This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Entering Year 2 of the Rex Ryan regime, the Bills have upgraded their roster and addressed the team's biggest need – the pass rush. The Buffalo faithful are banking on the offense continuing to gel, while the defense rises back to its former glory...all in the quest to end the NFL's longest playoff drought.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
THE REAL McCOY
With more than 10,000 combined rushing and receiving yards over his career, RB LeSean McCoy is fantasy football's most prominent name in Upstate New York. Still just 28 years old, Shady's true performance in 2015 was obscured a bit by four missed games due to hamstring and knee injuries. That said, McCoy's per game marks (he averaged 98.9 yards from scrimmage) were in line with career norms, so the injury concerns might be enough to yield excellent draft value in 2016. A trio of solid reserves are slated to join him in the backfield this coming season, namely fifth-round draftees Karlos Williams (2015) and Jonathan Williams (2016), plus Mike Gillislee, who showed some flashes late last year. Note that Karlos Williams will be sidelined for the first four weeks of the campaign due to a suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, and with that in mind the Bills are kicking the tires on veteran back Reggie Bush. In any case, this group's biggest impact will be the depth it provides, serving as a strong buffer to keep a healthy McCoy fresh. With a decent passing game and an established offensive line, he should benefit from more room to maneuver. As a result, McCoy will gather plenty of opportunities to put up another big season, provided his knee holds up.
The Bills waited until the fourth round of the 2016 draft before drafting competition for QB Tyrod Taylor. That player, Cardale Jones, is universally seen as an upside project who has a chance to develop into a legitimate NFL starting signal-caller down the road. In the short-term, though, the job is all Taylor's. He enters his age-27 season with a lot going for him, most notably a full year in the system under his belt and the benefit of an entire offseason firmly atop a depth chart that returns key skill personnel. Taylor was seventh in the league last year with a QB rating of 99.4, a number that would have been better without a three-interception performance in Week 2 against the Patriots. That outing is notable for the fact that he only threw six picks all season. The base value for Taylor is high for many reasons – a stable situation, no job risk and few interceptions – plus he runs the ball as well as any quarterback this side of Cam Newton. Meanwhile, EJ Manuel, the Bills' 2013 first-rounder, remains with the team, but may be on borrowed time, as his fifth-year option was declined by the Bills.
WITNESS FOR THE DEFENSE
The defense took a step back in 2015 versus the previous campaign when it was one of the league's best units. In 2014, the Bills led the league in sacks (54) and were fourth in total defense, while allowing just 312 yards per game. Last season, coach Rex Ryan brought in a new system and staff, with mixed results. The defense dropped to 31st in the league in sacks (21) and 19th in total defense at 356 yards allowed per game. This offseason, Ryan shook things up again by adding his brother Rob as defensive coordinator and former Pro-Bowler Ed Reed as assistant defensive backs coach. The Bills said goodbye to DE Mario Williams, creating another hole in a pass rush that had already fallen off. The draft saw a heavy investment in defense, with pass-rusher Shaq Lawson tabbed in the first round and LB Reggie Ragland added in Round 2. In the next round, the team grabbed DT Adolphus Washington to bolster the defensive line. That's all a big boost to a unit that still has many of the players who previously made it a top unit and reason enough to believe that a quick rebound is plausible.
KEY JOB BATTLE
LeSean McCoy will be the feature back in this offense, but with his injury history the backup should get significant work - with upside for more if McCoy goes down. The job was supposed to be Karlos Williams' to lose, though he may have lost it by showing up for offseason work looking like a guy who followed the Homer Simpson Diet Plan to a "T." Williams then got himself suspended in July for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Mike Gillislee, James Wilder and rookie Jonathan Williams all figure to try and nab this role from Karlos Williams while he's out. Jonathan Williams is the most promising of the bunch, but an offseason DWI arrest could hurt his cause.
The Bills are hoping Taylor can be their franchise triggerman. With ample opportunity to bring in competition, they will instead hold the line in 2016 and perhaps beyond. Taylor's scrambling ability and job security give him solid floor value following a season in which he threw for 3,035 yards and 20 TDs, while adding 568 yards on the ground.
RISING: Robert Woods
A talented receiver who has worked his way into a starting role in the offense opposite Sammy Watkins, Woods will see plenty of single coverage and could end up proving he's more than just a secondary option.
FALLING: Charles Clay
He's really the same guy he's always been, but Clay is falling in public perception. A popular sleeper entering last season, Clay continued to prove he's an average real-life TE and only marginal in fantasy terms.
SLEEPER: Mike Gillislee
With Karlos Williams set to serve a four-game suspension to start the season and something of a question mark beyond that in terms of conditioning, Gillislee could emerge as LeSean McCoy's top backup early on in the event that he can hold off rookie Jonathan Williams.
THE INJURY FRONT
Sammy Watkins, WR - While no one around the team expects Watkins to come in at 100 percent when training camp opens up, it sounds like so far, so good on the healing front. Still, his status should be monitored regularly during the end of the summer so it's known if the high-upside (yet injury-prone) third-year wideout is full-go for Week 1.
LeSean McCoy, RB - The Bills plan to limit McCoy, who dealt with an ankle injury in minicamp, in training camp and may try to keep his preseason reps limited to one or two drives, after hamstring and knee issues held him back in his first season with the team.
Shaq Lawson, DE - Lawson underwent pre-emptive shoulder surgery in May and isn't expected to be ready at the start of the season. With a PUP stint possible here, Manny Lawson will serve as the placeholder for Shaq Lawson's presumed starting OLB spot while the rookie continues to heal.
Jerry Hughes, LB - The Bills' pass rush plummeted from one of the league's best to one of the worst from 2014 to 2015. They will need a big year from Hughes to get back on track. Still only 28 years old and one year removed from back-to-back 10 sack seasons, Hughes could be a value in fantasy drafts.
Marcell Dareus, DT - Dareus averaged more than seven sacks per season during his first four years in the league. Dropping to just two in 2015 reduced his value as an IDP contributor, but the talented DT is definitely a bounce-back candidate in that category in 2016.
Preston Brown, LB –The Bills expect Brown, who recorded 120 tackles last season after putting up 109 as a rookie, to be a main defensive playmaker this season as the team's starting middle linebacker. An uptick in tackles possible if Brown improves on his technique after being out of position on occasion at times last season.
Jonathan Williams – RB (Rd. 5, No. 156 – Arkansas)
Will compete for a key backfield role after injury dropped draft stock.
KOLBY LISTENBEE – WR (Rd. 6, No. 192 – TCU)
Blazing speed makes him threat to emerge as team's third WR.
Shaq Lawson – DE (Rd. 1, No. 19 – Clemson)
Shoulder surgery could delay his NFL career.
Reggie Ragland – LB (Rd. 2, No. 41 – Alabama)
Projected to go much higher in draft, so Bills think they got a steal here.
Mario Williams – DE (to Dolphins)
Looked disinterested during five-sack, 19-tackle season.
ANTHONY DIXON – RB (FA)
Contributor in 2014 but disappeared last season.
LEODIS MCKELVIN – CB (to Eagles)
Ankle surgery cost long-time Bill rst seven games of 2015 season.
KRAIG URBIK – OT (to Dolphins)
Started 57 games over six seasons with Bills, but only four in 2015.