2012 Buffalo Bills: Fantasy Football Preview

The Buffalo Bills were 5-2 to start last year and possessed the highest scoring offense in the NFL for several weeks, much to the surprise of fantasy owners across the league.
They were averaging just over 30 points per game and scored four or more touchdowns over half of those games, with relatively unknown names like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson.
Then, an injury plague fell upon their house, hurts ranging from Fred Jackson’s broken leg Week 11 to losing their starting center, Eric Wood (and Fitz’s protection), for the third straight season.
Sure, the Buffalo defense put up some big INT numbers to start the year, but their lack of pass rush eventually sunk them and fantasy owners quickly lost interest in the Bills as a whole by the second half.
Now, with the fast approaching 2012 NFL season, Fantasy Football is once more occupying the minds of many a fan as the lack of sports stimulus over the summer has them anticipating the return of the gridiron.
With so many starting to put together their player wishlist for the upcoming year, it seems that many Bills players are starting to show up on those lists, at least with question marks beside them.
Healthy, deep, and looking for their first winning season since 2004, or maybe even their first playoffs since 1999, the Bills are a team on the rise, perhaps armed with some fantasy weapons. Here, then, is a quick breakdown of what you can expect should you draft members of the Bills for your 2012 fantasy team.
QUARTERBACK

Ryan Fitzpatrick 

(2011: 353-569, 3,832 yds, 24 TD, 23 INT, 2 fumbles lost)
A Harvard alum shopped to both the Rams and Bengals before finding his home in Buffalo, Fitzpatrick set career bests in every major category last year and was the first Bills QB since Jim Kelly to post back-to-back 3000+ yard seasons. The first two games of 2011, Fitz exploded for seven TDs with just a single INT and many fantasy owners scrambled to grab him off the wire.
Though he soon quieted, Fitz was still sporting 14 TDs to just 7 INTs after seven games, but he just kept cooling, getting just 10 TDs and 16 INTs to finish (more picks than in all of 2010).
Losing Jackson and Wood surely hurt Ryan’s game some, as did the rib injury he suffered through to end the season, but the fact is Fitz was a schizoid last season, burning many an owner who thought they’d found the sleeper QB of 2011.
Even during their raucous seven-game stampede at the beginning, Fitz never found a solid consistency to his game and was often guilty of missing open receivers with hugely inaccurate overthrows. He’s also not a big yardage guy, just 15th among QBs in 2011 with just 239.5 yards per game, though he did have two 300+ yard games late (when he had few options to throw to and was injured himself).
Is Ryan worth grabbing in your league, then? Absolutely. His stats have improved each season he’s been in Buffalo (except his INTs, that is) and he now has several good-looking receiver options not named Steve Johnson in Donald Jones, Marcus Easley, and David Nelson, as well as a potential deep threat in T.J. Graham.
Plus, his offseason work with new QB coach David Lee is already noticeably improving his form, footwork, and, therefore, accuracy in minicamp. It will also help to have a healthy Jackson in the backfield, as well as the wild card that is C.J. Spiller, drawing the defensive attention and giving Ryan that extra second to set and throw (a healthy offensive line should help as well).
You should expect another 3,000+ from Fitz in 2012, with around the same TDs (hopefully the work with Lee results in less INTs as well), but owners should be cautious to start the year as he’ll face six top ten pass defenses in the first nine games, three (Houston, Cleveland, New York) in the top five.
He’ll also play six of those games away from home and Fitzpatrick was a woeful 1-7 away from the Ralph last season (though many of those came in the latter, injured part of the season). In the second half of 2012, though, Fitz will only see three defenses of that caliber and will spend a lot more time in front of the home crowd in Western New York.
Of course, this is all based on 2011′s stats, but either way Ryan’s a solid No. 2 on your team and should be evaluated against your starter on a week to week basis. A star on the rise, he may be worth the gamble early in the middle rounds of your fantasy draft if he’s still there, but don’t grab him too early as he’s not an every week guy.
RUNNING BACKS

Fred Jackson

(2011: 170 carries, 934 yds, 6 TDs; 442 yds receiving)   

