There was a time last season, during the opening weeks, when the following question was considered completely legit:
"Who's gonna be better rest-of-season, Cam Newton or Ryan Fitzpatrick?"
In fact, that may have been the most frequently asked question within the fantasy community last September.
Of course the same owners who struggled with that dilemma just 10 months ago will today deny that they ever waffled...
"LMAO at Fitzpatrick!!! EVERYONE knew Cam was gonna blow up!"
...but I'm telling you, that was the question I fielded most often. It actually didn't seem so ludicrous at the time. You'll recall that Fitzpatrick began the year by throwing nine touchdown passes over the first three weeks, averaging 280.3 yards per game, leading the Bills to a 3-0 record.
He was, briefly, a big deal. And Buffalo's defense couldn't stop anyone, which of course only helped Fitzpatrick's fantasy profile. If his team was going to keep winning, they were going to need to do it shootout-style.
But, as you know, the Bills didn't keep winning.
After opening the season with three straight victories, Buffalo went 3-10 the rest of the way. Fitzpatrick failed to maintain his early pace. Fantasy owners who found themselves on the wrong side of the Fitz-vs.-Cam debate — as this guy apparently did — slipped quietly toward the bottom of their league standings.
Fitzpatrick and his agent managed to hammer out a new deal with the Bills in October (including $24 million guaranteed), while the quarterback's perceived value was near its peak. So the team is committed to him, at least for another season. In Fitzpatrick's defense, he reportedly suffered cracked ribs and an injured sternum in Buffalo's Week 8 win against Washington, and his performance fell off a cliff thereafter. He threw 16 picks and just 10 TD passes over his final nine games.
This year, Fitz is back to full strength, he's feeling pretty good about his off-season, and he's available in fantasy drafts at his typical low price (ADP 134.1, QB19). Hopefully we all understand Fitz's flaws at this point — his arm isn't special, nor is his receiving corps, and he isn't the most accurate club in the bag. But he's enjoyed some small-sample success, plus the Bills ranked tenth in the NFL in pass attempts last year while the O-line earned high marks for pass protection. If you're looking for a cheap bench QB with job security and modest upside (or a deep-league platoon option), Fitz is a reasonable choice. He's backed up by a pair of mobile, scattershot quarterbacks — Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen — who might get mildly interesting as spot-starters, should either receive playing time. VY would be the more intriguing of the two, though it's tough to forget the Thigpen surge of '08.
Under coach Chan Gailey, Buffalo employs an uncommon number of three- and four-receiver sets, but only one of those three/four receivers will actually be owned in standard fantasy leagues. Stevie Johnson is recovering from off-season groin surgery, though he's expected to be ready for camp. His hands don't always function exactly as they're supposed to, but the man has ranked in the top-10 at his position in targets in each of the past two seasons (134 in 2011, 142 in 2010). He's topped 75 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in back-to-back years while finding the end zone 17 times. That'll play. He's the No. 25 receiver selected in an average draft, with an ADP of 60.3. Among the WR3-types, you won't do much better.
I can't build a great case to draft David Nelson, Donald Jones or Derek Hagan in a 10- or 12-team fantasy league. Still, those are the next three names on the depth chart. From that group, the 6-foot-5 Nelson is the guy I'm most likely to add as a single-serving bye-week option. He caught 61 balls for 658 yards and five scores last season. Dynasty owners should perhaps take a look at track star/wideout TJ Graham, a third-round rookie from North Carolina State. He has nice timed speed (4.35 at NC State, 4.41 at the Combine), but he's primarily a deep threat, a stretch-the-field guy. Graham isn't really a do-everything, all-route receiver. And of course he's tied to a quarterback who isn't known for his cannon arm.
Tight end Scott Chandler caught six TD passes for Buffalo last season, a perfectly respectable total. But it's worth noting that A) he finished with just 38 total receptions, and B) he was completely uncovered on at least two of those touchdowns, because no one considered Scott Chandler to be a threat. He's a nice enough red zone target (dude is 6-foot-7), yet he's unlikely to challenge the top scorers at his roster spot, given the league-wide TE depth. (This is a refrain we repeat fairly often). Public leaguers and PPR owners shouldn't be drafting Chandler.
And now, at last, we've come to the section of the Buffalo Juggernaut entry that you've all been so desperately waiting for: Rian Lindell's 2012 forecast.
No, that's a joke. Nobody cares about kickers. And even if someone did care about kickers, they still wouldn't care about Lindell.
The biggest fantasy question attached to this team, without a doubt, is how the backfield touches will be divided between Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller.
Entering Week 11 last year, Jackson was on pace to finish his season with over 2,300 scrimmage yards, but he suffered a fractured fibula in a loss at Miami. So ended a brilliant year. Most of us had serious doubts about Spiller's ability to adequately replace Jackson, yet replace him he did. Spiller was actually the top-scoring back over the final three weeks of the season, when your fantasy league crowned its champ. He delivered five TDs over the final five weeks in 2011, and he reached 100 total yards in four of five games. The Bills never trusted him with 20-plus carries, but he was nonetheless plenty productive. Spiller averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season, while Jackson averaged 5.5.
If Gailey has a notion about the likely workload split in 2012, he hasn't yet shared it in detail with the fantasy community. All he's done thus far is prepare us for disappointment. This from the team's Website:
Gailey has preached to both Jackson and Spiller that the focus needs to be on team success, not personal workload.
"I can promise you this, we will not make everybody happy," said Gailey. "That will not happen this year. The only thing that will make everybody happy is winning. That's what the goal is, to come up with plans that incorporate everybody's abilities that allow us to win. Other than that I can't predict what's going to happen as far as percentages for their touches."
He's not just talking to his players, but also to you, fantasy owner. We're drafting Jackson well ahead of Spiller — their ADPs are 29.6 (RB16) and 79.0 (RB31) — but these two may not ultimately rank so far apart when all the stats are in. There's been some off-season buzz about the possibility that both players could be on the field together much more often in the year ahead. However, Gailey may not have signed off on that approach just yet:
"You don't want to do too much when they're both in there because if you lose one of them then you're without a big part of your package," said Gailey. "So you're trying to construct enough to create problems for the defense, but not so much that you're relying totally on having both of them at the same time. That's a fine line that you walk creating offenses to be able to take advantage of both good players."
If Buffalo were to lose one of them, as Gailey posits in the quote above, then the other guy would almost certainly emerge as a fantasy star. With both backs healthy, we need to consider Fred a solid RB2 entering the season — he's the presumptive starter — and CJ a flex with upside, the better value of the two. We'll no doubt see Spiller line up wide on occasion, but keep in mind that he did it last season without making a huge splash in PPR formats (39 catches).
The Bills made a huge investment in the defense back in March, signing DE Mario Williams to a six-year, gazillion-dollar deal while also adding pass-rush specialist Mark Anderson. This team's front-four could be scary-good. In fact, every level of this defense looks dangerous. Check the depth chart. This group is loaded with ownable IDPs — Williams, Anderson, LB Nick Barnett, LB Kelvin Sheppard, S Jairus Byrd, S George Wilson, et al — so it should be no surprise that the team DEF ranks as a top-12 unit on some cheat sheets.
I'm almost worried that the defense will be a little too good, eliminating Buffalo's usual potential for Nintendo offense. What works in real-life is not always welcome in the fake game.
2011 team stats: 23.3 PPG (NFL rank 14), 120.1 rush YPG (13), 241.1 pass YPG (16), 31.54 yards/drive (12), 0.162 turnovers/drive (27)