The Buffalo Bills entered 2015 with great expectations on defense. After ranking fourth in the NFL in 2014 running the 4-3 of Jim Schwartz, new head coach Rex Ryan was going to switch the Bills to the 3-4, weave his maestro’s wand and Buffalo was going to go from very, very good to very, very scary.
Instead, the Bills underperformed in a huge way on that side of the ball, ranking 19th in total defense and an eye-popping 31st in the league with 21 sacks — 33 fewer than their league-leading total the year before. That led to a shake-up along the defensive line highlighted by the release of disgruntled defensive end Mario Williams (DL92), and leaves more than a few questions hovering over the Bills IDPs in 2016.
*Numbers in parentheses denote 2015 finish in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring.
With Williams taking the year off (no, really — he dogged it big-time), the Bills’ best pass-rusher in 2015 was Jerry Hughes (DL26). And even his sacks were cut in half, from 10 in 2014 to five last year. Now that Williams is in Miami, SB Nation’s Chris Trapasso called the 27-year old one of the Bills’ biggest X-factors in 2016.
“At his age, with his skills, in his role,” Trapasso said, “Hughes is primed to be a double-digit sack machine once again in the Bills defense this season. Though he’s not talked about often, he’s truly one of Buffalo’s defensive foundations and the team’s most significant X-factor on that side of the football.”
Hughes is quite the X-factor in IDP as well, especially given that his DL eligibility doesn’t extend to all fantasy providers. If Trapasso’s right and he rebounds in 2016, Hughes could be a huge value at his current ADP, but trusting him to provide weekly starter numbers this season is a roll of the dice.
Outside of Hughes, things dry up pretty quickly on the shores of Lake Erie, which is saying a lot given that as recently as two years this was considered arguably the most loaded D-line in the NFL. Tackle Marcell Dareus (DL59) succumbed to an even bigger statistical free-fall than Hughes in Ryan’s scheme last year. Kyle Williams (DL189) is well past 30 and missed 10 games in 2015. And rookie Adolphus Washington (DNP), while being talked up as a Day 1 starter, has a ways to go when it comes to defending the run. None are more than late-draft dart throws.
Twice in two NFL seasons, inside linebacker Preston Brown (LB23) has topped 100 total tackles, but he’s also yet to post even 70 solo stops in a campaign. In Year 2 of Ryan’s scheme and calling the plays for the Bills, Brown told Andrew Kuczkowski of the team’s website he intends to make 2016 his coming-out party.
“It’s time for me to be that kind of player,” Brown said. “I kind of sat back and didn’t do as much as I could’ve last year. But it’s time to win and we all have to otherwise who knows who’ll be here next year. We’ve got to go out there and get these wins so I think me being vocal and helping guys out will serve as a recipe to get that done.”
Even in a relatively disappointing 2015 season Brown was able to finish in low-end IDP LB2 territory. If he comes anywhere close to accomplishing his goal this year, a bump into the top 15 is a real possibility.
The inside linebacker spot opposite Brown features a battle between veteran free-agent signee Zach Brown (LB55) and rookie second-round pick Reggie Ragland (DNP), a 247-pound wrecking ball Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said “will show up and thump people.” Ragland will have to show himself a quick study to earn subpackage work in addition to a base role, but the former Alabama star has enough upside, to at the very least, be in the LB4 conversation.
Most of the Buffalo defense may have been a dumpster fire last year, but the same cannot be said for safety Corey Graham. Graham (DB4), led the team with 127 tackles. Granted, Graham’s ranking of 34th among safeties at Pro Football Focus wasn’t especially great, but as PFF’s Steve Palazzolo noted there aren’t many surer tacklers at the position in the NFL.
“Graham had only three missed tackles on 104 attempts, one every 35.7 attempts,” he said. “It was the best rate among linebackers and safeties.” It’s that tackling skill that makes Graham such an attractive IDP option, and he’s an elite secondary option in most scoring systems.
The same can’t be said of batterymate Aaron Williams (DB228), who missed almost the entire 2015 season with a neck injury. Even when healthy, Williams was little more than an uninspiring DB3. Given his injury and long layoff he’s only marginally draftable in deeper fantasy leagues in 2016.
From an NFL perspective, the Bills best defender in 2015 may have been one of their newest. Cornerback Ronald Darby (DB32) played very well in 15 starts as a rookie, ranking as a top-10 option both per Pro Football Focus and in fantasy scoring among cornerbacks. Kevin Patra of NFL.com expects Darby’s play to improve in Year 2.
“I expect quarterbacks to start looking elsewhere to throw the ball,” Patra said, “negating some of Darby’s chances to make plays. His passes defensed totals (he had 21 in 2015, fifth-most in the NFL) could take a dip, but his impact will take a leap.”
In other words, Darby could be poised to become one of the NFL’s best young cover corners — too good at his job to be of much use to IDP owners. A small bump in tackle numbers would offset a drop-off in passes defensed, but even treading water for Darby means only low-end starter status in CB-required formats and the waiver wire in shallower IDP leagues.