This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The Bills haven’t won a playoff game since January 1996 and haven’t been to the playoffs at all since January 2000, when Wade Phillips’ squad got Y2K-ed by Jeff Fisher’s Music City Miracle. In the 17 years since the NFL’s most incompetent coach outsmarted the second-most incompetent coach, the Bills have had seven different official head coaches, two interim HCs, and no seasons with double-digit victories. But 2017 is the year they’re going to turn everything around. What could go wrong with a new HC, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and general manager running everything? At least they’ve let quarterback Tyrod Taylor know he’s their guy, right?
Rookie HC Sean McDermott entered the NFL in 1999 as a 25-year-old scouting coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, and from there he slowly worked his way up the organizational ladder. In 2001 he became an inspiration to proto-Dwight Schrutes everywhere when he was named
Assistant Head Coach Assistant to the Head Coach, and from there he served as a defensive quality control coach, assistant defensive backs coach, secondary coach, linebackers coach, and then secondary coach again before being named Interim DC and then full-time DC in 2009 due to the deteriorating health of longtime DC Jim Johnson.
Unable to replicate the success of Johnson — McDermott’s defenses were 19th and 21st in scoring despite being 12th in yards allowed and top-five in takeaways — McDermott was fired by the Eagles after two seasons and hired by the Panthers to coordinate their defense. His first season (2011) with the team was rough — the Panthers were 27th and 28th in points and yards allowed — but for the last half-decade his defense has done well, finishing as a top-10 unit in yards and takeaways in four of five seasons.
While McDermott has never had any influence over offensive play-calling before, his defensive units have traditionally been (and done their best when) paired with ball-control offenses. In Carolina, not once was his defense partnered with an offense that was outside the top 12 in rushing yardage or inside the top 12 in passing yardage. In the last six years, the Panthers offense has on average ranked eighth in rushing attempts and 24th in passing attempts. It’s very possible McDermott desires the Bills to be a run-heavy team — as they have been for the last two years, finishing second in attempts and first in yards and touchdowns rushing as well as rushing average each season.
Enter new OC Rick Dennison. In one sentence, I can tell you (almost) everything you need to know about this guy as an OC:
Born in Montana, Dennison was a college tight end who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering at Colorado State — which makes him an instant CSURAM88 favorite — before he entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent who transitioned to linebacker with Denver, where he spent his entire nine-year career, after which he eventually became an offensive assistant with the Broncos in 1995, Mike Shanahan’s first year with the team.
A couple of thoughts:
- That in fact was just one sentence.
- That feels like the type of guy who likes to run the ball.
A career-long follower of Shanahan and Gary Kubiak, Dennison was the special teams coach, offensive line coach, and then OC for the Shanahan Broncos from 1997 to 2008. After a year as the line coach for the 2009 Broncos under Josh McDaniels, Dennison joined former teammate and coaching colleague Kubiak in Houston, where he was the OC from 2010 to 2013. After Kubiak was fired, Dennison followed him first to Baltimore in 2014 as the quarterbacks coach and then to Denver as the OC in 2015, ultimately being replaced after Kubiak’s retirement.
For only the second time in his 22-year NFL coaching career, Dennison won’t be working for Shanahan or Kubiak.
In perusing Dennison’s coaching history, I’ve been encouraged by this fact: He intelligently plays to the strengths of his offenses. In 2006 the Broncos had a quarterback duo of the declining Jake Plummer and rookie Jay Cutler, a competent backfield tandem with the Bells Tatum and Mike, and a good run-blocking offensive line. That season they were fifth in the league in run/pass ratio. That made sense.
Just two years later, they had a strong passing game fueled by Cutler, wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, and tight end Tony Scheffler, and their backfield was hit with a never-ending string of injuries as Tatum, Michael Pittman, Selvin Young, Ryan Torain, P.J. Pope, Andre Hall, and even rookie fullback Peyton Hillis all saw action as the team’s lead back. With no stable running game and a defense that was 30th in points allowed, the offense was aggressive and fast, finishing third in pass/run ratio, passing attempts, passing yardage, neutral pace, and plays per drive, second in yards and yards per play, and first in yards per drive. That also made sense.
