The Buffalo Bills played at a blistering pace in 2013, their first season under head coach Doug Marrone. This team's offense ranked third in the NFL in total plays-per-game, behind just Denver and New England, and it trailed only Philadelphia in time-per-play.
Unfortunately, the Bills did not mimic those three squads in any other meaningful way. As a team, Buffalo finished 22nd in the league in scoring (21.2 PPG), 29th in yards-per-play (4.8), 28th in passing (210.8 YPG), 28th in time-of-possession (28:34) and 29th in third-down conversion rate (34.3).
Essentially, the Bills ran a hurry-up-and-punt attack — not exactly the traditional recipe for success in the NFL.
But we can't accuse this team of failing to recognize and address its weaknesses on offense. Back in May, Buffalo traded up from the ninth overall draft pick to the fourth (giving up next year's first-rounder in the process), a deal that allowed the team to select Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins. The Bills obviously believe Watkins to be an upper-tier, franchise-level talent. General manager Doug Whaley has in fact said that Sammy was the top-rated player on his board. In later draft rounds, this team snagged a trio of massive O-line projects.
So the setup for quarterback EJ Manuel has clearly improved, as the 24-year-old enters his second pro season. Manuel's continued development is, without question, one of the critical story-lines facing this franchise in the year(s) ahead. There's not much of a safety net behind him on the depth chart (Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel). Perhaps the biggest question attached to Manuel at this stage is durability — he appeared in just 10 games as a rookie due to knee malfunctions, and he was sidelined in the preseason as well. When Manuel played, many of the expected first-year issues arose: skittishness, early check-downs, misreads, etc. He's not the most precise short-range passer you'll ever see, and he completed only 12 of 41 deep throws (20-plus yards) last season per PFF. But of course it's way too early in his career to dismiss him as a potential fantasy asset. Manuel wasn't working with the league's most exciting group of receivers last season, plus he faced a steep learning curve. He's a mobile QB with enough arm and excellent size (6-foot-4), certainly worth stashing in dynasty formats. If Watkins can quickly emerge as an impact receiver, Manuel gets interesting.
Buffalo's leading receiver last year was Scott Chandler (53-655-2), a monolithic tight end who finished outside the top-16 at his position in fantasy scoring. So that's sad. Chandler is not to be drafted, unless you're involved in a mega-league. Stevie Johnson was dealt to San Francisco during the offseason, leaving Watkins as this team's unrivaled No. 1 receiver. Second-year wideout Robert Woods figures to start opposite the rookie, with new arrival Mike Williams as the third receiver in the hierarchy. (Williams was coached by Marrone at Syracuse, if you're looking for an excuse to own him.)
It seems unrealistic to expect the Bills offense to produce more than one start-worthy fantasy receiver in 2014, so let's keep the focus here on Watkins. He's coming off a sensational collegiate season (101-1464-12), loaded with quality highlights. Here's a taste, if you somehow missed the pre-draft hype. Watkins has field-flipping, game-changing talent — good hands, sprinter's speed, nice size (6-foot-1), excellent body control. All rookie receivers face a difficult adjustment to the NFL, but few have Watkins' track record and rare skill.
At Clemson in 2011, Watkins became just the fourth first-year freshman in NCAA history to earn AP first-team all-America honors, joining Adrian Peterson, Marshall Faulk and Herschel Walker. If your name appears on a list with those three dudes, then you're a pretty damn impressive football player. No one should be surprised if Watkins makes a fantasy splash in his first pro season, even on a run-heavy team, tied to a middle-of-the-pack QB. With an ADP of 110.4, Watkins offers serious profit potential. I'm in.
Buffalo led the NFL in rush attempts last season, yet still somehow produced one of the year's biggest fantasy busts. CJ Spiller was universally drafted in the first round by fantasy owners, but he ultimately ranked as a flex/RB3-type. Rashard Mendenhall outscored Spiller last season. That's just ... um ... well, it's horrifying.
CJ was of course limited by a high-ankle sprain for much of the season, and he still managed to gain 4.6 yards per carry. If the fantasy community hadn't paid such a high price for Spiller on draft day, we might have been halfway impressed by his performance. But we paid too much for too little, so now we're feeling apprehensive. The Bills are again making noises about featuring Spiller, giving him 20-or-so touches per game, and — believe it or not — that's not actually such a ridiculous forecast if he remains healthy. This team ran the ball 34.1 times per game last year, while also completing 5.8 passes per game to its running backs. If Spiller were to see close to 20 touches per week, he'd still have only a half-share of the backfield work.
Hopefully we can all agree that CJ is a legit talent, an elusive back with outstanding speed and quickness. For his career, he's averaging 5.1 YPC. He's worth his current fifth-round draft price (ADP 45.8). If things break the right way this season, he has upper-tier fantasy upside. And if things break wrong, at least you won't have wasted another top-8 pick.
Fred Jackson is still in the team picture, we should note. Of course he is. Within the scientific community, there is widespread agreement that the only things capable of surviving a global nuclear event are cockroaches and Fred Jackson's workload. He will never, ever go away — nor should he, if he continues to play at last year's level. Jackson is a versatile back who caught 47 passes last year, gained 4.3 yards per tote and broke the plane 10 times. He also finished strong, topping 100 scrimmage yards in Weeks 16 and 17. I've got no quarrel with Fred. We keep waiting for Jackson to break down — the man is only two years younger than Edgerrin James — but it hasn't yet happened. He needs to be viewed as something more than a handcuff.
Buffalo added both Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon to the roster, in part because both Spiller and Jackson could be gone in 2015, but also because this team simply needs a deep rotation at running back. Again: 34.1 carries and 5.8 receptions per game. Brown is easily the more interesting of these two depth-chart RBs; he was a beast for two magical games in 2012. For now, however, Brown is simply an end-of-draft flier. Give him an earlier look in dynasty, because he could be ticketed for a significant workload next season.
The Bills defense had a few non-trivial offseason defections — notably coordinator Mike Pettine and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd — plus the team lost volume-tackler Kiko Alonso to an ACL injury. But we're still talking about a D that led the AFC in sacks (57.0) and interceptions (23) last season, so this unit definitely figures to be a fantasy asset, perhaps as more than a streaming option. For those who IDP, the names to target are DL Mario Williams (13.0 sacks), LB Brandon Spikes and LB Nigel Bradham. Buffalo's D/ST gets a Week 16 matchup with Oakland, so you'll want 'em on the roster when the league title is decided.
2013 Buffalo Bills team stats: 21.2 PPG (NFL rank 22), 210.8 pass YPG (28), 16 pass TDs (30), 144.2 rush YPG (2), 34.1 rush attempts per game (1), 32.6 pass attempts per game (24)