Bills: Not a bunch of Mularkey
By Rob Hurtt SportingNews.com
Buffalo headed into 2003 with playoff hopes; its 6-10 season was an obvious disappointment. So shortly after the season, the team did what many disappointing teams do: It fired the coach. New head coach Mike Mularkey will have largely the same cast as former coach Gregg Williams. The message from the front office is clear; Mularkey's job is to get this team to play up to its ability.
The organization hopes Mularkey's experience as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator makes him the perfect guy to improve an offense that finished 30th in both total yards and points last season. He'll have a bit more to work with than Williams did. Running back Willis McGahee, the Bills' top pick in the 2002 draft, will be back on the field after rehabbing his knee all of last season. Buffalo also hopes rookie Lee Evans can fill the hole left when Peerless Price headed to Atlanta last year. As long as Eric Moulds stays healthy and Drew Bledsoe stays off his backside, this team will have a chance to post its first winning record in five years.
Travis Henry, RB. When grandpa starts yapping about how players today are weenies, remind him of Henry. He played 15 games last season despite tearing rib cartilage in September. That cracked bone in his foot couldn't have felt too good, either. Henry's play didn't drop off drastically, and Henry put up numbers -- 1,356 yards and 10 scores on the ground - worthy of a No. 1 fantasy back. Henry's running style illustrates his toughness; he's best suited for taking the ball and running up the middle. That bulldozing style makes Henry option No. 1 in the red zone, so he'll often get a score even in games that he does little else. Henry's value could decline later in the season when Willis McGahee starts stealing work, but Henry still will be a solid fantasy starter.
Eric Moulds, WR. It's an even year, which means Moulds will play well. Check Moulds' career stats and you'll notice an obvious on-and-off pattern. His off years have been odd years. He appeared set to break that streak with a solid 2003. Then in October, he suffered a groin injury and never fully recovered until the offseason. When healthy, Moulds is an elite receiver who will produce nearly every week. Make him your No. 2 and don't worry about that spot all year.
SLEEPER: Willis McGahee, RB. The rule of thumb is it takes a running back two years to return to pre-injury form after tearing knee ligaments. McGahee is roughly 18 months removed from surgery. Reports so far have been positive, but owners can't get caught expecting too much from McGahee. The offense is in capable hands with Henry, so the Bills have the luxury of bringing back McGahee slowly. He'll get his share of touches and might even line up in the backfield with Henry at times, but he won't be the team's star just yet. If the Bills fall out of the playoff hunt, though, don't be surprised to see McGahee get a test drive in the feature back's role.
Takeo Spikes, LB. Don't be fooled. While the No. 51 jersey seems to be all over the field on every down, there is just one player wearing that number: Spikes. One play, the guy is flushing the quarterback from the pocket. The next, he's chasing down the speedy back trying to turn the corner. Spikes' speed and instincts always put him around the ball, which is exactly what fantasy owners want in a linebacker. He'll put up strong tackle numbers, and he'll hold his own when it comes to creating turnovers and sacks.
Defense/special teams. The Bills have two top run-stuffers in Sam Adams and Pat Williams. Aaron Schobel is a pass-rusher on the rise. London Fletcher and Spikes are dominant defenders, and Jeff Posey is a solid player to round out the linebacker corps. Buffalo lost top cornerback Antoine Winfield in the offseason but replaced him with perennial Pro Bowler Troy Vincent. Lawyer Milloy is also doing business in the secondary. With all of that talent, how is this group not a top 10 fantasy option? Point one finger at the offense, and point three at the team's inability to create turnovers. The offense's 2003 flop forced the defenders on the field more than they would have liked. Still, that doesn't explain why an aggressive defense has somehow finished last in turnovers two straight seasons. If the takeaways go up, so too will this unit's value.