In Houston, it made sense for Dennison to skew heavily to the running game and run a slower-paced offense: He had workhorse back Arian Foster and was trying to hide quarterback Matt Schaub, and the Texans had a good defense. And with Denver over the last two years it made sense for the offense to be balanced and to operate at a top-six neutral pace: The Broncos were equally bad at passing and running and needed as many opportunities as possible to score points because they were inefficient.
In 2017, Dennison’s going to run a ball-control offense because that’s what McDermott is used to and what this offense is built to do. His West Coast system and zone-blocking running scheme will work perfectly in Buffalo. The Bills have a top-three running quarterback. They have a workhorse who’s a top-six back as both a runner and receiver (Pro Football Focus). They have an offensive line that last year was first and second in inside and outsize zone runs with 3.39 and 2.10 yards before contact.
If former HC Rex Ryan and OC Greg Roman did anything right over the last two years, it was building an offense for Dennison to run after they got fired.
For the Bills offense, there are two main questions:
- Will their game script be positive enough to allow them to run as much as they wish to run?
- Will their pace be fast enough to allow them to run as many plays as fantasy players want them to run?
Regarding game script: In a league that continues to emphasize the passing game more each year, the Bills won’t need to try too hard to be one of the run-heaviest teams in the league. The Bills have been a top-four team the past two years in run/pass ratio. With a little luck in game script, they could three-peat.
Regarding pace: In his nine years as a coordinator, never has Dennison coordinated an offense in the bottom third of the league in pace. Only twice has an offense of his been in the bottom half. In the last two years, his offense has been sixth and then fifth. It seems likely that the Bills won’t play slowly this year — and it’s possible they could operate at a top-12 pace.
Despite the turnover in the front office and coaching staff, the offensive unit is remarkably intact:
- QB: Tyrod Taylor
- RB: LeSean McCoy/Mike Gillislee –> McCoy/Jonathan Williams
- FB: Jerome Felton –> Patrick DiMarco/Mike Tolbert
- WR: Sammy Watkins –> Jordan Matthews
- WR: Robert Woods –> Anquan Boldin –> Zay Jones
- WR: Marquise Goodwin –> Andre Holmes
- TE: Charles Clay
- LT: Cordy Glenn
- LG: Richie Incognito
- C: Eric Wood
- RG: John Miller
- RT: Jordan Mills
I don’t highlight fullbacks, but the arrival of DiMarco (and maybe Tolbert) is significant. Felton earned a Pro-Bowl invitation in 2012 as the lead blocker for Adrian Peterson in his 2,000-yard season — and he’s been competent as a blocker for McCoy over the last two years — but DiMarco is younger and has been a top-three fullback in run blocking the past two seasons (PFF). Also, Tolbert is a two-time All-Pro with good receiving ability, pass-blocking skills, and short-yardage production. From 2010 to 2013 — before he had to deal with a resurrected Jonathan Stewart in Carolina — Tolbert averaged 717.5 yards and 8.8 touchdowns from scrimmage as well as 33.3 receptions per year. If the Bills wanted to use Tolbert as a part-time receiver out of the backfield and vulture at the goal line, they probably could.
UPDATE (August 11): The Bills have traded Watkins and a 2018 sixth-round draft pick to the Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-rounder. The Bills have also traded cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles for Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick. Matthews will likely operate as the team’s No. 1 receiver in place of Watkins.
UPDATE (August 20): Boldin has informed the team that he is retiring. In his absence, Jones might play more in the slot and Holmes could step in as the third receiver in three-wide sets.
Now with the Rams and 49ers, Woods and Goodwin will hardly be missed. Last year they were outside of the top 60 at their position with just 1.56 and 1.30 fantasy points per target (PlayerProfiler). Glorified downfield blockers with the Bills, Woods and Goodwin combined for only 144 targets in 2016 — even with Watkins out for half the season.
