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Team Previews: Buffalo Bills

Dave McKay

Dave McKay writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

THE SKINNY
The Bills led the league in rushing last season and saw their defense return to respectability. Though the team hasn't made the playoffs since 1999, the team's fan base enjoys renewed optimism in 2017, with a revamped coaching staff and new front office leadership now in place.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

DAYLIGHT FOR SHADY
Last season resulted in one of LeSean McCoy's finest efforts in the league, featuring a career-best 5.4 yards per carry, 14 total TDs and zero fumbles lost over 15 contests. McCoy, who turns 29 in July, is still in his prime and more importantly approaches the 2017 season healthy. On one level, the running back's injury concerns have been blown out of proportion considering he's averaged 14.6 games played during his eight NFL campaigns, never playing in fewer than 12. On the other, he's a frequent flyer on the injury report; even though McCoy guts out a lot of games something always seems to be nagging him, to the point where he's often slow to get up and appears to need more in-game maintenance than the league's younger elite backs. Despite the Bills' offseason coaching changes, from a fantasy standpoint, McCoy's situation and opportunity for touches remain among the best in the league, with the team's passing attack still a work in progress. After leading the NFL in rushing last year, the Bills demonstrated their continued commitment to the ground game by trading up in the draft to add powerful run blocker Dion Dawkins. On the flip side, losing Mike Gillislee, who scored nine TDs last season, was a hit, leaving Jonathan Williams, Joe Banyard, Cedric O'Neal and fullback Mike Tolbert to fill the backup void.

DOES TAYLOR FIT?
As training camp approaches, QB Tyrod Taylor, who's declared himself fully healthy following offseason groin surgery, finds himself in an interesting position. He's settling in as a veteran starter, but is his future in Buffalo secure? The Bills displayed a level of commitment to Taylor (who turns 28 in August) in retaining him as their top signal-caller but also asked him to rework his contract on team-friendly terms. Taylor's short-term status is secure, but if he disappoints this year, the Bills will be able to trade or release him without taking much of a cap hit. Last season, Taylor saw a slight dip across the board in his passing stats with his QB rating dropping from 99.4 to 89.6 and his TD passes falling from 20 to 17, even with a 14.7 percent increase in pass attempts. He's certainly not in the top tier of fantasy starters given that the Bills are a run-oriented team and are expected to remain that way, but don't sleep on him. Taylor was actually the No. 13 fantasy QB in standard scoring in 2016, as his 580 rushing yards (fueled by a 6.1 yards per carry average) and six scores on the ground went a long way. With a full campaign from a healthy Sammy Watkins hopefully on tap and a new coach in Sean McDermott, who will perhaps open up things a tad more, there's no reason Taylor can't fit into the top 15 once again.

REGIME RELOAD
Following the team's 7-9 finish in 2016, the Bills overhauled their front office and coaching staff this offseason. In advance of that, coach Rex Ryan was relieved of his duties in Week 17 last season and subsequently replaced by veteran NFL defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Even with a lack of head coaching experience, the well-respected McDermott is ready for the top position after logging six years as the defensive coordinator in Carolina. Prior to his tenure with the Panthers, he served a long stint on the defensive side of the ball on Andy Reid's staff in Philadelphia. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has spent most of his career with the Broncos and with Gary Kubiak at his various stops in the league. Under the new staff, expect efficient use of the Bills' resources and a continued commitment to a strong running game in the context of a West Coast offense. This bodes well for LeSean McCoy's value, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield, where he had 50 receptions on just 57 targets in 2016. Those numbers could see an uptick this year. Based on Dennison's track record with quarterbacks, it's hard to know what level of production we'll see from Tyrod Taylor, but the signal-caller's wheels and propensity to take care of the ball could mesh well within the team's new scheme.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Sammy Watkins
It's a make-or-break season for Watkins. The Bills declined his fifth-year option, so he's looking at his first free-agent contract after the 2017 campaign. The wideout must show he's healthy after missing 11 games over the past two years. If he is, a Bills team that runs well and plays solid defense, but lacks playmakers, will benefit.

BAROMETER

RISING: Zay Jones
After hauling in a staggering 158 passes as a college senior, Jones lands in a good context with Buffalo. With Robert Woods having left as a free agent, the team needs someone to step up as a complement to Sammy Watkins.

FALLING: Charles Clay
Since agreeing to a lucrative offer sheet with the Bills after the 2014 season, Clay has underwhelmed from a fantasy perspective. His production picked up down the stretch last year, but prior to that, he was often an afterthought.

SLEEPER: Jonathan Williams
With Mike Gillislee having left, Williams is the top candidate to secure the team's No. 2 RB job behind LeSean McCoy. With that, added short-yardage opportunities also could be in the cards for the 2016 fifth-rounder.

KEY JOB BATTLE THE STARTER OPPOSITE Sammy Watkins
Sammy Watkins, who looks to be healthy and is projected to be ready for the coming season, is unquestionably the top receiver on the roster. But who is No. 2? The strength of the Bills' running game is sure to free up some space for QB Tyrod Taylor through the air, bringing with it good opportunity for whomever is anointed as the team's other starting wideout. Andre Holmes was signed as a free agent from the Raiders and boasts excellent size at 6-foot-4 and some solid experience in the league. The other veteran candidate is Corey Brown, added to the roster from the Panthers. Brown is more of a shifty playmaker, though he has never quite made the most of his potential. The most obvious pick, though, is rookie Zay Jones. Taken in the second round of the draft, he has great size and the speed to play on the outside. More importantly, he was extraordinarily productive in college with 158 receptions, 1,746 receiving yards and eight touchdowns this past season, his senior year at East Carolina.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
Zay Jones WR (Rd. 2, No. 37 East Carolina)
FBS career receptions leader should get a shot to start.

STEPHEN HAUSCHKA K (from Seahawks)
Has racked up 127 points or more four years in a row.

Tre'DAVIOUS WHITE CB (Rd. 1, No. 27 LSU)
Dynamic defensive back bolsters the pass defense.

NATHAN PETERMAN QB (Rd. 5, No. 171 Pittsburgh)
Pro-ready signal-caller is set to battle for backup QB slotting.

KEY LOSSES:
Mike Gillislee RB (to Patriots)
Snagged by division rival via restricted free-agent tender.

Robert Woods WR (to Rams)
Never really lived up to his second-round draft pedigree.

DAN CARPENTER K (FA)
Converted just 76% of field goals and logged only 97 points in 2016.

STEPHON GILMORE CB (to Patriots)
The top-ranked cornerback available in free agency cashes in big.

THE INJURY FRONT
Sammy Watkins, WR Watkins had a second surgery on his foot on January 20, but word out of Buffalo is that he started taking part in team drills again on June 13. The 2014 first-rounder is on pace to be ready for the regular season and possibly even part of the preseason. It's an important year for Watkins, with free agency looming after the 2017 campaign.

Cordy Glenn, OT Fantasy football enthusiasts and pundits probably don't spend enough time considering the health of offensive linemen. The biggest strength of the Bills coming into this year has to be their league-leading rushing attack, and it all begins up front with the big guys. Glenn injured his ankle in September and has recently been seen in a walking boot, but coach Sean McDermott expects Glenn to be ready at the start of training camp.

Eric Wood, C Wood is coming back from a broken leg suffered in November. The center has said he is encouraged by his progress and should definitely be ready for the start of the season.