32 for 32: What Can We Expect Out of the Quarterback Situation in Buffalo?
Look back at the ‘highlights’ of the Bills’ 2017 season. The constant quarterback controversy between Tyrod Taylor and Head Coach Sean McDermott. Nathan Peterman’s baptizing by the Los Angeles Chargers. Rob Gronkowski dropping an elbow on Tre’Davious White. It’s hard to imagine a season with these headlines being successful.
LeSean McCoy was the only bright spot in the Bills’ offense. Owners were nervous entering the 2017 season, but McCoy surpassed 1,500 scrimmage yards behind the 27th-ranked offensive line. Other than him, the Bills had little fantasy relevance: No player on the Bills’ offense had over 1,000 air yards. The player with the most air yards was Charles Clay, and he only played in 13 games. Despite all of these things, the Bills, with a 9-7 record, played in the AFC Wild Card playoff game with Tyrod Taylor under center.
Tyrod Taylor brought value to Buffalo’s offense from both a real and fantasy perspective. His running and conservative style passing (6.9 AY/A) has been met with criticism, but his 17.8 PPG has allowed him consistently outperform his ADP. His conservative style also earned him the lowest interception rate of all quarterbacks in 2017 (1%), while ranking 15th in completion percentage. This type of production is yet to be replicated by any quarterback currently on Buffalo’s roster.
It’s hard to project the Bills to have anything close to their 2017 season. PFF projects their line as the 29th-best in the league after losing their starting C, LG, and LT. Couple that with a rough start to the season (BAL, LAC, MIN) and it makes matters worse. Also, Buffalo’s front office traded a player and two second-round picks to draft Josh Allen, but with no declaration he’ll be the starter.
The quarterback situation will be closely monitored throughout training camp and the preseason. Regardless of who gets the nod to start the season, the offense projects to be concentrated around a select few players. Matching their strengths to each quarterback will be critical to identifying value in 2018.
The Offensive Skill Players
It’s unknown how McCoy’s situation will unfold. However, assuming he plays, his workload when compared to his ADP presents one of the greatest values at the running back position.
McCoy’s opportunity, as evidenced by the above chart from FFStatistics, has rivaled the top backs in the league, but he’s come at nearly a two-round discount. His ADP has been RB12, RB9, and RB5 over the last three seasons with RB19 (12 games played), RB4, and RB7 finishes, respectively. The offensive line woes were most likely the cause of his 10.2 percent decrease in rushing yards. However, he supplemented his fantasy value with a 25.8 percent increase in receiving yards. With a greater decline in line personnel and questions at quarterback, expect McCoy’s targets to increase, buoying his production.
Charles Clay was Tyrod’s most reliable target. He had a 6.9 Average Depth of Target (aDOT), which matched Taylor’s AY/A. His 1.09 RACR was the fourth best at the position, highlighting his efficiency. He also averaged nearly twice as many targets in bad weather conditions. While touchdowns are difficult to project, his 2018 target floor should be exceptionally high. While the narrative of rookie quarterbacks and tight ends doesn’t quite hold up, he led the team with 558 air yards and was tied for second in targets. Without any significant additions, a similar opportunity should be there for him in 2018.
Kelvin Benjamin’s height makes him an easy and safe target boosting his floor. His speed, or lack thereof, could reduce his chance at yards after the catch, but he’s projected to have the most targets on the team. Benjamin could be a valuable flex play in positive matchups.
Understanding the Bills’ quarterback play comes in two phases. The first is looking at the offensive system used by the team. Matching the quarterback’s strengths and tendencies to the system is second. Both provide insight, but the combination can highlight which of the three can excel or struggle.
Brian Daboll, Offensive Coordinator
Brian Daboll has typically used concepts rooted in the ‘Erhardt-Perkins Offense’. The Patriots have been using this system for decades and Daboll worked in various positions within the New England franchise over the past 20 years. The system simplifies the play calls and features a small number of route combinations that are run from multiple formations. The primary benefits are two-fold. First, teams using the system can maintain a faster pace of play with the shorter play calls. Second, by altering the formation with the same route combo’s mismatches will open up in the defense that the quarterback can exploit.
The system also changes the blocking scheme. Rick Dennison, Daboll’s predecessor, used an outside zone blocking scheme adversely affecting the run game. McCoy struggled during the earlier parts of the season, but eventually adjusted (chart below from FFStatistics).
Daboll has used both man and zone blocking schemes during his time as a coach. But, most importantly, he’s constantly noted that he molds his scheme around the players. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the quarterbacks.