Most importantly, the Bills will start the season with their full offensive line. Wood is expected to be ready for training camp after missing seven games last year (leg). Also, the Bills retained free agents Incognito and Mills, re-signing them in early March. While Mills was poor last year with a 56.5 PFF grade, his presence on the line ensures continuity — and, as for Incognito, it’s long been known that he’s an offensive line bully.
Defensively, the Bills are transitioning from Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 scheme to McDermott’s and/or DC Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 scheme:
- DE/DT: Adolphus Washington –> DE Shaq Lawson
- DT: Marcell Dareus
- DT: Kyle Williams
- OLB: Jerry Hughes –> DE Hughes
- MLB: Zach Brown –> OLB Gerald Hodges
- MLB: Preston Brown –> Brown/Reggie Ragland
- OLB: Lorenzo Alexander
- CB: Stephon Gilmore –> Tre’Davious White
- CB: Ronald Darby –> E.J. Gaines
- SCB: Nickell Robey-Coleman –> Kevon Seymour/Shareece Wright
- SS: Aaron Williams –> Jordan Poyer
- FS: Corey Graham –> Micah Hyde
With a new front-seven scheme and an entirely new secondary, the Bills could massively struggle on defense. When the season starts, be sure to keep an eye on our NFL Matchups Dashboard as well as our NFL News feed to see how these units take shape.
If you’re expecting some Corey Brown and Rod Streater #hottaeks, you’re reading the wrong article.
Tyrod Taylor, QB
It’s worth keeping in mind that although he’s entering his seventh season Taylor has been a starter for only two years. Given the circumstances, Tygod has been divine. While there’s the perception that Taylor is a good player only for fantasy — he’s been a low-end QB1 in both seasons — the actuality is that he might be a good real player. Last year he was ninth with a 68.2 Total QBR. In 2015, he was seventh with a 70.3. Each year he’s started the Bills have been a top-12 finisher in points scored even though Taylor has been without his No. 1 receiver for most or all of 13 games. Taylor regressed last year as a passer . . .
- Completion rate: 63.7 percent (2015) –>61.7 (2016)
- Touchdown rate: 5.3 percent –> 3.9
- Adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A): 8.3 –> 7.1
- Sacks: 36 –> 42
. . . but that performance is probably what we should expect given that Watkins was out half the season.
Regardless of whether Tyrod is a good NFL quarterback, this fact remains: He’s fantasy sex. A Konami Code specialist, Tyrod is first among quarterbacks with 1,148 yards rushing over the last two years and second with 199 carries and 10 touchdowns. Because of the high production floor his rushing ability provides, Tyrod warrants fantasy consideration on a weekly basis, last year finishing eighth and 12th at the position with 0.48 points per dropback and a +5.5 Production Premium (PlayerProfiler’s situation-adjusted efficiency metric). And, again, Tyrod is probably more than just a good runner. In 2016 he was third with 4.5 air yards per attempt. He has potential as a passer.
Over the last two years Tyrod has been an almost automatic lock in cash games for people not wanting to pay up at quarterback, averaging 19.33 DraftKings points per game (PPG) with a +4.13 Plus/Minus and 75.9 percent Consistency Rating (per our Trends tool). He’s a value option at his DRAFT best ball average draft position (ADP) of 123.7 and a pivot play on the quarterbacks being selected two to three rounds ahead of him. Expect to see Tyrod mentioned a lot in this year’s Quarterback Breakdown. Until he gets benched.
LeSean McCoy, RB
Over the last four years Shady has averaged 1,272 yards per season. If he hits that mark this year he’ll be a top-30 all-time rusher with 10,226 yards. If he hits it two years in a row he’ll be a top-20 rusher with 11,498 yards and a case for Canton. Given where McCoy is in his career, 2017 isn’t about winning — especially since the Bills aren’t likely to win a lot of games anyway. For McCoy, this year is about staying healthy and getting carries.
