“No take backs” was a very important concept to learn as a child, nearly on-par with “I call shotgun” and “snitches get stitches”.
Why am I reminded of these playground axioms? Well, if the Buffalo Bills’ defensive minds had kept to the first of these, sticking to what they said, perhaps their defensive identity wouldn’t have become so muddled and awful. From 2011 through 2014, the Bills changed their defensive scheme each season, then Rex Ryan blustered in and the Bills have had
stability stagnancy in a 3-4 for all of the last two years.
Former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott enters the picture this off-season as the Bills’ new head coach, bringing with him Leslie Frazier as his defensive coordinator. Both of them are disciples of the 4-3 front, which means that they will make the sixth shift in seven years.
All these conversions are enough to make one’s head spin, but is it enough to make the Buffalo Bills into excellent IDP options once more?
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Former head coach Rex Ryan ran a hybrid defensive scheme based out of a 3-4 defense, with plenty of strong safety pressure in the box like the classic Buddy Ryan 46; new coach McDermott runs a classic 4-3 under scheme as his base, one that derived from his mentor Jim Johnson. McDermott doesn’t rely on heavy blitz attacks as often as Johnson did, but has the same sort of preference for speedy, rangy linebackers to handle a variety of responsibilities.
The 4-3 under is the most common manifestation of the 4-3 scheme these days. “4” means four down linemen and “3” is three linebackers off the line of scrimmage.
As shown in the image (from Buffalo Rumblings), this is a one-gapping front (most 4-3 schemes are), which means that each of the front-seven defenders have a specific gap in the linemen that they attack. By not having to maintain two gaps and react to either at the line, this gives a greater potential for sacks and stuffs behind the line.
As I noted in my rundown on the Los Angeles Rams’ scheme change, most of the top-tier fantasy production from IDP players relative to each position comes from the 4-3 defense. This gap attack philosophy also offers plenty of chance for solo tackles — a much more lucrative stat for IDP fantasy than assisted tackles.
Overall, this is a great move for the fantasy production of the Buffalo IDP options. Let’s break their scheme shift down by position now.
Pro Bowler Marcell Dareus will be shifting back to the 1-technique nose tackle in this scheme. Dareus played the off-center role for the Bills two years ago in Jim Schwartz’s defense and had a career season, racking up 11.0 stuffs, 9.0 sacks, and 12.0 quarterback hits. He’ll remain the defensive line’s anchor, and while the defensive tackle spot isn’t a fantasy goldmine due to lower snap counts (678 in 15 games), he has a floor of about 40 combined tackles, 5.0 stuffs, and 5.0 sacks, good for at least a low-end DT1 last season. He’ll remain an impactful fantasy presence as long as he can keep out of off-field trouble.
Deandre Coleman will back up Dareus here, a 6’5”, 341 lbs. run stuffer and two-gapping nose tackle. Coleman is unlikely to be a fantasy factor, as he is unaccomplished as a pass-rusher and could only find 46 snaps across 5 games played last year, even with Dareus suspended for four games.
Jerel Worthy is cheaply signed for 2017 and should return as depth for the tackle spots. The former second-round bust played all of four games — registering no stats — from 2013 to 2015. Even in 13 games of rotational snaps this year, he earned just 12 combined tackles.
Veteran defensive lineman Kyle Williams is going into his age-34 season, but should be back for 2017 at least. Williams has been consistently productive throughout his career, regardless of scheme, but averaged 45 combined tackles, 9.0 stuffs, and 5.0 sacks across his last two stints in a 4-3 defense. He averaged 755.5 snaps across those seasons, too, and still managed 795 last year. He hasn’t slowed down one bit in his workload, and could be a steal for next year alone; he has low-end DT1 potential.
Adolphus Washington played the 5-technique end in last year’s 3-4 defense, or to play a 3-tech interior role like he did in college at Ohio State. He’ll resume the latter job in 2017 in the 4-3 defense, but due to Kyle Williams’s return, it’s likely that he will be rotational at best in his second season. Expect a shift to “DT” eligibility, which will make him much more valuable; on just 332 snaps last year, he had 21 tackles, 3.0 stuffs, and 2.5 sacks. Washington is a taxi stash for DT-specific leagues; his skill-set in the interior could lend itself to fantasy success.
Corbin Bryant found his way to season-ending I.R. this year and is a poor scheme fit for the 4-3. He’s an impending free agent and unlikely to return, going on 30.
Jerry Hughes has been swung from stand-up to hand-in-dirt so many times now that it’s impossible to count. He’s an incredible pass-rusher no matter how or where he lines up on the field, so this position shift won’t affect his production much. What it will do is move him back to the thinner “DE” eligibility pool, which is very good for dynasty owners. Even better is that he’ll be lined up on the weak-side as McDermott’s 9-technique pass-rusher, traditionally the “sack artist” role. Over the last four years in a full complement of snaps, Hughes has averaged 49 tackles, 4.5 stuffs, and 7.5 sacks a year; even better, his one season in a 4-3 as a defensive end led him to 54 tackles, 13 stuffs, and 10 sacks. He’s a big buy-low candidate this offseason and could be in the DE1 conversation again.
