The Rex Ryan tenure came to a premature (was it really, though?) end with a game to play in 2016, as he was — by his account — fired for questioning his future with the organization. The Bills front office turned to Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott as a first-time head coach, and he, in turn, hired veteran playcaller Rick Dennison from the Denver Broncos to run the offense.
… And run they will do in Buffalo. Before we explore the offense, however, we must get to know McDermott a little better.
The new guy in town
Following six season as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator, McDermott will turn 43 in March, making him among the youngest NFL head coaches. He previously called the shots on defense in Philadelphia during the 2009 and ’10 seasons. Prior to working for Ron Rivera, Andy Reid is the only NFL boss McDermott has known.
Being defensive-minded, taking over a squad that has a fair amount of individual talent, McDermott may not have to work too hard at turning around 2016’s middling group. Re-signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore would go a long way in easing the transition, as well as retaining inside linebacker Zach Brown. Gilmore is arguably the top cornerback available on the open market, and Brown is among the best at his position among unrestricted free agents.
The 2015 Panthers Super Bowl squad was the clearest example of his prowess as a defensive mind, but fantasy gamers will need to rely on Dennison’s offensive approach to generate statistical success.
In nine of the past 11 seasons, Dennison has been the offensive coordinator during two stints with the Broncos and a four-year run in Houston. He was an offensive line coach in 2009 for Denver, and his lone season in Baltimore (2014) was spent coaching quarterback Joe Flacco.
While with Houston, Gary Kubiak had a major role in calling plays and developing offensive game plans. It continued, albeit in a lesser degree, in Denver. Of those nine years, just two resulted in yardage totals below the halfway mark of the league. The Texans from 2010 to 2012 finished ninth, 10th and eighth, respectively, in offensive points scored, primarily fueled by an Arian Foster-led rushing attack that did not finish outside of the top four in rushing TDs during that span.
Three times Dennison’s offenses have racked up top-10 totals in rushing and passing attempts. The 2016 Broncos — with a shaky backfield — ran the ball 41.8 percent of the time, slightly up from the previous season’s mark of 40.4 percent. His 2013 Texans offense toted it even less (39.5 percent), but that figure became much more balanced with a healthy quarterback and running back in 2012 (47.8 run, 52.2 pass). Going back to the 2011 season is the only time in the past six campaigns as an OC that resulted in a higher run than pass average (53.9 percent).
Denver finished 27th in offensive yards gained per play last season at just 5.1. That figure wasn’t too much better in 2015, but the 5.4 yards-per-play average was good enough for 17th. Even during the prolific 2012 season with Houston, the offense averaged only 5.5 per play — illustrating the commitment to a run game and a short-area passing attack, which is a hallmark of West Coast systems.
Now that we have an idea of what type of system Dennison prefers, the personnel in Buffalo begins to give us a clearer idea of what to expect for fantasy purposes.
First and foremost, quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s future is the elephant in the room. Dennison has found success with a variety of quarterbacking styles, including mobile and statuesque, which gives Buffalo a tremendous amount of flexibility. Taylor is due a $27.5 million injury guarantee in his looming contract option, which Buffalo has to reconcile in some fashion by March 11.
Presuming Taylor restructures his deal, he will be reunited with Dennison from their 2014 time together in Baltimore. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport said Taylor is a big reason why Dennison agreed to the job in Buffalo, thus boding well for Taylor remaining in Western New York. That said, he’s no better than a midrange backup in most fantasy circles.
As outlined above, Dennison has done a fine job at curating a potent rushing attack. He has preferred to rely on one back when it works well, but the former linebacker is no stranger to splitting the backfield workload when needed. Having LeSean McCoy at his disposal is a wonderful sight for fantasy owners. Mike Gillislee showed capable of spelling Shady and even earning series of his own.
The Bills have a dynamic receiving star in Sammy Watkins, even if he has struggled to remain on the field during his young career. His per-game figures are as respectable as anyone at his position. Wide receiver Robert Woods is set to test the market as an unrestricted free agent this spring, and it appears unlikely Buffalo will retain his services. That brings us to Marquise Goodwin, also a UFA, whose downfield speed makes him a dangerous weapon and convincing decoy. Addressing the position in 2017’s draft and free agency will be a must.
Among the other notable offensive free agents-to-be, quarterback EJ Manuel, starting right tackle Jordan Mills, fullback Jerome Felton, wideout Justin Hunter and non-factor running back Reggie Bush. The Bills have an estimated $26 million in cap space before signing the incoming draft class. A hearty 21 teams have more money to play with as of publishing.
The playcalling chores in 2016 switched from Greg Roman to Anthony Lynn, whose history as a running backs coach was evident by the way Buffalo went on to deploy McCoy. Emphasizing the running game under Dennison will not be unfamiliar to current Bills players.
Tight ends are involved in the Dennison system — a common thread among West Coast offenses. Charles Clay has shown to be a very capable fantasy option when healthy, and his role could spike if Dennison is challenged by finding a replacement for Woods and/or Watkins’ injury woes continue to plague him.
On the defensive side, which is, as mentioned way back when, the forte of McDermott, Buffalo has some work to do personnel-wise. Just two seasons ago this was an opportunistic group on the back end. While there is potential, especially in a division with four games against Miami and the New York Jets, expecting an immediate turnaround is ambitious.
Considering the time of the year and volume of potential changes ahead, the fantasy heavyweights in this offense could start and end with Shady McCoy. There is enough merit to optimistically believe a healthy Watkins and Clay could rank among the top dozen or so players at their respective positions. Taylor’s retention is the wildcard, because without his veteran presence, this one could go sideways in a hurry.