Although McCoy isn’t an injury-prone back, he’s missed games in a season more often than not throughout his eight-year career. At the same time, McCoy has never played fewer than 12 games in a campaign, and he’s very much still the player on a per-game basis he was in Philadelphia when he was younger:
- Carries per game (CPG): 16.2 (2009-14) –> 16.2 (2015-16)
- Targets per game (TPG): 4.3 –> 3.9
- Receptions per game (RPG): 3.3 –> 3.0
- Yards per game (YPG), scrimmage : 100.8 –> 104.0
- Touchdowns per game (TDPG), scrimmage: 0.6 –> 0.7
- Approximate Value per game (AVPG): 0.69 –>0.77
- Games per season: 15 –> 13.5
If he stays healthy, McCoy should get all the rushing and receiving volume he can handle from Dennison, who coached the lines in Denver that blocked for Terrell Davis, Clinton Portis, Mike Anderson, and Reuben Droughns. As the Texans OC, Dennison turned Foster into a three-down star, giving him an average of 25 opportunities per game over a four-year stretch (2010-13):
- CPG: 20.3
- TPG: 4.7
- RPG: 3.4
- Scrimmage YPG: 121.3
- Scrimmage TDPG: 0.9
- AVPG: 0.87
- Games per season: 13.3
He probably won’t approach Foster’s per-game numbers — again, it’s possible that Tolbert (or someone else) could steal goal-line opportunities — but McCoy at least has an OC who knows how to ride a workhorse.
Sixth last year with 416 yards after contact, 4.7 yards per carry vs. stacked fronts, and 0.46 fantasy PPG, McCoy is clearly one of the top backs in the league. Last year he finished first with his 20 breakaway runs of at least 15 yards. Of my Top 100 NFL players he was No. 7 at the beginning of July, but DRAFT players should consider moving McCoy ahead of Ezekiel Elliott, who reportedly is likely to miss some games this season due to suspension. McCoy offers value at his 7.1 ADP.
As a daily fantasy option this year, McCoy will likely be popular for people who don’t want to pay all the way up for Le’Veon, DJ, or Zeke. This year FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across GPPs of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. It’s notable that over the last two years McCoy has been better (at lower ownership) as an underdog than as a favorite:
- Favorite (13 games): 18.48 DraftKings PPG, +2.29 Plus/Minus, 61.5 percent Consistency Rating, 13.2 percent ownership rate
- Dog (14): 19.26, +4.80, 78.6 percent, 11.6 percent
It’s possible the sharp players could be on McCoy throughout the season, especially when he’s an underdog. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views the Bills each week. Some sharp players also might stack Taylor and McCoy in such games, given the bump in receiving production McCoy is expected to get in Dennison’s offense. If you want to construct Bills stacks, do it with our Lineup Builder.
As of writing, Shady is +2,000 in the prop markets to lead the league in rushing yards. Last year he was fifth in the NFL with 84.5 rushing YPG, behind Zeke (108.7), Le’Veon (105.7), Jordan Howard (87.5), and Jay Ajayi (84.8). It’s entirely possible that this year Zeke and Le’Veon could miss time to suspension and/or injury and JoHo and JayJay could be exposed as one-year wonders. Expected to get more carries than he recently has had, Shady has an underappreciated chance to lead the league in rushing yards.
On top of that, McCoy is +10,000 to win the NFL MVP. I wouldn’t bet on him — running backs rarely win the award nowadays — but if a back is to win the award I don’t think it will be Le’Veon (+1,600), Zeke (+2,000), David Johnson (+3,300), Adrian Peterson (+5,000), Marshawn Lynch (+10,000), or DeMarco Murray (+10,000), as all of them have quarterbacks likely to beat them in voting. If the Steelers, Cowboys, Cardinals, Saints, Raiders, or Titans do well this year, the quarterback and not the runner will probably get the bulk of the credit for the team’s success. Tyrod, however, is unlikely to beat out McCoy, who is more central to the offense. If the Bills do well enough to put a player in contention for the award, McCoy will be the Bill with the highest odds to win.
