Juggernaut Index, No. 22: Bills offer fantasy owners more than a ground game

Buffalo fans should have the occasional pass attempt to cheer for in 2017.
Bills fans have suffered through a long, terrible playoff drought. At least this year’s squad will feature an updated offense. (Photo by Michael Adamucci/Getty Images)

The Rex Ryan era in Buffalo produced a remarkable 1001 rush attempts over two seasons, the highest total in the NFL by a wide margin. Naturally, the Bills led the league in rushing in back-to-back years, but that extreme commitment to the run only produced a pair of third-place divisional finishes. Buffalo’s passing attack was barely a rumor under Ryan. This team has averaged just 199.3 passing yards and 29.3 attempts per game since 2015. During the same period, the average NFL passing offense produced 242.7 yards per game on 35.7 attempts. For the average conference finalist, those numbers were 267.2 and 35.9.

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Ryan, of course, was relieved of his duties as Buffalo’s coach late last year following an overtime loss to Miami — a defeat that eliminated the Bills from the postseason chase, extending the NFL’s longest playoff drought to 17 years. Sean McDermott takes over as head coach in Buffalo, and the team hired Rick Dennison as the new offensive coordinator. For fantasy purposes, this seems like a very nice development.

Dennison was Gary Kubiak’s longtime OC, both with the Broncos and Texans, and he was an offensive assistant under Mike Shanahan in Denver from 1995 to 2008. We should expect the usual Kubiak/Shanny flourishes from Buffalo this season — play-action bootlegs, zone stretch runs — along with a run/pass mix that feels appropriate to professional football in 2017. Thus, it’s easy to talk yourself into various Bills skill players as fantasy assets. This team’s quarterback has a clear chance to make a significant value leap.

Tyrod Taylor has the best fantasy setup of his career.
Tyrod Taylor makes a house call. He’s a late-round quarterback worth targeting. (Getty Images)

Tyrod Taylor is a draft day steal.

Taylor has accounted for 47 combined TDs over the past two seasons (37 pass, 10 rush), while throwing just 12 interceptions on 816 attempts and rushing for 1148 yards. He’s completed 62.3 percent of his career throws, averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. Simply put, he’s fun. Taylor has been an under-appreciated and underutilized dual-threat QB, and he seems like an excellent fit for Dennison’s offense. He spent a season with Dennison and Kubiak in Baltimore in 2014, so it’s not as if he’s learning entirely new concepts.

With an average draft position outside the top 120 picks in Yahoo leagues, Tyrod offers obvious profit potential. He’ll direct an offense that produces plenty of easy passing yards on short, horizontal routes, while also mixing in designed keepers and deep shots off play-action. He figures to put the ball in the air 90-100 more times this season than he did in 2016. Taylor has a path to a top-12 positional finish, and you’re paying such a modest price. If you’re the sort of fantasy owner who prefers to wait until the double-digit rounds before taking a QB, keep Taylor in your plans.

Please stay healthy, Sammy Watkins.

Buffalo’s receiving corps added new names during the offseason while shedding a few familiar vets. Sammy Watkins remains in the team picture, however, entering the final year of his rookie deal. No one has ever questioned Watkins’ talent — he was a matchup problem from day one — but his medical history is complicated. A left foot issue limited him to just eight games and 28 catches in 2016, and he underwent a second surgery to address the injury in January. Not great.

Still, Watkins did return to the practice field during the Bills’ offseason program, and it seems he should be ready for camp. If we can simply get 14 games from him in the year ahead, he’s a good bet to establish new career highs in targets, receptions and receiving yardage. Remember, Watkins is only a year removed from a season in which he ranked No. 7 at his position in per-game fantasy scoring, delivering five 100-yard performances and nine scores in just 12 games. And he put up those numbers on a team that ranked No. 28 in passing. Sammy, when he’s right, is terrific. He’s a thoroughly acceptable pick at his current Yahoo ADP (37.3).

The stealth option in Buffalo’s receiving corps is rookie Zay Jones, a second-round pick out of East Carolina. Jones enters camp as this team’s presumptive No. 2 receiver, following a stellar collegiate career. He has good size (6-foot-2) and speed (4.45), and he absolutely crushed the jumps and agility drills at the combine. Jones also happens to be the all-time FBS single-season and career leader in receptions (158 in 2016, 399 career). He’s excellent, a strong candidate to be the top first-year receiver in his draft class. Buffalo’s passing offense should be able to support more than one starting fantasy receiver this season.

Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin are out of the mix this year, replaced by Andre Holmes, Corey Brown and Rod Streator. Of the three new guys, Holmes probably has the best shot at deep league fantasy relevance, though none are draftable in leagues of typical size and shape. Charles Clay returns at tight end to deliver his usual 50-550-3 season, full of murky injury notes. He’s not of interest, except in leagues in which you start multiple TEs.

Shady and Sammy are dangerous playmakers.
LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins are still in the team picture, giving this team a pair of elite weapons. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

LeSean McCoy is still a bad dude.

McCoy enters his age-29 season coming off a phenomenal year. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry, gained 1624 scrimmage yards, scored 14 touchdowns and caught 50 passes on 57 targets. Phenomenal. Ridiculously efficient. Shady ranked top-five last season in rushing TDs (13) and rushing yards per game (84.5). He’s an obvious first-round fantasy option. McCoy is a quick-cutting back with fantastic vision and plenty of speed, and he’s no stranger to zone running concepts. He deserves his lofty ADP (8.0), no question. McCoy didn’t rely on extreme volume to get his numbers last season; he carried the ball only 234 times, which ranked twelfth in the league. He remains a monstrously talented ball-carrier who works behind a terrific run-blocking line.

If we’re safe in assuming that Buffalo will not run the ball another 500-plus times this season, then it won’t be quite as easy for this team to produce a second roster-worthy fantasy back. You might recall that Karlos Williams had a nine-TD season back in 2015, and Mike Gillislee did the same last year. The path to fantasy value for back-up Jonathan Williams isn’t quite so clear this season. To me, he’s more handcuff than flex, but many analysts are more bullish. Williams certainly isn’t a crazy final-round flier.

Buffalo’s defense is so middle-of-the-pack that it doesn’t get its own subhead here. There are no elite IDPs in this group. The Bills ranked in the bottom-third of the league in takeaways last season (18), but finished sixth in sacks (39). This unit is purely a matchup play. Buffalo opens with a home game against the Jets, so this team will be roster-worthy in Week 1, then immediately droppable.

2016 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 24.9 (10)
Pass YPG – 189.8 (30)
Rush YPG – 164.4 (1)
Yards per play – 5.6 (14)
Plays per game – 63.2 (18)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) NY Jets, 31) San Francisco, 30) Cleveland, 29) LA Rams, 28) Baltimore, 27) Chicago, 26) Minnesota, 25) Detroit, 24) Denver, 23) Jacksonville, 22) Buffalo