It's that time of the year again: NFL training camps are right around the corner, and fantasy football players start covertly asking me through a variety of channels about whether or not there are any Buffalo Bills players worth owning this year.
Here, then, is our 2012 fantasy football primer as it pertains to the Bills.
Who is worth owning? We'll start with Fred Jackson, who was the NFL's leading rusher prior to his season-ending injury in 2011. Coming off a career year and with a new contract in hand, the fully healthy Jackson looks primed to step back into a featured role wherein he'll log 20-22 touches per game, put up good running and receiving yardage totals, and score a few touchdowns. If you nab Jackson as a No. 2 back, you're in great shape - and you may be fine if he's your top runner, too.
Unless, of course, third-year pro C.J. Spiller starts eating into Jackson's workload. That may happen to a degree, but I'm not expecting the dip to be noticeable. That could mean that Spiller's gain in touches won't be noticeable, or it could mean that he'll see a significant workload increase working alongside Jackson. Spiller is definitely worth owning in all fantasy formats, but be careful about how ambitious you are placing him in your lineup.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a worthy draft pick, as well. If this guy ever learns how to take better care of the football, he'll be a high-end fantasy backup option that's capable of putting up outstanding yardage and touchdown totals against middling to weaker defenses. Again, don't get too anxious to anoint him a fantasy starter, but he'll be a useful roster option for a lot of good fantasy teams this year.
Of course, wideout Stevie Johnson makes the cut, as he's a starting-caliber fantasy receiver regardless of who is lining up next to him. A fairly consistent player already, Johnson doesn't often put up staggering stats, but he's capable of doing so. If the Bills can find him a complement, watch out.
Finally, Buffalo's defense is most definitely worth taking a flier on. With a new player-friendly scheme and a ton of talent on the defensive line and in the secondary, the Bills could be in for a big year defensively, even if they're not a truly dominant "real football" unit. The Bills proved early in 2011 that they could turn the ball over well, and that should remain true if the team's pass-rushing investments pay off.
Who is worth monitoring? Scott Chandler starts the discussion here. He was too hit-or-miss in 2011 to be a reliable fantasy play, but it seems like any tall, sure-handed tight end is capable of putting up big touchdown totals in today's league, and Chandler is certainly capable of surpassing his six scores from a year ago. He could be in for a big year in the red zone, and any red zone threat is worth a stash on the roster as a pinch hitter (so to speak).
In a similar vein, David Nelson might be worth a flier in touchdown-heavy formats late in drafts. He's never going to be a big yardage guy, as he's not particularly nifty after the catch, but he's proven to be a highly reliable safety valve for Fitzpatrick that can hit the seam and play effectively in the red zone. He could improve on his 2011 statistics, as well.
Four more receivers are worth monitoring, as well: Donald Jones, Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley and rookie T.J. Graham. Buffalo's offense was a vertical threat away from being extremely potent and far more consistent in the early portions of the 2011 season. Right now, Jones and Hagan - the two veterans of the group - look to have the inside track at a prominent role, but neither is a particularly appealing fantasy option. If Easley or Graham are able to sneak into that rotation, however, both have the physical skills to be truly explosive players in this offense.
Rian Lindell is going to be on the team regardless of whether or not seventh-round pick John Potter makes it, as the rookie is purely a kickoff specialist at this point. Any kicker on a hot offense is worth owning, and Buffalo's offense was hot last year until injuries ravaged the unit.
Finally, as a super-ultra-mega-deep sleeper, pay attention to halfback Dorin Dickerson this summer. The type of offense Chan Gailey runs seems perfectly suited to a player of Dickerson's athletic abilities, as he's versatile and fast enough to be a receiving threat from a variety of different positions and alignments in an offense built around disguise. He could turn into another useful safety valve option with upside very quickly, but he'll need to earn a permanent role first.