Jonathan Williams, RB
In his 20 games with the Bills in 2015-16, the departed Gillislee turned 148 carries and 18 targets into 923 yards, 15 receptions, and 12 touchdowns as the backup to McCoy. One of the most efficient runners in the league, he was ninth with 0.44 fantasy points per snap, 1.12 points per opportunity, and a +29.2 Production Premium. While last year McCoy had nine rushing attempts inside the five-yard line (converting four for touchdowns), Gillislee substantially cut into McCoy’s workload, stealing six such carries — and converting all of them into scores.
A second-year fifth-round big-bodied (5’11” and 220 lbs.) back with above-average size-adjusted athleticism (4.59-second 40, 6.97-second three-cone), Williams is expected to be this year’s backup to McCoy. He’s talented and fell to the fifth round of the 2016 draft primarily because he missed his entire senior season at Arkansas with a foot injury that required surgery. As a junior he turned 222 touches into 1,255 yards and 14 touchdowns in 13 games. Given his size and touchdown-scoring ability, Williams could inherit Gillislee’s goal-line role, which would instantly make him a low-impact fantasy-relevant player with immense upside in the event of an injury to Shady.
Sammy Watkins, WR (UPDATE)
August 11: The Bills have traded Watkins and a 2018 sixth-round draft pick to the Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-rounder.
Jordan Matthews, WR (UPDATE)
August 11: The Bills have traded cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles for Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick. Matthews will likely operate as the team’s No. 1 receiver in place of Watkins. A big-bodied (6’3″ and 212 lbs.) route-running technician with good speed (4.46-second 40) and agility (6.95-second 40), Matthews has played primarily in the slot for the Eagles throughout his NFL career, but he has the potential to be a complete receiver, as he was at Vanderbilt, where he accumulated a Southeastern Conference record 262 career receptions and 3,759 receiving yards. While Matthews has disappointed for the last two seasons in not emerging as a dominant player, relatively few receivers to enter the league as second-round picks since 1978 (when the 16-game season started) have done better than his 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns through their first three NFL campaigns:
- Isaac Bruce: 3,391/23
- Alshon Jeffery: 2,921/20
- Greg Jennings: 2,844/24
- Allen Robinson: 2,831/22
- Torrey Smith: 2,824/19
Matthews might not be a great player, but his NFL production so far has been good — and with Dennison he might become great. While Dennison is likely to coordinate a run-heavy offense, he does have a history of feeding his No. 1 receivers. In his nine seasons as a coordinator, Dennison distributed 147.8 targets per season to Javon Walker, Brandon Marshall, Andre Johnson, and Demaryius Thomas for 90 receptions, 1,197.1 yards, and 5.7 touchdowns in 14.6 games. While Matthew is a little smaller than those receivers, he’s still big and his 91st percentile SPARQ-x athleticism (PlayerProfiler) suggests he can be Dennison’s next size/speed playmaker. His 127.9 DRAFT ADP is sure to jump within the coming days. He now warrants a pick in the single-digit rounds.
Even though Matthews has a chipped sternum he’s returned to practice and is participating in individual drills. It’s likely that he won’t much if any of the regular season. Also, with Boldin now gone, Matthews will see more action in the slot than he otherwise would’ve.
Zay Jones, WR
Selected by the Bills with the No. 37 pick, the rookie Jones is basically a smaller Jordan Matthews: He has NFL pedigree (his father was an NFL linebacker), good size (6’2″ and 201 lbs.), near-elite athleticism (4.45-second 40, 6.79-second three-cone), a record number of collegiate receptions (158 as a senior, 399 for his career) — and yet no season with more than eight touchdowns. That’s not normal. Some people will blame the quarterbacks or play-calling at East Carolina for Zay’s scoring deficiency — and it’s true that he didn’t have great circumstances in college — but the quarterbacks and play-calling were still good enough last year to get him 1,746 yards receiving, the second-highest total in the nation. That Zay couldn’t convert those yards into touchdowns more efficiently is incredible.