Josh Allen, Wyoming
Let’s set aside the draft capital used to acquire Josh Allen and focus on his merits as a passer and how he’d fit with Brian Daboll. Wyoming featured the Air Raid system which skews towards passing. Play calls and adjustments to pre-snap reads are quickly made as the scheme involves a heavy dose of no huddle. The heightened pace can lead to defensive mistakes and/or an exploitation of mismatches. Each of these aspects, at a conceptual level, fit into what Daboll has done in the past.
But as Benjamin Solak (The Draft Network, Bleeding Green Nation) notes, Allen’s accuracy and placement over 10 yards becomes erratic. His post-snap reads, especially in zone coverage, have led to disastrous mistakes prompting a closer look at his skills. His rushing yards and ability to create yards on the ground should be a positive trait (727 yards rushing his final two seasons). But his tendency to run after sensing pressure adds negative context to the production.
The quick reads and rocket arm could work well with play-action setups. Buffalo could see him as a potential game manager with a limited playbook as his game improves. But, he does need this time to develop in order fully translate his game from college to the NFL.
AJ McCarron, Cincinnati
Bengals fans were clamoring for McCarron as Andy Dalton floundered in the early weeks of the 2017 season. Cincinnati’s front office attempted to leverage the rumored affection between the former Alabama quarterback and Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson into a trade all to no end (#ThankYouSashi). After the league ruled in favor of McCarron’s grievance against the Bengals, he now finds himself in Buffalo with a shot at a starting position.
West Coast offenses were devised by former Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Walsh and have been a staple of the team for decades with varying twists. The short and intermediate areas of the field are filled with horizontal routes designed to stretch out the defense. More of a philosophy than a system or set of plays, but McCarron was able to hold his own during his limited starts.
McCarron played the part of game manager quite well. Despite the low yardage totals, he didn’t have a single interception. However, their offensive patterns shifted. The West Coast offense is predicated on the pass and the Bengals were at 55.8 percent for passing on the season. This dropped to 46.4 percent under McCarron.
McCarron has showed solid touch on deep balls, keeps his eyes downfield while under pressure, and can move around a clean pocket. He’s the only quarterback of the three with any NFL success. The West Coast offense is much more complex in play calls and uses personnel in different ways (e.g. running backs in the passing game). It’s not a mark against McCarron as the offense becomes simplified for him, but an adjustment will be required.
Nathan Peterman, Buffalo
Let’s just get it out of the way. Peterman threw five interceptions in 16 attempts, tying Keith Null for the most interceptions thrown in a quarterback’s first start. He passed Tyrod Taylor, who got benched in favor of Peterman, in interceptions on the season in just 17 minutes. Other than Bill Belichick’s decision to bench Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl, no other coaching decision in 2017 has been viewed as such a mistake. But the coaching staff needs to determine how Peterman can win or what he does well to better evaluate him and his place on the roster.
It’d be easy to say that Peterman’s teachings from Pitt didn’t mesh with Rick Dennison. But Dennison’s ‘West Coast-friendly’ passing and line blocking concepts should have been a reasonable request for the rookie. He was asked to be a game manager at Pitt and maximize his surrounding talent. However, his flaws were evident even then. Red zone struggles, staring down routes, and failing to accurately read zone coverage were duly noted during the draft process.
Route staring was featured in his second and third interceptions against the Los Angeles Chargers. Peterman tried to fit the ball into a tight window failing to read the zone coverage while moving in the pocket. Pocket negotiation and sensing pressure is also an issue. Notice how Peterman backs up while making the throw on his second interception. Proper training would teach him how to slide forward in the pocket so he could reset his stance and deliver from a more balanced platform. He’s gotten the NFL experience, but has shown how bad things can get behind that offensive line.
Based on experience and production, the Bills should start the season like this:
AJ McCarron starts the season, Josh Allen takes over as the Bills fall out of playoff contention, and Nathan Peterman is buried on the depth chart or moved to the practice squad.
McCarron has the most NFL experience and has shown he can pilot a pro-style offense. Adopting Daboll’s system should be simpler as compared to what he learned in Cincinnati. Josh Allen will likely get sprinkled in during the pre-season, but McCarron should get the nod to start the season. Unless the coaching staff wants to make the same mistake two years in a row of tossing a rookie quarterback to the wolves (BAL, LAC, and MIN first three weeks), they’ll give the veteran a chance. After the schedule opens up, we could see more of Josh Allen. The cold weather narrative was used as reasoning behind the selection. Without any data supporting Allen’s improved skills under poor conditions, the timing of the transition could work for the narrative (during the early winter). Regardless, these two should be the focus of any fantasy owners with an eye on the skill players in the 2018 season. All three are currently going undrafted in 2QB redraft leagues, so the cost is minimal if you want to take the plunge on a Bills signal-caller in fantasy this season.