Chatting Bills With Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders

Earlier this month, we briefly discussed the Buffalo Bills section of Football Outsiders' Almanac 2010. If you have not yet purchased the book and are interested in the various metrics and predictions FO pumps out annually, you'll want to click this link. Joining us today to delve a bit further into the 2010 Bills is Aaron Schatz, who authored the Bills section of the Almanac and is also FO's Editor-in-Chief. From this point forward, anything bold is a question posed to Aaron, and his replies follow.

When we last saw Chan Gailey, his Chiefs offense was operating out of the shotgun 63% of the time. Do you anticipate that trend continuing in Buffalo, or will the personnel dictate less shotgun?

Schatz: Who the heck knows. In the course of researching my three chapter essays for FOA 2010, I probably spent more time trying to figure out what kind of offense the Bills were going to run than I did anything else. I spent hours trying to find concrete quotes from Gailey, but with no luck. If you look around the Web, you'll find some sites where people expect a shotgun-spread attack similar to what he did with Kansas City, and other sites that expect a run-heavy attack similar to what he ran at Georgia Tech, and none of the people making these guesses have any evidence from Gailey himself. I do know that based on the personnel, a run-heavy offense makes the most sense. That offensive line is better at run blocking than pass blocking, and the running back position is far, far deeper than the wide receiver or tight end position.

The Almanac mentions two things about runners: consistent yardage trumps boom-or-bust home run hitters, and speed backs tend to perform poorly behind mediocre lines. Clearly, that favors Fred Jackson (or Marshawn Lynch) over C.J. Spiller, so how should the Bills use Spiller this year?

Schatz: Well, that question assumes a couple of things that may not necessarily be true. First, it assumes that Buffalo has a poor line. The Bills do have a poor line when it comes to pass blocking, but it hasn't been such a bad line when it comes to run blocking. I guess "mediocre" means the same thing as "average," but "average" sure sounds a lot better, doesn't it? They've been average at run blocking.

Second, it assumes Spiller is a boom-and-bust back. Now, we don't know exactly how college performance will translate to the pros, but my college-analyzing compatriot Bill Connelly points out that Spiller wasn't a boom-or-bust back in college. He was a boom-or-slightly-lesser-boom back, much more equivalent to someone like Maurice Jones-Drew than to someone like DeShaun Foster. This article looks at college backs in this year's draft, and Spiller was one point in Speed Score away from scoring as a "+3" back, the type that rarely misses. As I say in the chapter, the problem wasn't drafting Spiller, it was drafting at the team's position of least need. Spiller is awfully promising as an individual player.

Drayton Florence graded well last year, but the consensus - from FO as well as other outlets - seems to be that Leodis McKelvin will get his starting job back. Why is this the case, particularly with the Bills playing more man coverage at the back end of their 3-4?

Schatz: Because one season is just one season. I ran out of time to do an official research project on this for the book, but in general it seems the cornerback stats are not very consistent from year to year. We're going to need to figure out ways to look at them over longer periods of time in order to get the best look at which cornerbacks are playing well. Last year's Florence numbers are way out of whack with the rest of his career.

As for man coverage. That brings up two questions. First, Florence had those good metrics playing more zone, so if they ARE switching to more man coverage, the one-year blip of strong metrics becomes even less of a reason to play him. Second, do we know for sure that the Bills plan on playing more man coverage? I mean, the Patriots and Steelers are examples of 3-4 teams that generally play zone coverage.

Even if Florence's 2009 numbers were fluky, why would McKelvin - who was really inconsistent as a rookie and missed most of the '09 season - simply walk back into the starting role? Is it really just a function of Florence not being as good as he was last year, or are you high on McKelvin?

Schatz: I think we make a safe assumption that high draft picks have a high level of potential until they fully prove that they suck, and McKelvin hasn't done that yet. So it's a function of both things. Florence was originally signed to play nickel, so it makes sense that with McKelvin healthy, he'll play nickel.

Steve Johnson made your list of Top 25 Prospects, albeit as an honorable mention. What do you like about him as a third-year receiver with an opportunity to start?

Schatz: Well, he had nice numbers in really limited time in 2008, but that doesn't tell us much. I don't really know a lot about Johnson, certainly I don't know more to favor him over another similar receiver, but I know that he has a lot of opportunity: That team needs a second receiver badly and James Hardy seems to do everything in his power to stay out of the starting lineup.

FO projections favored Brian Brohm coming out of Louisville in 2008, ranking him ahead of Matt Ryan. Can he beat out Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick? Better yet, how does his playing style mesh with a typical Gailey offense?

Schatz: Well, as I noted earlier, there's no such thing as a typical Gailey offense. I am not going to pretend to be an expert on scouting quarterbacks, nor will I pretend to have spent hours analyzing and dissecting tape of the three guys who played quarterback for Buffalo last year. What we know is this: Right now, Brohm looks like the biggest miss that the Lewin Career Forecast system has ever had. However, we really don't know what his ceiling is. I don't know why he's failed in the pros so far, or why the Packers gave up on him so quickly. But we do know all we need to know about Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Edwards is an average NFL quarterback. He's not going to win games without a lot of weapons around him, but he's not going to sink your team if you do have a lot of weapons around him. Fitzpatrick is a backup, that's what he is. I'm happy to see fellow Ivy leaguers in the pros, but the dude is not a starting-caliber NFL quarterback. In my opinion, if the Bills want to build a team for the future, they might as well start the quarterback whose potential is still a mystery, and that's Brohm.  If he flops, then they go with Edwards. Long term, assuming the Packers were right about Brohm, I would like to see the Bills try to snag a good passing prospect in the first or second round who can develop behind Edwards for a year and then replace him. Edwards seems like the kind of guy who could stick around as a good backup until he's 40: steady, unexciting, but relatively mistake-free, like Gary Kubiak, Todd Collins, or Charlie Batch.

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