It’s probable that Jones is a good football player. It’s hard to see how he isn’t with his athletic profile and history of production. At the same time, what do you call someone who last year led the nation with 208 targets, 17.3 TPG, and 27 red zone receptions (and was second with 45 red zone targets and 3.8 red zone targets per game) but had only eight touchdowns (not one of which was against a Power Five opponent)? “Someone who might not be good at football.” That’s what you call him.
Unless Jones’ collegiate touchdown shortage was an outlier-ish anomaly — and no one is yet to explain adequately his touchdown/red zone target divergence — he probably won’t be a league-winning producer as the presumptive No. 2 wide receiver for the Bills in his rookie campaign. The jump from the American Athletic Conference to the NFL is significant.
Anquan Boldin, WR (UPDATE)
August 7: A borderline Hall-of-Famer, Boldin has extended the Terrell Owens phase of his career by signing a one-year, $2.75 million contract with the Bills.
August 20: After 13 days in Buffalo, Boldin has retired.
Andre Holmes, WR
I’m a perpetual Holmes truther: 2010 was almost 25 years ago (or so), but as a senior (at Hillsdale) Holmes had 104 receptions for 1,368 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games. Despite showing good size (6’4″ and 210 lbs.), speed (4.53-second 40), and agility (6.69-second three-cone) at the combine, Holmes went undrafted in 2011 but has managed to stay in the NFL all the way into his age-29 season. Holmes is a survivor — and he’s taken some snaps with the first-team offense in the offseason.
If Matthews suffers a serious injury in 2017, Holmes will have boom-or-bust appeal in guaranteed prize pools as the potential WR1, especially now that he should see more snaps with Boldin gone. I can’t be the only person who remembers the four-game stretch in which he averaged 4.3 receptions per game for 74.5 yards and a touchdown with the scattershot rookie Derek Carr and the 2014 pre-Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree Raiders, right? Right? Buffalo seems like the type of place where someone like Holmes would have his one season of low-end part-time fantasy pseudo-relevance.
Charles Clay, TE
The oldest 28-year-old tight end in the league, Clay last year led the Bills with 87 targets, 57 receptions, and four touchdowns receiving. In 2015, he was second with 51 receptions and three touchdowns and third with 77 targets and 528 yards. Over the last two seasons, Tyrod was actually more efficient targeting Clay (7.3 AY/A) than the departed wide receivers Woods (7.2) and Goodwin (4.7). To the extent that a tight end can matter in Buffalo, Clay matters. His knees are always aching and he tends to miss about two games per year, but he should be penciled in for 45-65 receptions, 450-650 yards, and three to five touchdowns. He’s cheap at his 175.6 DRAFT ADP — and yet somehow still unexciting. He had more than seven targets in only one game last year.
In the futures market the Bills currently have a 2017 win total of 6.0 games with a -150 over and +120 under. They’re also +600 to make the playoffs and -1,000 not to. Basically, the market is saying that the Bills are likely to be their typical mediocre selves this year. Despite not making the playoffs once in the 17 seasons since the Music City Miracle, the Bills have finished with fewer than six wins only thrice in that time — which I take as definitive proof that sometimes living is worse than dying (metaphorically). It takes a special kind of cursed talent not to bottom out while never making the postseason. That said, Warren Sharp writing for Rotoworld gives the Bills the third-hardest schedule this season. I wouldn’t feel comfortable betting on the Bills not to suck, but I also wouldn’t bet on them not to hit at least six wins.
The Bills are currently +10,000 to win the Super Bowl, +4,000 to win the AFC, and +700 to win the AFC East. They haven’t won their division since 1995. They haven’t won the AFC since the 1993 season.
They haven’t won the Super Bowl since Scott Norwood’s 47-yard game-winning kick in January 1991. They’ve never won a Super Bowl. They last won a championship in the AFL in 1965 against the Chargers . . . who had just moved to San Diego from Los Angeles a half-decade before.
Maybe by the next time the Chargers move to San Diego from LA the Bills will be ready to win another AFL championship.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Bills Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, NCAASavant.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.
Ian Hartitz contributed research to this article.