from him during his rookie season even though he is a very athletic tight end with above-average receiving skills.

The bottom line is that the Buffalo Bills have a lot of talent on their roster but only two players are truly fantasy relevant right now. Outside of C.J. Spiller and Steve Johnson, I'd put E.J. Manuel, Fred Jackson, Robert Woods, Da'Rick Rogers, and Scott Chandler on my scout list. Jackson could be a very capable fantasy starter if Spiller gets hurt and Rogers and Chandler have the size and athleticism to become dominant players at their respective positions. Woods is more well-rounded but may need a year or two to produce statistically for his fantasy owners although he's still worth a high second-round pick in dynasty drafts on my board. Manuel has all the tools to become a very successful NFL quarterback and could be a very solid fantasy starter if he can put it all together. Ultimately, I think the Bills made some nice moves this offseason and could develop into a very capable NFL offense but I don't see it happening this year.