The NFL off-season is always an exciting time to follow your favorite team’s personnel moves. The toughest task for any fan or fantasy owner is cutting through all the positive platitudes and figuring out if their team got better or not. Activity during the offseason doesn’t equal improvement, ask any Redskin fan.
The Bills were busy, but did they get better? We caught up with Brad Andrews of Buffalo Low Down to get his perspective as we continue our fantasy football season previews.
Zach Thompson, FantasyCPR: Hey Brad, the Bills had a busy offseason. I think they made some very solid moves to strengthen their team. I’m looking forward to getting your insider’s perspective on it. You guys stocked up your defense with Mario Williams and Mark Anderson at DE and Stephon Gilmore in the draft. Is this a change in philosophy for the organization? They really seem committed to building defense first. Is that a strategy that you think will pay off this year in the AFC East with New England and the Jets able to put points on the board in a hurry?
Brad Andrews, Buffalo Low Down: Fixing the defense – particularly the pass rush – was priority #1 for GM Buddy Nix this offseason. There was good reason for that. This defense has been AWFUL the past two seasons, as the attempted switch to a 3-4 was a disaster. Now the Bills are back in the 4-3, have acquired some shiny new parts with Williams and Anderson, hired a competent defensive coordinator in Dave Wannstedt, and have put together a talented (albeit very young) secondary. So there’s a lot of hope that this defense will at least be able to slow down the Jets and Pats, which certainly hasn’t been the case in recent seasons.
Zach Thompson, FantasyCPR: I agree that the D is definitely headed the right direction. I think they’ll be a matchup play this year for sure in all formats. In leagues where there’s little penalty for yards/points allowed I think they’ll be a top 12 defense. The more fantasy-relevant side of the ball though is offense. I’ve seen a couple places where people are saying this is Ryan Fitzpatrick’s last year of opportunity. He showed flashes last year of being a fantasy-relevant, franchise-type QB. The problem was he was horribly inconsistent. Was his inconsistency just “growing pains” and he’ll be better this year or is he not the answer to the Bills QB question? Do you think this is his last shot and what would he need to do to be considered successful?
Brad Andrews, Buffalo Low Down: Fitzpatrick was pretty good in the first half last season before really struggling down the stretch. I think what we saw in that first half is closer to the “real” Fitzpatrick. About halfway through last season, Fitz broke a few ribs and lost most of his offensive line and receiving threats to injury. I think he’ll perform well in 2012. He’s smart and a good fit for coach Chan Gailey’s offense. It will help that he will have a defense that will actually stop someone this year, so he won’t have to take so many chances. He’ll never be a fantastic option fantasy-wise because he doesn’t have elite accuracy, but he will be a fine matchup/spot play.
As to what Fitz needs to do to succeed in 2012, the answer is simple: don’t turn the ball over. Fitzpatrick led the league in INTs thrown last year. Now that is a somewhat misleading stat – his receivers dropped at least five balls into opponents’ hands, and a few of those picks were end-of-game desperation heaves – but he can’t be as reckless with the ball as he was last season. If he keeps the turnovers down and hits enough deep balls to keep defenses honest, he’s going to lead a pretty good offense this season.
Zach Thompson, FantasyCPR: On that note, what does his receiving corps look like this year? If the Bills are going to be a pretty good offense who will be the guys making plays? We’ll get to the two-headed monster that is their backfield in just a minute, but start with their receivers. Who should we know about and how good can they be?
Brad Andrews, Buffalo Low Down: Well, let’s start with what we know for sure. Stevie Johnson has a big new contract and wants to prove he deserves it. Johnson is unusual – he’s not particularly big, quick, or fast by NFL standards but the man just knows how to get open. He has done a pretty amazing job the past two years despite always drawing the opponent’s best corner and not having a lot of other threats on the team to draw attention away from him. Johnson should be good for 1,000-1,200 yards and 7-10 TDs.
Two other guys will for sure be involved. David Nelson is a big, reliable slot receiver. He’ll never be a star, but he is a capable target who is dangerous in the red zone. He has some fantasy value as a spot starter or in the flex. Tight end Scott Chandler started hot last season before injuries took him down. He’s Buffalo’s only tight end that’s a receiving threat, and Fitzpatrick loves the guy. He should put up some numbers as well.
The rest of the receiving situation is totally up in the air. A whole host of guys are battling for the #2 WR job and for the rest of the roster spots. The Bills drafted speedster T.J. Graham in the third round of April’s Draft, but he’s really raw and may not contribute much as a rookie. Donald Jones started last year, but wasn’t terribly impressive. The coaching staff likes his potential though. Derek Hagan is a journeyman who latched on with the Bills late last season but played really well in the final few games. And then there’s Marcus Easley. Easley was drafted by the Bills in 2010 but still hasn’t played an NFL down thanks a knee injury and (now cured) heart ailment. He was really impressive in camp last season before the heart problem was discovered though. If you’re looking for a fantasy sleeper on the Buffalo roster, Easley could have a huge year if he stays healthy. Or he might not even make the team. I told you this position was up in the air.
Zach Thompson, FantasyCPR: It should be interesting to see how that all shakes out. That leaves us with one more key position to look at: The Running Back situation. In what is sure to be an infuriating situation for fantasy owners, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are both capable backs that won’t get a full load barring injury. Bottom line-who do you think has a better year? Will both be fantasy viable, and what’s the injury risk with each?
Brad Andrews, Buffalo Low Down: If I had to take one for my fantasy team, I’d take Jackson. Fred is truly one of the league’s underrated players. Jackson finally got the ball full-time in the first half of last season and was absolutely fantastic, racking up 1,376 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in just nine-and-a-half games before a broken leg ended his season. He’s just a more complete back than Spiller and will probably get the majority of the snaps. How good is Jackson? Despite splitting carries and missing half a season, he actually leads all NFL running backs in forced missed tackles over the past three seasons with 149. For comparison, Adrian Peterson has forced 148 missed tackles over the same span.
But that all said, Spiller HAS to get some touches as well. Spiller has incredible speed and is a threat to score every single time he touches the ball. He really showed something when he took over for Jackson last season, putting up 561 yards rushing (at 5.2 ypc) and four touchdowns for the year. Almost all of that came in the last five games running behind an offensive line ravaged by injury.
So bottom line this year, fantasy-wise? Both should be drafted – and Jackson should go pretty early. The Bills should be able to run the ball often and effectively in 2012, so both have value each week. Spiller will be more inconsistent but will probably put up a few big games. Both are fairly durable, but it one does get hurt…the other probably immediately becomes a top-five fantasy RB each week.
Zach Thompson, FantasyCPR: Last question, (this is one we’ve asked everybody): What are your realistic expectations for the Bills? What needs to go right for them to have a “successful” season? Are the playoffs too much of a reach?
Brad Andrews, Buffalo Low Down: The Bills were a pretty good team last year before just getting gutted by injury, and almost every single player of significance is back. Add in the talent and depth Buffalo acquired this offseason, and the Bills certainly should contend for a playoff spot. This season will really boil down to three things: the pass rush, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and health. If the Bills can generate pressure, stay healthy, and get good QB play from Fitz, 9-12 wins is realistic. But it won’t come easy in the AFC East – the Patriots are going to be really, really good and the Jets (barring a Sanchez-Tebow implosion) will be tough.
If you enjoyed this interview here’s the links to our previous fantasy previews: Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals, San Diego Chargers, Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans, and Oakland Raiders. Come back next week as the season previews continue.