C.J. Spiller

(2011: 107 carries, 561 yds, 4 TDs; 269 yds receiving, 2 TDs)
                                                                  
Jackson was leading the NFL in rushing last season the first half, averaging 114.5 per game after just two games and still maintaining a 101.8 avg by Week 11 with a consistent 5.5 yards per carry. Though not a touchdown machine in the Buffalo offense, Jackson was a yardage beast for the Bills’ last season and was on his way to the highest rushing total of his career before going down with a broken leg against Miami.
For a 30-year-old, undrafted running back who began with the NIFL’s Sioux City Bandits (actually, the MVP of 2005 with 1,770 yards and 53 TDs… on an indoor, 50 yard field), he’s a pretty sure addition in any fantasy league.
That being said, Jackson may not be the featured back he was last season. With the impression C.J. Spiller made towards the end, you should look for the former first-rounder to be on the field much more often in 2012, as he seems to have risen above his “Bust” label in Buffalo after largely struggling to find a place in the offense.
That, unfortunately, makes them both my Handcuff Picks for Buffalo this year. While Spiller will have a bigger presence in the Bills’ offense, it will invariably result in fewer carries for Freddy and will cause headaches for owners of either player as they try to figure who’ll be the star of each game (though it should be a big upside for fans of the team itself).
Jackson will definitely be the first option for the Bills in 2012, as he’s a steady constant in the backfield and has started to develop some skills in the passing game to match (Jackson has had 4 receiving TDs the last three years and averages 8.8 per reception overall). Spiller, though, benefited hugely from time on the field due to Jackon’s injury, getting his first 100-yard game against Denver and his first multi-TD game against Miami.
Now, if you look at the stats from last year, Jackson starts to show his age as his rushes start to add up, showing a marked drop-off in production over time. His first ten carries in games last year, Freddy averaged 6.2/carry, racking up 606 yards and 4 TDs, but for the next 11-20 attempts, he averaged just 4.8 yards, 294 total and 2 TDs.
Over 20 carries, and Jackson’s average drops to 2.8. The presence of Spiller could make those stats moot in 2012, but there you have the crux of the problem from a fantasy standpoint.
If the carries go 60/40 to Jackson, or even 70/30, that
still means a cut in production for Freddy, especially late in games when Spiller’s young legs will be fresh and ready. Taking Jackson in your 2012 Draft almost encourages you to take Spiller in the late rounds to cover your bases, but then you’re left deciding who to start, made to study not only the strength of the opposition’s run defense, but also their defensive style (do they defend well up the middle with big bodies,  which would hinder Jackson, or do they do well defending the outside, Spiller’s forte).
Jackson will likely get 1,000+ on the ground in 2012, may get double digit TDs for the first time in his career, and will definitely be a major part of the Bills’ offense. The risk is largely not trusting when he’ll have big days, or when Spiller will, as C.J. could also see 1,000 yards in 2012 (probably rushing and receiving combined).
You could spend most of the season a week late if you’re not careful, starting Jackson a game he’s off, then starting C.J. the following week when Fred breaks for 120 and 2 TDs. They’re both great second or third starters, but don’t bet your fantasy season on either and if you do end up with both, be sure you know you’re NFL defenses, or they could burn you pretty bad this season (and don’t start them both either, there’s only so many yards to be gained).

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WIDE RECEIVERS

Steve Johnson

(2011: 1,004 yds, 7 TDs)
Buffalo has a clear No. 1 receiver here in Steve Johnson, who has back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons the last two years (the only player in Bills history to do this) and a combined 17 TDs over that time.
He may get the occasional dropsies late in big games (see the Jets in 2011, the Steelers in 2010), but he got above average stats the last two years and did it in 2011 with a season-long groin injury.
He’s also been very consistent, averaging 13.2 YPC last year, 13.1 the year before, and had about 63 yards per game over that span.
With his new contract, new maturity (hopefully), and increased rhythm/connection with Fitzpatrick (who lobbied to get Steve’s new deal done), Johnson’s a top 10 wide receiver and could put up career high touchdown and yardage numbers in Buffalo this year.
Take him if he’s there, especially if he falls past the fourth or fifth round of your draft.
However, Stevie won’t be doing anything major without first finding a No. 2 receiver, as defenses are already keying on Johnson in games. Though Nelson put up the second best numbers in 2011 for Buffalo, he played largely out of the slot as the No. 3 and barring any unforeseen issues, will remain in that spot. He’s got good numbers there and could be solid to have as a replacement player for when one of your starters is on a bye, but you probably shouldn’t use a pick on him in your draft.
Donald Jones