Drew Bledsoe, QB. Bledsoe is a cannon in a football uniform. He can zip balls into tight spaces and launch them down the field. Unfortunately, he also takes forever to aim and fire - he has the mobility of a giant hunk of metal -- so he'll miss his mark when rushed. When the pass protection is lacking, as it often was last season, it spells trouble for this stationary signal-caller. Losing Peerless Price (Falcons) and basically losing Moulds (groin) left Bledsoe with few options when he did have time to throw last season. Bledsoe holds the key to Mularkey's immediate success with Buffalo. He doesn't have the same power for fantasy owners, so don't plan on him as anything more than a borderline backup.
Rookie to watch: Lee Evans, WR. Some observers were surprised when the Bills used the 13th overall pick to select Evans. Those folks shouldn't be surprised when Evans slides in to fill the team's need for a speedy No. 2 receiver with good hands. Evans isn't a big receiver, but Steve Smith and Santana Moss have shown that smaller guys still have a place in this game. The Bills hope Evans eventually plays up to the level of those stars. In his rookie season, the team will be content with numbers worthy of a bench spot in fantasy leagues.
Josh Reed, WR. In his second NFL season, Reed was expected to make the transition from handy third receiver to star starter. Reed wasn't ready for that giant leap, and his struggles only made the team miss Price more. Evans' arrival will allow Reed to slide into a more comfortable position in the slot. He could top his 2003 numbers even though he's not starting. Fantasy owners should play it safe and save Reed for the final rounds.
Rian Lindell, K. Lindell is automatic ... as long as he isn't asked to kick from 40-plus yards out. He made just 3-of-9 kicks from that distance. Another problem is Buffalo's climate isn't as friendly as the one in Seattle, where Lindell used to kick. The Seahawks don't have to worry about lake effect snow; Lindell does. The third reason Lindell will be nowhere near your roster is the Bills' offense stinks. OK, it's not awful, but there are loads of safer options available.
Bobby Shaw, WR. Four scores and 732 yards ago, Shaw began his time as the Bills' No. 3 receiver. As the numbers show, he was solid in that role. As a whole, the Bills' receivers disappointed, though, so the team added a top receiver (Evans) in the draft. You can't please all the people all the time, but you can't even please some of the people some of the time as a team's fourth receiver.
Mark Campbell, TE. In his fourth year in the league -- his first in Buffalo -- Campbell compiled a career-high 339 receiving yards. Combine that production with his one touchdown, and fantasy owners are ready to look elsewhere for help at tight end. Mularkey, a former tight end, wants to get the position more involved in the passing game. Go ahead and wait to see if that actually happens; Campbell still will be sitting there on the FA list if you want him.
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Coaching: To get this offense moving again, Mularkey will focus on its new strength, the running game. Gone are the days of Bledsoe attempting 40-plus passes every week. Henry won't have to shoulder the entire load; getting McGahee involved will allow the Bills to keep pounding opponents. On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray was retained. He's probably busy right now scheming of ways to up the team's turnover total.
Offensive line: Right tackle Mike Williams is the kind of behemoth offensive players want on their side. His size (6-6, 370) and athleticism make him an elite run blocker, and the unfortunate defenders in his path will be lucky to lay a finger on Henry and McGahee. Williams still has room to improve in pass protection. Given Bledsoe's tendency to run the revamped Statue of Liberty play - the one where Bledsoe stands as still as a statue while defenders crash through the line - the team's entire line will have to work harder on pass protection. Left tackle Jonas Jennings, center Trey Teague and new right guard Chris Villarrial should be up to the task. The big question mark is at left guard, where a handful of players will compete for the starting job.
Schedule analysis. Any schedule with one-fourth of its games against New England and Miami can't be beneficial for offensive players. Other than a Week 2 contest against Oakland, most of the first-half road is treacherous. October will be especially brutal; a game in Baltimore follows showdowns with each of the AFC East rivals. The Bills are rewarded with a Halloween treat against the Cardinals in Week 8, though. Four of the team's final six games are on the road, and late-season home games against Cleveland (Week 14) and Pittsburgh (Week 17) could be snow-filled affairs. Fantasy Strength of Schedule: 8th toughest.