The running game and the city of Buffalo go together like wings and blue cheese dressing, or like roast beef and kummelweck rolls. The city where O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas once shone as runners is now home to another great back.
The Bills have had an old-school offense the last two seasons, ranking first in running play percentage in 2015, second in 2016. Over the last two years, the only NFL team to run more than it threw was the ’15 edition of Bills.
We might not see pass-happiness in Buffalo this season, but the Bills’ offense could emerge from the Paleolithic era under new coordinator Rick Dennison. With Dennison as their offensive coordinator the last two seasons, the Broncos were squarely in the middle of the pack in run-pass percentage. Frankly, it’s somewhat surprising that Dennison didn’t call more running plays over that period, since the Broncos’ defense has arguably been the NFL’s best over the last two years, and their QB play has been subpar, first with a decaying Peyton Manning in 2015, then with an inexperienced Trevor Siemian last year.
On the other hand, the Bills’ offensive personnel is probably best suited for a run-heavy tilt. They have one of the best running backs in the league and a dearth of pass-catching talent.
The nice thing about the Bills from a fantasy perspective is that they have a skinny usage tree: Only three or four Bills will be drafted in average-sized leagues. A narrow distribution of touches takes some of the risk out of Buffalo’s top fantasy assets, even though the team itself isn’t projected to be very good.
LeSean McCoy is unquestionably one of the best running backs in the game. Since 2011, Shady has had four seasons in which he’s played at least 15 games, and he’s been a top-three RB scorer in three of those four seasons. And it’s not as if McCoy is brittle. He’s missed 11 games over his eight-year career, which isn’t unreasonable for a player who’s averaged 285 touches per season. For his career, Shady has averaged 101.6 yards from scrimmage and 0.62 touchdowns per game. McCoy runs behind a strong offensive line, and the Bills’ offseason addition of fullback Patrick DiMarco, a top run blocker, should only brighten McCoy’s fantasy outlook. It’s also worth noting that the Bills often used Mike Gillislee at the goal line last year, yet McCoy still had 13 rushing touchdowns. Gillislee is now in New England, and Dennison might be less inclined to pull Shady in goal-line situations.
I have McCoy ranked RB4, and I was feeling pretty good about him until Aug. 11, Black Friday in Buffalo, when the Bills traded away Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby. With the team seemingly committed to a full rebuild (as opposed to retooling on the fly), it’s hard to have full confidence in a running back who’ll probably face a lot of bad game scripts.
McCoy’s top backup will be Jonathan Williams, a fifth-round draft pick in 2016 who had only 27 carries as a rookie. Williams isn’t particularly athletic, has minimal pass-catching experience and has had foot problems in the past, but he’d instantly become a coveted commodity if McCoy sustained a significant injury.
Tyrod Taylor has finished QB8 in fantasy points per game in each of his two years as the Bills’ primary starter. But the reluctance of drafters to fully embrace Taylor is at least somewhat understandable. His week-to-week production is often streaky. While he has admirable deep-ball accuracy, Taylor can be alarmingly scattered-armed on intermediate-range throws, and without Watkins, Taylor might not have a receiver who can consistently raise hell downfield. The Bills haven’t exactly shown great faith in Taylor, and with rookie Nathan Peterman showing well so far, Taylor could be benched at some point. On the other hand, Taylor is probably the best running quarterback in the league. It’s a tremendous luxury to get good rushing numbers out of your quarterback, and Taylor’s legs have provided significant value, as he’s rushed for more than 500 yards in each of the last two seasons, with four TD runs in 2015 and six in 2016.
Taylor is a better fantasy quarterback than real-life quarterback, which is reflected in the Bills’ unwillingness to make a long-term commitment to him. I don’t love Taylor quite as much as some other fantasy writers do, but he’s a decent value at his current asking price.
Matthews has hung up some solid numbers over his first three NFL seasons – 225 catches, 2,673 yards, 19 touchdowns – and he just turned 25, but fantasy owners have turned their backs on him. After a promising rookie season in which he had 67 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns, J-Matt entered 2015 with an ADP of WR11. His numbers were even better than in his rookie year (85-997-8), but he did some late-season stat padding, and his ADP slipped to WR35 in the run-up to last year’s drafts. Now, after scoring only three touchdowns in 2016 and being traded to the NFL’s Siberia, he carries a price of WR46. Matthews has been dealing with a fracture in his sternum, and it might take him some time to get in sync with Taylor, but he’s a fair value at his depressed price.
The probable starter opposite Matthews is rookie Zay Jones, who had an NCAA-record 158 receptions for East Carolina last year. The Bills traded up seven spots to take Jones early in the second round. He has good size (6-2, 201) and speed (4.45), but he averaged just 10.7 yards per catch in college, and only 23 of his 399 career receptions at East Carolina went for touchdowns. It’s a safe bet that Jones will be more valuable in PPR leagues than in standard formats, likely to get his fair share of receptions but with most of them being of the low-impact variety.
Charles Clay has been a top-20 fantasy scorer at tight end for four consecutive seasons, though the only time he finished higher than 16th was 2013, when he ranked seventh as a member of the Dolphins. Clay would make a decent late-round TE option if he were more durable. He’s missed two games in each of the last two seasons and reportedly has a chronic knee problem.
|Tyrod Taylor||QB19||QB20||Take at a discount|
|LeSean McCoy||RB3||RB4||Buy at 1.08 or later|
|Zay Jones||WR52||WR58||A little too expensive|