(2011: 231 yds, TD)
Then there’s Donald Jones, entering his third season with the Bills and my choice for Sleeper Pick on the Bills in 2012. Though rookie, T.J. Graham has been looking good in OTAs and minicamp for Buffalo, he might have another year before we see him doing anything more substantial than returning kicks, and he definitely won’t be the No. 2 going into the season (though he could get a big play here and there).
Nope, as of right now, No. 2 is Jones’ spot to lose, even though he’s only put up 444 yards in two NFL seasons, with a single TD each year.
Here’s why: when Jones came out of the tiny college of Youngstown State, he was seen as a field stretcher with a great vertical leap (41″ at the Combine), but was pegged as a guy that needed to mature before he could be considered a weapon at receiver. According to the Bills, the offseason discussions about finding a sure second receiver in Buffalo, combined with the team’s active pursuit of Robert Meachum and Vincent Jackson got to Jones.
Then, when they drafted Graham, Jones had all the reason he needed to go out and prove that, after Johnson, the Buffalo receiving game goes through Donald.
That kind of attitude could get him some big chances to show that he’s got the talent he professes, especially early in the year, so look for him to do something in the opening weeks of the season. He did have 5 receptions for 101 yds against New England last year, so you know he’s got 100-yard games in him (even if the Patriots’ defense was horrid).
If he truly does start to put up some numbers in 2012 (and if he can stay healthy), it might be nice to grab him off the wire Week 2 or 3 before others start to catch on. Another great replacement player either way, but also someone who could really surprise people in 2012.
TIGHT END

Scott Chandler 

(2011: 389 yds, 6 TDs)
Before getting dinged up towards the end of the year (much like every other player on the roster, it seemed), Scott Chandler was having some big games in Buffalo. Week 1: 5 rec, 63 yards, 2 TDs. Week 8: 2 rec, 35 yards, 2 TDs. Week 11: 5 rec, 71 yards.
For a guy who was shopped around for several years to San Diego and Dallas before winding up in Buffalo, Chandler has shown some game on the field and became a vital part of the Bills’ offense last season. He’s speedy (ran a 4.78 40-yard dash), has great hands, and can use his 6’7″, 263-pound frame to not only outleap many defenders, but bowl them over after the catch.
He averaged 10.8 YPC last year and is a great backup tight end pick that can get you some solid games, but he hasn’t quite shown enough to be a starter in your fantasy league as of yet.
Let’s face it, tight ends are changing in the NFL. No longer the blocker who occasionally is called on to catch a pass when all other options are covered, players like Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis are opening eyes for how an athletic tight end can be used as a receiving weapon in the NFL (and, thusly, as a fantasy football gold mine). Chandler showed glimpses of that promise and could continue to improve in 2012, but he’s not a sure bet by any means quite yet.
Another name to keep an eye on is offseason pick-up Dorin Dickerson. An H-back/tight end out of Pittsburgh (where he had 63 rec, 708 yds, and 12 TDs), Dickerson went undrafted and ended up signing with Houston for seven games, but accrued no discernable stats before being let go. However this year, the Bills have been crowing about him throughout OTAs and Dorin’s seen a lot of work with the first team (a whole lot…) playing the same role he did in college.
Though he’s been listed as both a fullback and wide receiver on different rosters, Gailey doesn’t have much use for a fullback in his offense and has more than enough receiver options, so Dickerson could likely play opposite Chandler in double tight end sets.
Either way, the Bills’ coaching staff are building plays around his skill set and his unique abilities could see him getting heavily involved in the Buffalo offense (
or being shuffled around like Brad Smith). Keep an eye on him, he could be a big surprise and put up some good fantasy numbers this year (if he’s as good as Buffalo thinks he is).

