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Bills Fantasy Preview

by Rich Hribar
Updated On: August 15, 2019, 7:08 pm ET

2018 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 4,778 yards (30th)
Offensive Touchdowns: 28 (T-28th)
Offensive Plays: 1,008 (19th)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 540 (28th)
Rush Attempts: 468 (T-6th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 190 (7th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 148 (11th)

Coaching Staff

Nothing of significant note at the top. Sean McDermott returns for his third season as Head Coach and for the first time since the 2015-2016 seasons, the Bills are bringing back both of their coordinators from the previous season in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and Leslie Frazier on the defensive side. Daboll is back for his second season to provide second-year passer Josh Allen some coaching stability, but Daboll’s first season in Buffalo generated more production from the rushing game (eighth in the league) than it did in the passing department (31st), something Bills’ fans have grown accustomed to. As far as ancillary shake ups, Buffalo added Ken Dorsey as quarterbacks coach, as well as promoting offensive assistant Chad Hall to wide receivers coach this offseason.

Passing Game
QB: Josh Allen, Matt Barkley
WR: John Brown, Robert Foster
WR: Zay Jones, Cole Beasley
WR: Isaiah McKenzie, David Sills
TE: Tyler Kroft, Dawson Knox, Jason Croom

In just about any passing efficiency metric you can find, Josh Allen likely was among the worst in the league at it during his rookie season. Completing just 52.8 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his 11 starts, Allen hardly dazzled through the air. His completion rate (52.8), completion rate on deep passes 15-plus yards through the air (32.2 percent), yards per attempt (6.5) and touchdown rate (3.1 percent) were well below league passing averages. It is fair to account for the lacking offensive support that Allen was provided through offensive line and skill position play as a rookie, but Allen himself did not do much to alleviate the questions that surrounded his draft profile from a passing efficiency perspective.

That said, Allen did improve as he season went on with that limited weaponry. After a midseason elbow injury, Daboll and the Bills shifted their offensive philosophy around showcasing offensive speed and getting Allen into more empty offensive sets to maximize his rushing potential while generating more explosive plays. Per that piece by Erik Turner, Allen drop backed from an empty set on 18.5 percent of his drop backs, which was the third-highest rate in the league. Although his passing performance was still under par for the league, this allowed him to finish the season as a fantasy dynamo. After returning in Week 12, Allen was the highest overall scoring fantasy quarterback during those remaining six weeks of the season. He did that with 53.6 percent of his fantasy output stemming from rushing production (476 yards and five touchdowns) over that span.

Allen scrambled on 11.9 percent of his drop backs last year. That was the second highest rate over the past decade with four or more starts in a season, trailing only Mike Vick in 2010. He also averaged 10.8 yards per scramble attempt, the highest rate for any quarterback over the past 10 years that tallied 20 or more scramble runs. It was a necessity for Allen to scramble as he faced pressure on 43.4 percent of his dropbacks, which trailed only Deshaun Watson. The Bills spent the entire offseason upgrading their offensive line and adding wide receiving depth to their roster, so that scramble rate could have some vitality to it. If the Bills are going to continue to use more empty sets to elevate Allen’s strengths as a player, then he will still have opportunities to make splash plays in the rushing game, but we should anticipate his rushing yardage to be reined in some. We should also expect his rushing touchdowns to slip a touch as Cam Newton is the only quarterback to ever rush for eight or more touchdowns in consecutive seasons. Allen undoubtedly carries potential to be a boom-or-bust fantasy option, but he is also one that has already displayed week-winning upside that has been given upgrades offensively to the line and skill position spots compared to his rookie season to progress in other areas. As of now, Allen is more of a best ball target so we don't have to chase his high-scoring weeks with the potential of running into a low floor, but his opening schedule (@ NYJ, @ NYG, CIN) is favorable enough to leave the lights on for a solid open to the season if you're looking at him to open the season as your starter.

Deciphering the Bills’ target dispersal in 2019 is no easy task. Zay Jones led the Bills in targets (102), receptions (56), receiving yards (652) and touchdown receptions (seven) in 2018 after catching just 36.5 percent (27-of-74) of his targets as a rookie for 316 yards and two scores. You’d like to believe that after Jones made a significant improvement in just his second season after being a second-round pick the year prior, that he would be given a runway to be the Bills’ lead wideout entering his third season, but there are still questions.  The signing of Cole Beasley and John Brown this offseason compromises not only Jones’ volume, but the addition of Beasley also potentially moves Jones more outside as opposed to the slot, where he’s been a less productive player in the league. Jones ran 48.3 percent of his routes from the slot last season after just 30.8 percent as a rookie in 2017. In the slot, Jones caught 64.1 percent (25-of-39) of his targets for 12.6 yards per catch and four touchdowns as opposed to a 51.7 percent catch rate, 10.8 yards per reception on the perimeter.

The Bills found a gem in rookie Robert Foster in 2018, who was a late season surprise. After catching just 2-of-9 targets for 30 yards through nine weeks, Foster’s playing time finally expanded. From Week 10-17, Foster then caught 25-of-35 targets for 511 yards and three touchdowns.  A big-play magnet over that span, Foster’s 20.4 yards per reception led the league during those weeks while he was 15th in receiving yardage. His 541 receiving yards as a rookie were more than the 389 yards he had over four years playing at Alabama. As is the case with Jones, you would take that as a signal to believe that the Bills would be all-in in Foster’s development, but once again, they acquired a player in Brown who has a direct overlap in receiving strengths to that of Foster. 59.1 percent of Foster’s targets came on throws 15-plus yards downfield, which was tops in the league for players with more than 25 targets on the season. Brown ranked eighth in the NFL with 36 such targets in 2018 and 34.1 percent of his career targets have come on such throws. 28.2 percent of Allen’s pass attempts where on passes 15-yards or further downfield, which was the highest rate in the league, but as mentioned earlier, his completion rate ranked 38th of all qualifying passers on those attempts.  Brown got off to a promising start in 2018, but his season was torpedoed when the Ravens went with Lamar Jackson as their starting quarterback.  In Jackson’s eight starts, Brown caught just 10-of-33 targets for 128 yards and one touchdown. At minimum, Brown is a strong surface fit paired with Allen, but the volume and effectiveness of the targets remain a question mark.