2016 first-round rookie Shaq Lawson is likely the strong-side defensive end opposite Hughes, and will be asked to read the play a bit more and both attack the pass and defend the run. Lawson’s strength and ability to maintain the line of scrimmage play into this role well. The only concern we have about projecting him here is that we just haven’t seen him yet, so we don’t know what we’re getting! If his 2016 injuries have healed as expected, Lawson should be a strong DE2/3 for dynasty.
The depth at defensive end for a 4-3 Bills front is pretty subpar. 2015 sixth-rounder Max Valles might find time as rotational end, due to his electric measurables (4.83 forty, 36.5” vertical jump, 10’1” broad jump ) at his size (6’4”, 250 lbs.). He was miscast in a 3-4 scheme, but he has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. IK Enemkpali is still technically employed by the team, but has been suspended four games and injured 16 in the last two years. He’s a decent pass-rush specialist when healthy, but isn’t even rosterable outside of deep leagues.
Middle Linebacker (MIKE)
Preston Brown has shown the kind of intelligence and awareness time and time again that makes a player a perennial Pro Bowler. He’s a tackler — not a blitzer — through and through; he has increased his tackle count annually from 109 to 129 to 139 combined in each season in the pros, but has just one sack in three years. Still, he’s the perfect fit for the MIKE role, and has experience leading the defense as the signal-caller and reader of the schemes. Brown should remain in the middle role as a three-down ‘backer this season; there’s no reason to expect any different. Brown is an unsexy tackle racker with a high floor and little ceiling; he’s a solid dynasty LB2.
Brandon Spikes is an impending free agent going on age-30. He’s had solid years as a thumper middle linebacker, but would only be depth if he comes back to Buffalo, and possibly third-string at that.
Weak-side Linebacker (WILL)
If the Bills can re-sign Zach Brown, it will be a coup for this organization. Brown was an injury fill-in last year and turned out to be an IDP stud, racking up 147 combined tackles, 11.0 as stuffs, and 4.0 sacks. Brown would fit best at the WILL for Buffalo, due to his range and coverage skills (which no other linebacker on the roster has to his level), but he’ll still likely stay about as productive as last year or downgrade slightly due to no two-gapping for the linemen. When the linemen don’t get to attack, linebackers do, which is why Brown flew around the field. Still, even a 20 percent decrease in production would put him around a low-end LB1 for next year. He’s an upside LB2 for dynasty if he re-signs with Buffalo.
Ramon Humber was on a one-year deal last year and signed to provide depth for all of the injuries, but has only been a substantial contributor on special teams throughout his career.
Strong-side Linebacker (SAM)
It was a rough year for early-round Buffalo rookies in 2016, as second-rounder Reggie Ragland also went down for the season and never saw the field. Still, we know Ragland was an efficient and vicious tackler in college. The reason he’s slotted in at SAM for us is that he has serious issues in coverage, but still is great in run support. His high draft status last year ensures that he’ll get playing time somehow, but it’s unclear if that will be a two- or three-down role, and which linebacker spot he’ll occupy. If he’s the full-time MIKE, then he could flirt with dynasty LB2 status this season. If he’s a SAM and isn’t in sub-packages, he’s more of an LB4.
Nearly 34-year old Lorenzo Alexander has always been a part-time player in his nearly 10-year career, but had a breakout season for the ages as an outside linebacker last year. His 64 tackles, 9.5 stuffs, and 12.5 sacks were incredible, but he may be a poor scheme fit due to never playing as a true 4-3 end. He might return as depth, but was never intended to start last year anyway.
Lerentee McCray has wandered from Denver to Green Bay over the last four years before winding up in Buffalo this past off-season. He’s a fixture on special teams, and played a hybrid pass-rush/coverage position from the linebacker spot in college. Those skills will keep him employed, but he’s not a dynasty stash.
The base coverage for this team will be Cover 2, where the safeties (most often) are both back and defending the big play over the top of the receivers. Sometimes safety blitzes are mixed in, but both safeties are primarily used to help mask the deficiencies of an aggressive front-seven. Corey Graham and Aaron Williams (if he returns from injury) are likely to both have fewer tackle numbers than most seasons, and both can be considered DB3’s at best — Graham downgraded due to age.
Cornerbacks in this scheme are used in zone coverage and run support, however, which means they will be playing closer to the line and up to tackle more frequently. Two Carolina cornerbacks were on full-season paces for CB1 status in 2016. This is a productive scheme for cornerbacks and CB-specific dynasty leagues, so big bounce-backs for Ronald Darby, Stephon Gilmore, and Nickell Robey-Coleman are likely.
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