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Defense

(2011: 20 INTs, 11 recovered fumbles, 6 TDs; 29 sacks, 1 safety; allowed 27.1 pts/game, 3,714 yds, 30 TDs)
If there was a clear problem in Buffalo last season (after injuries), it was the pass rush and, well, the defense as a whole.
Granted, their 20 INTs ranked them sixth in the league and their six total TDs ranked them second, but many an owner was burned by the Bills’ porous defense last season, especially late in the year.
19th in passing yards allowed, 28th against the rush, and 30th in points allowed, Buffalo’s defense didn’t exactly impress, especially in their sack total, ranked 27th (though they would have been last had they not had  nine sacks against the Redskins).
Things have changed, though, in the offseason. Enter new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt and a return to the 4-3 defense. Then, free agency brought in Mario Williams, healed from a pectoral injury, and bringing a career 53 sacks and 192 tackles in six seasons. DE Mark Anderson soon followed, fresh off a 10-sack season with the Patriots in 2011.
Combined with rookie standout Marcell Dareus, who performed above and beyond last season for 43 tackles and 5.5. sacks, and the returning Kyle Williams (197 tackles, 13.5 sacks in six seasons, though he only played five games last year), the Bills’ front-four seem to be one of the best lineups in the league.
The Bills are deep with talent as well this year. Shawne Merriman looks healthy for the first time in several years, LB Nick Barnett returns for a second year after leading the team with 130 tackles in 2011 (he also had 3 sacks, 3 INTs, and a forced fumble), and incoming rookie CB Stephon Gilmore brings a solid college career of 40 starts as a defender in the SEC, getting 173 tackles, 7 sacks, 8 INTs, and a TD over that time.
Last season, Buffalo’s defense started as a fantasy glutton, getting eight of their 20 INTs in two early games against the Patriots and the Eagles. After their nine sack performance against the Redskins, many people rushed to trade or pick up the Bills’ defense, only to find themselves with a subpar, underperforming, and point-less mess.
Their last nine included a horrible game against Dallas (allowed 433 total yards, 4 TDs, 3 field goals, and got no sacks or INTs) and a huge letdown game against New England to end the season (allowed 480 total yards, 5 TDs, 2 field goals, though they did come up with 4 sacks and an INT… after leading 21-0 after one).
Those issues, though, should be fixed for 2012, with a loaded, largely young, hungry defensive backfield (CB Aaron Williams, safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson… maybe CB Terrence McGee if he can stay whole), a revamped front four with talent and depth (translating to several great back up options should Mario Williams go down again… or Kyle Williams), and a linebacker corps that’s just plain fast and aggressive.
The Bills have the potential to be a top 5 defense and should stampede out of the gate against teams like the Jets (an offensive mess), Cleveland (still looking for a QB… and some success), and at home to New England (Buffalo may have given up points and yards, but they also had 5 INTs, 4 sacks, and a TD in those two 2011 games).
Hey, you may not be able to depend on the offense to perform, but the Buffalo defense should be a lock in any league this season, especially down the stretch against Miami, St Louis, and Indianapolis.
In the end, Buffalo version 2012 has some varied, viable options for fantasy owners and you may actually see some players wind up on teams not owned by residents of Western New York (gasp…).
Though there’s still a lot of questions surrounding the Bills’ offense, enough to keep them from being your first options, the defense looks dependable enough to be a week-to-week starter should they stay healthy (though, again, they can afford more losses than last season).
Also, the Bills did start with the highest scoring offense in the league in 2011 and have a relatively easy schedule late, so having players like Johnson and Fitzpatrick on your team could pay off much bigger in the second half.
And… on top of all of that… kicker Rian Lindell was re-signed and you could do worse than a guy who averages 80.9% on field goals and has made longs of 53 (three times), 54 (2001), and 56 (just two seasons ago). Sure, it’s just a kicker, but if he’s there amongst the rest when it comes time to grab a leg, Lindell’s been one of the most consistent fantasy performers the Bills have had the last decade.
Maybe the Bills will see more of that consistency in the fantasy game this year. Enjoy the season.
Joshua Bauer is a writer for Football Nation

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