The Bills are the next team up in our season outlook series. Last year was tough, as they went through three different starting quarterbacks, injuries at every skill position, and had issues along their offensive line. All of that added up to Buffalo being a team that you could squeeze very little fantasy equity from.
Bills 2014 Schedule
|3||San Diego Chargers|
|6||New England Patriots|
|8||@||New York Jets|
|10||Kansas City Chiefs|
|12||New York Jets|
|15||Green Bay Packers|
|17||@||New England Patriots|
Again, always take strength of schedule outlooks with a grain of salt. The Bills schedule isn’t too damning considering they’ll draw the NFC North and AFC West this season, as well the last place finishers in the South and North on the AFC side. I could see them winning any of their games in their opening month of the season, so there’s an opportunity to catch them moving downhill at some point.
Style Points, Buffalo We Have a Red Zone Problem
With their up-tempo, run heavy approach, the Bills are one the more intriguing fantasy teams this season. Buffalo was third in NFL in offensive snaps a season ago, and led the league in rushing attempts at 34.1 per contest. Unfortunately, most of that was empty volume as they ranked 29th in yards per play and 14th in yards per rushing attempt. All of that hallowing production resulted in the Bills finishing 24th in the league in points per drive.
That empty volume was never more apparent than when the Bills were in the opponents red zone.
|Red Zone||#||NFL Rank|
Despite reaching the red zone on par with the rest of the league, the Bills did nothing once they reached that area of the field. Judging by their play selection, it’s completely fair to say that the Bills played for three points regularly, upping their rushing splits by nearly 15 percent over their season average. The Bills backfield was the strength of their team, but you need to be less predictable to succeed when the field shrinks. The silver lining going forward is that the opportunity to score points existed even in a season that had little continuity.
Stay the Course, or Eject on E.J.?
Taking a quick peek at Doug Marrone’s offensive history, you can see what he and Nathaniel Hackett really want to accomplish on offense.
[table id=72 /]
With E.J. Manuel instead of Drew Brees, and their glutton of running backs, the Bills want to be a balanced attack where the passing game stems from the running game and tempo. All of those reasons are why myself and many, including fellow scribe C.D. Carter believed Manuel was a target last season as a late round quarterback.
We know the Bills are invested into him after using the 16th pick a season ago to acquire him, but what can we anticipate from him as a sophomore?
Only Joe Flacco was worse than Manuel per aimed throw in 2013, posting a 7.38 adjusted yards per attempt. He’s not entirely to blame, however, because his teammate, Thad Lewis is right above him as having the third lowest mark. The Bills’ group of inexperienced skill players did no favors for either inexperienced signal caller as T.J. Graham was the only wide receiver to play in all 16 games.
Buffalo added Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams to their receiving unit this offseason while trading away Stevie Johnson. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin each now have a full year in the offense. It’s a diversified group that is very compelling in aiding a Manuel rebound as a sophomore in conjunction with their tempo and his rushing ability.
He didn’t run around a lot in 2013, but Manuel was still one of the quarterbacks that had over 20 percent of his fantasy output come from his legs. In terms of fantasy production, Manuel still provided owners with the same percentage of good fantasy weeks as Matt Ryan did. Considering the amount of playing time he missed and the type of injuries he suffered in preseason and midseason, you could see him use his feet more this upcoming season. He’s not going to be a weekly starter for you, really no quarterback except three or four should be, but Manuel is on the radar as a streaming special for those waiting to build a late round stable or play the waiver wire for their quarterback.
New Weapons in The Passing Game
Taking the Dalorean back to red zone production, Manuel completed only 48 percent (12 for 25) of his passes there as a rookie. Immediately the acquisition of Mike Williams and reunion with Marrone helps him that regard. Williams has converted 18 of 63 (29 percent) of his red zone looks for scores over his four year career.
When Williams inked his five year, $39.6M extension with Tampa Bay a season ago, $8.3M of his $9.4M guaranteed money was front loaded into that first season and there was no signing bonus. His salary in year two (this year) drops all the way down to $1.8M before hiking back up in 2015. The catch is that after this season his 2015 base salary is guaranteed and he gets a roster bonus on the third day of the new offseason. That means the Bills are in a no lose situation. If Williams doesn’t perform, or has a déjà vu run in with Marrone’s authority, Buffalo can cut him on the first or second official day of the 2015 season with no penalty. There’s incentive for Williams to play well, because that 2015 salary goes up $6.8M.
The real issue for Williams in fantasy is that he’s the Bills’ third best receiver outside of the red zone, which could make him the 2014 fantasy version of Jerricho Cotchery. The Bills have more investment into seeing last year’s second round pick, Robert Woods improve on his solid rookie campaign. Woods is far better run blocker than Williams, which is kind of important to their offense. I see Woods as a better version of Brian Hartline for fantasy, a player that is underappreciated, but not really a big time difference maker on your roster. I think he’ll have a weekly safe floor, but a low ceiling that comes along with it. The Bills have whispered that they want to move Woods into the slot this season, but that would be contradictory to what we’ve seen in the past from how Marrone has used his lead receiver.
