Is There Fantasy Football Wide Receiver Value in Buffalo This Season?

With the addition of Sammy Watkins, some believe the Bills are ready to turn into more of a passing machine. Not so fast.

Anyone who's read the fantastic and hilarious Zach Law’s recent interview and profile on me knows now that I am a passionate cook, and that this skill and passion was passed down to me from my grandmother, my mom, and even my little sister. Basically, cooking has always been an important part of my family’s life and the time we spend together, and food is one of the central parts of our family gatherings.

Yet, even the most unskilled and casual chef will know the old proverb: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” This is the problem that analysts, fans, and fantasy players alike face in 2014 when trying to suss out the Buffalo Bills wide receiver situation.

It’s one thing to have a production cupboard be almost completely bare and not know where to turn, but it’s another to have a lot of talent waiting to be tapped into, and still say the situation is confusing. Essentially what the Bills are looking at is too many great flavors making a simple dish complex: with sophomore possession receiver Robert Woods leading the incumbents, and rookie phenom Sammy Watkins arriving in town, what should we expect from the potential buffet of wide receiver production in upstate New York?

Savor, Don’t Snarf

Really, though, what is a smorgasbord without knowing what’s on the menu? That is, in order to make sense of the Bills receivers and their potential to produce this year, we have to figure out what to expect from the team itself in 2014. For this, we turn to our signature metric here at numberFire: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP describes how much a player advances his team’s chances of scoring on any given drive, measured in expected points. You can read more about NEP here.

Two major driving factors for wide receiver production are the general composition and tempo of the offense. One slightly worrisome thing to note about the Bills receivers is that their pass-to-run play-calling ratio has trended downward every year for the past three years, from seventh in the NFL in 2011 to 30th in 2013. These haven’t been gradual changes, either. Between 2012 and head coach Doug Marrone taking over in 2013, the ratio went from 25% heavier on the pass than run to nearly a 1-to-1 ratio.

However, in this span of time, the tempo of the offense has drastically increased. In 2013, no team ran more plays than Buffalo besides Denver and New England. This was an even more drastic change of philosophy after the team ranked 29th in offensive plays run in 2012. Playing into this ideology is the fact that the Bills’ passing game is now precipitated on timing-oriented ball control. This is evidenced by the fact that out of the 36 quarterbacks in 2013 with more than 450 snaps taken, E.J. Manuel ranked 32nd in yards per attempt. So, in theory, we should be seeing an offense with less passing emphasis, an even number of passing plays, and likely shorter-yardage and more-secure, high-percentage throws than other teams.

Unfortunately, these changes don’t seem to have taken effect just yet. The Bills finished a paltry 24th in the league in Adjusted Team NEP (total offensive NEP, adjusted for strength of opponents), and – even worse – 29th in Adjusted Passing NEP a season ago. The new offense was inefficient partially due to injury plaguing most of the team, and partially due to just plain ineffectiveness on the parts of a few key players.

Served Up Piping Hot

One of the biggest perpetrators of this inefficiency in 2013, we do have to examine quarterback E.J. Manuel’s role in giving his team and receivers a chance to be valuable contributors. Our own Jordan Hoover dug into E.J.’s numbers in detail earlier this summer, but I’ll mention just the relevant points here.

As we discussed before, Manuel’s passing depth wasn’t very prolific, likely as a result of his offense. However, his passing efficiency draws an even bigger concern about the prospects for his receiving corps. As Jordan describes, Manuel’s ranking among the 39 quarterbacks with 200 or more drop backs last year are as follows.

Passing NEPPassing NEP per PassSuccess Rate
-47.84 (38th)-0.14 (38th)42.04% (33rd)

As he notes, passing is a very efficient and effective way to gain yards, which makes Manuel’s negative total in Passing NEP pretty hard to fathom. JJ Zachariason also marks the danger in assuming massive growth for catastrophic rookie quarterbacks as well. So, it seems fair to say we should be concerned about Manuel helming this offense, but might there still be something savory tucked away for Buffalo’s receivers?

Save Room for Dessert

The table settings have been placed and we know what’s on the menu; now let’s sample the dishes. The table below shows Buffalo’s returning wide receivers with more than 10 targets last year and their 2013 production, as well as the receiving production left over from departures due to free agency and trades.

PlayerRec NEPTargetTarget NEPRec NEP/ Target
Robert Woods47.33853.260.56
T.J. Graham30.80 58-21.31 0.53
Marquise Goodwin23.43325.380.73
Chris Hogan7.75170.630.46

If recent history in Buffalo and the projections of the short passing scheme are any indicators, the top dog in this offense should remain Robert Woods. Woods leads the remaining receivers in target volume and had the second-highest Target NEP (NEP gained on any play the player was targeted on) last year. While he doesn’t blow anyone out of the water with his 0.56 Reception NEP per target (a measure of efficiency; value per opportunity), Woods is a steady, solid player. I imagine Woods to be a younger, perhaps more athletic, version of the now-49er Steve Johnson in this offense, and he should garner some extra targets this year as he becomes a primary security blanket to Manuel (perhaps 25 more; total of 110)

Marquise Goodwin is a pure deep threat, through and through. A track star in college, he showed off his 4.27 wheels at times last year, but failed to be much more versatile than a “go route” runner. His ability to make big plays occur, as evidenced by his 0.73 Reception NEP per target, could be a great boon to this offense’s efficiency. He also brought in the highest Target NEP on the team in 2013, indicating that there is some untapped promise in the young burner. He could be very good if he earns an expanded role in 2014, possibly with 55 total targets (20 more than 2013).


The interesting part of this offense is what happens with the 103 targets and nearly 45 potential points of Reception NEP left over mainly by Steve Johnson’s trade, and perhaps even more as T.J. Graham's roster spot is in jeopardy. The new arrivals of top rookie Sammy Watkins and former Buccaneers star Mike Williams will also gravitate many targets. With around 120 targets to spare, there should be more than enough work for both players to contribute.

Watkins will be an important addition to the passing game in the middle of the field, as he is essentially a more physical slot receiver or a faster outside threat, but his size will limit him in the red zone. We could see him obtain 70 to 80 targets, and really put on a show in the Reception NEP per target category, as yards after the catch is a major part of his skill set.

Williams, on the other hand, should see the remaining 40 to 50 targets, and primarily as a red zone threat or on crucial conversions. He's a known quantity, never with a very high per target efficiency rate (a possession receiver more so than playmaker), but he has a very solid career Target NEP, proving that he can be a reliable target for a young passer in E.J. Manuel. Steve Johnson left with a -13.22 Target NEP last season; Williams and Watkins should be a massive improvement over that in this new year.

This run-happy team has added many new ingredients to its passing game in the past calendar year, but the production still seems like it will be very diluted and evenly spread out. In order for the Bills receivers to really contribute much more with this division of production, either the quarterback or the scheme will have to take a large step forward. Although I hate simply taking the past and extrapolating it into the future, the 2014 Bills just don’t look like a team ready to explode; rather, their goal is to increase efficiency and reliability for their sophomore passer. To that end, the wide receivers in Buffalo will be broth that holds the soup together, rather than the main course themselves.