Doug Marrone's first season at the helm of the Buffalo Bills did not go so smoothly. The Bills finished 6-10, good for last in the AFC East, and had to go through an embarrassing turnstile of backup quarterbacks while 2013 first round pick E.J. Manuel was injured. C.J. Spiller, whom many expected to take another step forward, became a mediocre running back. The Bills were usually able to compete in games thanks to an elite defense that excelled at stopping the pass.
Sammy Watkins was drafted to move along E.J. Manuel's development, so expectations are high for both players. But for reasons explained below, the Bills are unlikely to compete in the division without significant progress from Manuel and company.
QB: E.J. Manuel
Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA, from Football Outsiders is a useful efficiency metric that I find is more informative of actual performance than raw fantasy points. In 2013, E.J. Manuel placed 37th among quarterbacks, behind guys like Christian Ponder, Chad Henne, and Matt Schaub. Looking at small-sample rushing DVOA, Manuel rated in the middle of the pack among quarterbacks when running the football. So much for the dual-threat. Bringing in Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins should make life in Buffalo a little easier, but he needs to prove that he can complete a full NFL season before being considered standard league material.
Spiller was no doubt a disappointment last season after finishing near the bottom of both rushing and receiving DVOA for running backs. Meanwhile, Jackson was left for dead and was wildly efficient. Unless otherwise indicated, expect the Bills to stick to a run-centric offense, which means that Spiller and Jackson will have value as long as they can produce.
It's dangerous to just presume running backs are done when they get to certain ages. Frank Gore has defied that logic for a few years, and a 32 year-old Jackson gave fantasy owners a lot of usable weeks in 2013. Working in Jackson's favor, though, is that he spent three years playing indoor and overseas football, so he has fewer carries than most other running backs of his age.
On the other hand, Brown was acquired from the Eagles and will stand as one of the more valuable handcuffs this season, since he would instantly gain 15-20 carries per week. We've seen what he can do when he has filled in for LeSean McCoy in the past.
Will Manuel produce despite his receivers or will his receivers produce despite him? Steve Johnson is off to San Francisco, replaced by Williams and Watkins, who look to split Johnson's targets and then some. Watkins is probably going to be overdrafted this year in redraft leagues due to the hype around his draft stock, while Williams is getting drafted with the lottery tickets in early mocks. If the Bills didn't draft a high profile receiver, Woods would have made for an interesting guy to watch, but I don't think he'll get the necessary targets now. Also, Graham and Goodwin are on watch lists for much deeper leagues, but they're unlikely to make sizable impacts.
Both Chandler and Moeaki profile as streaming plays at best. At first, Chandler will get the bulk of the red zone targets between the two, so Moeaki won't present any real value unless he takes targets away or Chandler gets hurt.
The Bills defense will feature most of the same personnel, minus safety Jairus Byrd and coordinator Mike Pettine, who signed elsewhere, and linebacker Kiko Alonso. On the bright side, the Bills managed to plug holes with the additions of linebackers Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers as well as cornerback Corey Graham. Each of these guys was a free agent for a reason, but should have football left in the tank. The loss of Byrd will hurt, but most of the defense's success hinges on the play of the defensive line, anyway. Touchdowns, which drive fantasy value, are random, but the Bills defense is one of the best at limiting its oppositions' yards.