QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
When the Bills pulled the chute on the Trent Edwards era after two games last season, they handed the reins over to the unheralded Fitzpatrick. Prior to 2010, Fitzpatrick had little success filling in for an injured Carson Palmer in Cincinnati in 2008 and for Edwards in 2009. However, the Bills’ moribund passing attack came alive with Fitzpatrick under center for 13 games (he sat out Week 17), and he finished the year with career highs in passing yards (3,000) and touchdowns (23). He is also an underrated threat rushing the ball, finishing the year with 269 yards on the ground (he had 304 in 2008). He also finished as the 17th-rated quarterback but was ninth overall in quarterbacks with ten or more starts. Bills management showed their faith in him by not using a pick in the draft to acquire a young talent at the position, which means he will be the team’s starter in 2011, barring injury. Consider Fitzpatrick an upper-tier backup in 2011 and a player you can feel reasonably comfortable using as your starter if you want to employ the strategy of using a late pick (or few auction dollars) on the position.
RB Fred Jackson
If you’re looking for resiliency and determination, look no further than Fred Jackson. Hardly the biggest or fastest running back in the league, he has overcome his status as a Division II college player to unseat a pair of first-round draft picks (first Marshawn Lynch, then C.J. Spiller last year) to retain his starting position with the Bills. And why not? All he does is produce. Despite breaking his hand in training camp and sacrificing playing time as the team showcased Lynch for a trade, Jackson had another productive season. He finished with 927 rushing yards, 215 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns, despite having just 22 touches over the first four weeks of the season. Over the remaining 12 games, he averaged 11.8 fantasy points per game, which ranks as mid-tier RB2 production. Jackson will have to fend off Spiller once again in 2011, but history suggests he will enter the season as the team’s starter. While it’s possible Spiller will take over as the starter at some point, Jackson would still get plenty of touches in that scenario as well as remain the team’s option at the goal line. He should be a good value on draft day.
RB C.J. Spiller
The Bills took plenty of heat for using the ninth pick in the 2010 draft to take Spiller, despite having Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch in their backfield depth chart. The hope was that Spiller would provide a spark as a triple threat—a runner, receiver, and return man similar to Percy Harvin and Reggie Bush. Unfortunately, he didn’t prove to be much of a threat in any facet. He averaged just 3.8 per carry and 6.5 yards per reception, finishing the year with 440 yards and just a single touchdown (although he also had a kickoff return touchdown). Heading into 2011, it’s basically a leap of faith to believe that Spiller is ready to unseat the reliable Fred Jackson as the team’s starter. Spiller will definitely get more touches than he did last season, but he needs to develop into more of a playmaker to become a useful fantasy option. He could become a solid flex option, but it’s hard to predict much more than that from him based on his performance last season.
WR Lee Evans
The Bills signed Evans to a monster four-year, $37.5-million contract early in 2008 and he has done nothing but disappoint since. Over the last two seasons, he has posted successive career lows in receiving yards (612 in 2009 and then 578 last year) and been a complete non-factor on short and intermediate routes. That basically makes him a one-trick pony. But he hasn’t even been able to beat defenders deep, particularly last season when he finished with just four touchdowns. Simply put, he can’t get open anymore, catching just 46.3 percent of his targets in 2009 and 44.6 percent in 2010. Evans lost his role as the Bills lead receiver last year to Steve Johnson, and there’s no evidence to suggest he’s going to earn it back. The Bills are a young, rebuilding team, and the argument could even be made that the 30-year-old Evans will have a lesser role in 2011 as the team attempts to develop a crop of promising young receivers. Let somebody else take a flier on him.
WR Steve Johnson
While it certainly wasn’t a surprise when Johnson beat out disappointing 2008 second-round pick James Hardy for a starting position, nobody could have foreseen the tremendous season he would have in 2010. As Lee Evans continued to disappoint, Johnson made the most of his opportunity, finishing the year with 82 receptions for 1,083 yards and 10 touchdowns. That production made him the tenth-ranked fantasy wide receiver last season. While there were plenty of receivers trumpeted as potential breakout candidates entering their third seasons, Johnson was rarely mentioned in that group. Entering his fourth year in the league, and with Fitzpatrick back at the quarterback, Johnson figures to retain his spot as the team’s top receiver and should provide solid fantasy production in 2011. While it’s hard to predict a repeat top-ten performance given his lofty touchdown total last season, Johnson shapes up as a potential upper-tier WR2—one who could be a bargain on draft day given his short track record. Other owners in your league might consider him a one-year wonder. Don’t make that mistake yourself on draft day.
TE Shawn Nelson
The Bills have been searching for a pass-receiving threat at tight end for what seems like ages. They grabbed Nelson in the fifth round of the 2009 draft hoping he could grow into that role. But he has done little during his first two years in the league, missing much of last season with migraine headaches and having to serve a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Nelson is talented and the Bills have little invested at the position, so he remains the player most likely to win the starting job on opening day. Just don’t expect him to make much of the opportunity.