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Both the signings of Brown and Beasley carried monetary value that signifies that they are more than just depth insurance and the strengths of those players rivals the strengths that each of the young wideouts in place last season showcased to end the 2018 season. Increased target competition paired with the unknown passing ceiling of Allen clouds the projection output for this entire unit. The easy answer here for fantasy is to just take Allen and cover all bases, but from a college production, athletic profile, draft investment, and career arc perspective, Jones is the best objective bet of the receivers to make, although he comes with his own set of issues. Brown and Foster carry best ball upside due to their big-play ability but projecting those spike weeks in advance will be easier to be said than done as both could cannibalize each other’s downfield volume. Beasley is the worst kind of player for us from a fantasy stance because he’s a good enough real player to fit a role in an offense and occupy targets from other players we have interest in, but just hasn’t produced on a tangible fantasy level outside of a few pockets of production. Entering 2019 at age 30, Beasley has finished higher than WR43 in PPR formats just once in overall scoring over his seven seasons in the league with a career-high finish of WR42 in points per game.

The tight end position doesn’t offer a wealth of production, but the position is wide open for competition. Kroft suffered a broken foot on the first day of OTAs and is in jeopardy to miss the start of the season. With Lee Smith in place to be a run-blocking option, that leaves third-round pick Dawson Knox and third-year Jason Croom to compete for initial pass-catching reps this summer. Knox was a favorite for beat writers through rookie camp and June OTAs, but we’re cognizant that he’s also a rookie -with zero career collegiate touchdowns - playing a position with a tangible learning curve as it relates to fantasy production. Croom secured 22-of-34 targets for 259 yards and a touchdown in his second season, starting four of the final five games. 

Running Game
RB: LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, Devin Singletary, T.J. Yeldon
OL (L-R): Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Spencer Long, Cody Ford

If you thought the Bills receiving corps were muddled, then you’re going to love their backfield. Especially, once you account for the potential that their best runner is their quarterback. We could see one of LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore or T.J. Yeldon be released before the start of the season since none logged a special teams snap in 2018 -leaving the door open for Marcus Murphy to make the roster as the team’s fourth back- but as of now, the Bills have a quagmire at the position for fantasy purposes. McCoy should be the “lead” back here, but early on in OTAs, McCoy, Gore and Devin Singletary all rotated in with the first-team offense.

McCoy enters 2019 at age 31 while coming off back-to-back steadily declining seasons. McCoy averaged career-lows in yards per carry (3.2), yards per touch (3.9) and yards from scrimmage per game (53.7). He managed just four top-24 scoring weeks to go along with a career-low three total touchdowns. McCoy was also targeted in the passing game just 8.4 percent of the time from Josh Allen while 10.8 percent of the time from other Bills’ passers. Even at McCoy’s depressed cost in drafts, there’s marginal optimism that he’s a sound bet on having a resurgence. 

Gore is running back Shang Tsung. Entering the 2019 season at age 36, Gore has had at least 140 touches in 14 consecutive NFL seasons. Even at age 35 on a dreadful Miami offense a year ago, Gore averaged 5.0 yards per touch. But relegated to ancillary contributor at this stage of his career, Gore doesn’t carry the receiving or touchdown upside to stand alone as a draftable option.

The Bills selected Singletary in the third round as the fifth running back off the board. Singletary went pro as a true junior after leading Conference USA in rushing in each of the past two seasons. The lofty production resume was questioned and credited to collegiate competition after he checked in smaller (5’8/203) at the combine and then tested out as one of the most unathletic prospects at his position. The Bills seemed unphased by those questions given where they selected Singletary and despite his size and physical profile suggesting that he’s not a future workhorse in the NFL, he’s still easily the best objective bet to be made here among the players in this backfield by default. It’s likely he begins the season in a pure timeshare, but Singletary is a potential late-round dart throw or in-season waiver pickup for those drafting WR heavy in leagues this summer.

Yeldon was signed late in the offseason to a two-year contract that has no significant monetary commitments in either season. The 25-year old is coming off his best season (901 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns) since his rookie campaign, but Yeldon has seemingly fallen into the perception that he is just a receiving back through the lens of the league. 60.8 percent of Yeldon’s career fantasy output has come via the receiving game and that number is at 67.1 percent since his rookie season, Yeldon has shown capable of providing viable fantasy lines when the team has had no choice but to give him touches and opportunities, but has not shown to be a tangible fantasy asset outside of those conditions. With Allen targeting backs on just 14.5 percent of his dispersed targets as a rookie, it’s hard to find the type of volume-induced opportunity that Yeldon has needed to this point in his career to be a fantasy asset on a weekly level.

Win Total

The Bills over/under for wins this season currently sits at 6.5 per most books. After winning six games while starting four different quarterbacks a year ago, paired with a viable defense and one of the easier schedules in the league, forecasting the Bills to get to seven wins is a good bet. Of course, the books are aware of that as a well, as most places list the over at -170 odds (~63 percent implied odds), giving you marginal return on investment. I’ll gladly take the over from a projection stance, but there are better overall bets to place with your funds if you’re a casual bettor.

Rich Hribar
Rich Hribar is a husband, father, sports meteorologist and a slave to statistics. A lifelong sports fan and fantasy gamer. You can find him on Twitter @LordReebs.