[table id=73 /]
*Slot TGT Data Provided By Pro Football Focus
All three of those top seasons also led the team in slot targets as well. We didn’t have the luxury of having the football wizards of Pro Football Focus around in 2006, but we’ve got a clear trend going. The best part is there’s not even a specific type, because all three were different players. 2006 and 2007 were Marques Colston, but 2008 it was Lance Moore who moved into the lead receiver spot for Colston who missed five games that season. The overall touchdown inflation (even Moore had 10 in ’08) is credited to Brees for sure, but the lead receiver is also moving inside the most.
I may not agree with what the Bills exchanged to acquire Sammy Watkins, but you can count me in on the group of guys that doesn’t think Buffalo was a bad destination for him. We know he’s suited to get the football in a plethora of ways near the line of scrimmage, which should give him enough support at a solid catch rate, even if Manuel doesn’t progress. He’s already the best receiver on his team, and the fact that he wears 211 pounds is a check mark in his favor as well.
The Bills attempted six wide receiver screens all season. E.J. Manuel picked up 3 yards on WR Screens. Think that might change with Sammy?
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) June 2, 2014
He doesn’t come with high end red zone production coming out of college (converting just five of 19 career RZ targets), so you’re going to have to live with some scoring valleys. The real problem with Watkins in fantasy is that he’s severely over drafted already in the late sixth round, like most rookie receivers are. At that price tag, for a rookie receiver, you’re really cutting your legs off at the knees. I can see him delivering WR3 numbers in the end, but not for any of my teams if his cost remains the same throughout the summer.
Marquise Goodwin has far more real football tactical value than fantasy value, so be cautious. He may make three or four receptions that go for sixty-yard scores and make SportsCenter, but don’t be fooled into thinking he can be a weekly contributor in your lineup playing only 25-30 snaps per game.
Neither tight end is beyond streaming consideration. Scott Chandler led the team in receptions last year and has some solid touchdown production throughout his career. Ten percent of his career receptions have been touchdowns, so there’s an opening for him if Williams doesn’t work out. Overall, he’s going to post respectable tight end numbers but get lost in the ambiguity of the passing game too often to be a weekly staple.
Chris Gragg is a favorite from the metric side, but banking on any tight end taken in the late rounds is often a fool’s errand. He’s best left on waivers even if he wins the number two tight end role over Tony Moeaki.
Enough Already. Aren’t the Bills Going to run A lot Anyways?
Fred Jackson is the ultimate fantasy football zombie and hopefully you followed us this time last year when we suggested that he was two scoops of fantasy value. Jackson will be 33 and has an expiring contract, so this really sets up as his last ride. Nearly universal top five selection a year ago, C.J. Spiller battled a high ankle sprain all season after week three, but this was always going to be more of a timeshare than that ankle may have you believe.
Career NFL Rushing Splits under Marrone By Game Situation
[table id=74 /]
That’s right. Outside of Deuce McAllister in 2006, no back has sniffed 250 carries, and even Reggie Bush had 155 attempts himself that season. The Bills are going to be a multiheaded backfield again in 2014 as well.
That doesn’t mean that Spiller still isn’t valuable, he is. He’s a rare talent in the game, but the kind of talent that you always have to pay a premium on because we’ve already tasted his ceiling in 2012. Even after last season and now turning 27, he costs a late second or early third round selection.
There are two reasons why it’s extremely hard to pay that current price. The first is the way that he scores touchdowns is unreliable. Spiller has only seven career carries inside the five yard line. Over the same span, Jackson has 37. In 2013, the total was 18 to 1 in favor of Jackson. Even when Spiller scored eight total times in 2012, only one was inside of ten yards. That kind of touchdown production is awfully hard to sustain for a receiver, let alone a running back.
The second problem is he lost a substantial amount of playing time on passing downs last season. In 2012, he played 281 passing snaps, which was 48 percent of the Bills total pass snaps. In 2013, he only played 171 passing snaps, which was only 27 percent of their total. The ankle could have played a part, and he was good when he caught the ball out of the backfield still, but we’ve seen this happen before, as recently as Ryan Mathews in San Diego, who was a good pass catcher to start his career. While it may be subjective, Jackson graded out as the sixth best blocking back per Pro Football Focus, while Spiller was 51st. Jackson can also catch the football himself, so there’s not a lot of incentive for Buffalo to mess with something that is already working.
Bryce Brown is ultimately just insurance for the backfield, but the Bills seem intent on getting involved and they traded a fourth round selection to acquire him. Still only 23 years old, his impatient running style of strictly wanting to get to the edge is always going to prevent him from being a high class back, but he has much more value to fantasy circles if Spiller or Jackson goes down than Tashard Choice had a year ago. In the end, I’m confident that Spiller regains the tightest grip on rushing duties, but if I were to nibble on this backfield, it would be on Jackson since his ADP seems to never move as owners wait for the other shoe to finally drop and I believe he will work the most passing downs. Brown is more of a deep roster stash who needs a few dominoes to fall to be a real 2014 fantasy contributor.
2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections
|Player||Att||Comp||%||Yards||TD||INT||FF PTs||Total Pts|
Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Williams – if he wins the second receiver spot and has his head on right, he can deliver WR25-30 numbers. He’s done so before in worse offenses, just needs the right portion of the pie.
Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Jackson –Father time is ultimately undefeated, but his ADP is always so ripe.
Best Waiver Wire Option: Chandler – if Williams bottoms out, Chandler becomes the main option for red zone scoring chances.