The Buffalo Bills have several major question marks on offense heading into their Week 1 showdown with the Chicago Bears. Their first-team offense struggled mightily throughout the preseason, managing only two touchdowns - both of which came against Tampa Bay's reserves - while EJ Manuel mostly struggled and the team made some major alterations to its offensive line.
It just so happens that those two areas - quarterback and the offensive line - are the foundation of the offense, which is why the Bills are nearly universally expected to struggle in that phase until both areas, Manuel in particular, improve. But there's also little doubt that the Bills have a healthy dose of talented skill players, and another point of curiosity heading into the regular season is how the Bills will divvy up opportunities for those players.
In 2013, the Bills used the following personnel packages predominantly on offense (data courtesy of Football Outsiders):
- 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR): 59% of plays
- 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR): 19% of plays
- 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR): 16% of plays
On any given play in 2013, then, the Bills averaged 1.2 running backs, 2.6 wide receivers, and 1.2 tight ends on the field at a time. 20 percent of the running back reps were given to blocking fullbacks, as well, so the Bills weren't using two tailbacks on the field every fifth play.
But then, the Bills didn't have the enviable depth at running back then that they do now. It's the potential for an expansion of the role of the tailback in Buffalo's offense where we'll begin our Week 1 playing time projections; all figures below are based on the idea that Buffalo's offense will log 70 snaps in Chicago on Sunday.
There are two talking points about the Bills' running back situation: can the team find more reps for one of their most dynamic playmakers, and will they make room for one (or both) of their two new backups? The below projection allows for a handful of snaps with both of their top runners on the field, as well as a few goal line carries for their best option in that regard. It's tough to expect Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett do much more than this to expand the role of the running back in the offense when we haven't seen it in action yet, but it's certainly possible.
- C.J. Spiller: 38 (55%)
- Fred Jackson: 35 (50%)
- Anthony Dixon: 4 (5%)
As mentioned above, Bills fullbacks were on the field for roughly one in five plays last season. It's likely that they'll see a bit of a hike in that category against Chicago, with blocking tight end Lee Smith looking like he might miss the game with a toe injury, severely depleting the Bills' options at that position.
- Frank Summers: 21 (30%)
The Bills' most talented and notable receiver is currently working through a rib injury - and while it sounds like he's going to be playing on Sunday, it's also possible that they'll need to work him in and out of the lineup to keep him fresh and make sure he comes out of the game healthy. That could lead to slight playing time boosts for the second, third and fourth receivers in the rotation - and perhaps even open up a few snaps for fifth receiver Chris Hogan.
- Sammy Watkins: 49 (70%)
- Robert Woods: 63 (90%)
- Mike Williams: 53 (75%)
- Marquise Goodwin: 21 (30%)
Again, Smith may not play in this contest - he missed the preseason finale as well as Monday's practice, so it's looking quite possible that he'll be inactive - and in that case, the Bills will probably choose to simply use their starter on a lot of plays, and minimize the role of the second tight end. Normally, Smith would eat into Chandler's reps; in a scenario like this, that would not be the case.
- Scott Chandler: 63 (90%)
- Chris Gragg: 3 (5%)
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