This might be the year for the Buffalo Bills.
The beleaguered franchise last went to the playoffs in 1999 and has had one winning season since then. Head coach Chan Gailey has not only assembled an offense that's been familiar with his scheme for two seasons, but he's also built a defense that took its pass rush from tepid to tremendous this offseason.
The Bills broke the bank for pass rusher Mario Williams and had a little bit left over for Mark Anderson -- the two should immediately pay dividends for a defense that put up 29 sacks last year. If that duo is bringing the heat it will make the Buffalo secondary that much more dangerous; last year they tallied 20 interceptions and this year they've added first-round pick Stephon Gilmore as a starter.
Offensively, the Bills aren't delivering any new starters, at least not for Fantasy purposes. Fred Jackson is recovered from a broken leg and will find himself battling C.J. Spiller for reps in camp (both should see plenty of the field this season). Ryan Fitzpatrick has worked this offseason on his accuracy after posting a career-best 62 percent completion rate last year. Cutting down on his turnovers will be important, but nothing would help him more than developing a better rapport with his receivers. Steve Johnson re-signed and will play the part of a No. 1 receiver but has topped off at just over 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons. Nobody else has reeled in even more than 675 receiving yards. David Nelson, Scott Chandler (who also re-signed), Donald Jones and rookie T.J. Graham have to step up.
Where Buffalo's offense gets help is on its offensive line. Rookie Cordy Glenn and returning fourth-year lineman Eric Wood should boost what has long been an inefficient unit. The better they can protect Fitzpatrick -- he was sacked 46 times over the last two seasons (29 games) -- the better Gailey's offense will be. That happens to be an offense undergoing a number of tweaks, according to the players -- the personnel isn't changing but what they do will change. If the Bills defense can cut into the 27.1 points per game they were giving up last year while maintaining the 23.2 points per game they racked up on offense, they'll have a chance to earn a wild card spot, if not challenge the mighty Patriots for the AFC East title.
|Player||Draft Day value||Estimated round|
|ND - not expected to get drafted|
Bust ... C.J. Spiller, running back
Before Fred Jackson got hurt last year, Spiller averaged averaged 2.1 carries and 1.5 catches per game. After Jackson's injury, Spiller averaged 14.3 carries and 4.0 catches per game. Naturally, Spiller's bump in playing time was because Jackson was lost for the season, and he certainly had good numbers in most of those games. But it's not like Jackson's been a disappointment in Buffalo -- he's averaged at least 80 total yards per start for three straight years including a touch over 137 total yards per start last season. Unless it's proven that Jackson is no longer the consistent running back he's been for the Bills, Spiller's touches will likely be limited to 8-12 per game. He'll still hit some home runs but won't deliver the punch like he did late last year. Don't be the guy to reach for Spiller in your draft.
Sleeper ... David Nelson, wide receiver
If you're into under-the-radar wide receivers entering their third year with stats trending upward -- and who isn't? -- then Nelson is a guy you need to take a look at, particularly if receptions count in your league. Nelson caught 61 of the 98 passes thrown his way last year, dealing with double teams for a good portion of the season. That's an area he's spent this offseason working on with NFL legend Tim Brown, and it's his intention to be indispensable to the Bills in camp this year. Nelson's yards per catch wasn't impressive last year and he had just two games with 10 or more Fantasy points in standard formats, but if this receiver improves like he hopes to then he should catch more passes and score more than the five times he did in 2011. In deeper drafts, he's fine as a reserve Fantasy option; in smaller standard formats you can wait for him to break out before picking him up off waivers. Let's call him a mid-season sleeper, one that isn't necessarily worth a pick but one to immediately toss on your scout team.
Late-round flier ... Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback
Every league is different: Some have owners who insist on taking two quarterbacks while others are filled with owners that are happy with just one. And some leagues have more than 10 or 12 teams. In those 14-plus team leagues, Fitzpatrick should fly as a late-round pick. Not only has he worked to improve his accuracy this offseason but he's coming back to an offense he's excelled in at times in each of the last two years. Plus, he's healthy after playing through a rib injury last season. We're not saying Fitzpatrick will finish as a Top 10 quarterback or anything like that, but if you miss out on backup quarterback gems like Robert Griffin III and Jay Cutler, don't feel defeated into taking Fitzpatrick. He's a good quarterback with the confidence of his coach -- if he didn't have it, he wouldn't have thrown it 569 times last year, sixth-most in 2011.
The chatter that the Bills are a playoff darkhorse team has been picking up steam this summer, but if they're going to make a run it'll happen in the back half of their schedule. Their season is bookended by matchups against the Jets (both of which could be wins for them), they're done with the Patriots after Week 10 and have four home games (including their matchup vs. the Seahawks in Toronto) in their final five games. It's the first time in several years that the Bills got a good schedule.
Training camp topics
|Fred Jackson||170 carries, 39 catches|
|C.J. Spiller||107 carries, 39 catches|
|Steve Johnson||76 catches|
|David Nelson||61 catches|
|Brad Smith||23 catches, 20 carries|
It's a low-pressure camp in Buffalo -- there isn't a lot of competition for starting spots. Fitzpatrick is entrenched as the starter, as is Steve Johnson. Scott Chandler probably won't have to fend off anyone to be the top tight end. Spiller could push Jackson, especially if Jackson shows some rust (if he does it will obviously impact his draft value), but both guys will play.
Perhaps the biggest battle is at the No. 2 receiver spot as Nelson, Donald Jones, Derek Hagan and a cast of about a half-dozen others compete for roster spots and starts. Nelson is the leader in the clubhouse but Jones, who hurt his ankle last season, could still make a play for his spot if not the No. 3 receiver gig. Rookie T.J. Graham has the speed Gailey loves but hasn't adjusted to the Bills offense just yet -- he could end up doing more on kick and punt returns.
There's been a little concern about Johnson, who had groin surgery after signing a nice contract extension this offseason. He worked sparingly in team drills this offseason and said in late June that he felt he was at 90 percent. If you're not worried about the injury, you might be worried about him slowing down now that he has some guaranteed money in his pocket. It's possible he could see a statistical decline, especially if he has to keep off of his legs for part of camp, but Johnson has been outspoken about getting the Bills to the playoffs. A couple of good preseason games should rest any concerns.
The overhaul on defense will garner the most attention this summer. New defensive end Mario Williams anchors a unit that is expected to disrupt every single quarterback they face. What's more, the Bills are moving to the 4-3 scheme after two years in the 3-4 -- teams have moved to the 3-4 formation seamlessly in a year but going the other way has been tricky. New defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt has a ton of experience working with the 4-3 and will lean on his defensive line. That line not only includes Williams and fellow new pass rusher Mark Anderson but gets back stout defensive tackle Kyle Williams along with second-year big boy Marcell Dareus and effective-when-healthy rusher Shawne Merriman. The Bills might have one of the best D-lines in the league. With a secondary that's been underrated for a couple of years, that could be a dangerous combination.
Fred Jackson (leg; probable for the start of training camp) ... Steve Johnson (groin; probable for the start of training camp) ... Mario Williams (pectoral; probable for the start of training camp) ... Terrence McGee (knee; probable for the start of training camp) ... Shawne Merriman (Achilles; probable for the start of training camp) ... Rian Lindell (shoulder; probable for the start of training camp).