Buffalo Enigma: Who Leads?
Andrew Woodruff / @ff_awwoodruff33
For owners looking for help in their running games back in 2019, the Buffalo Bills were a great team to invest in for playoff runs. That led to a huge spike in the then rookie running back Devin Singletary. His hype controversy continued throughout this offseason as the fantasy community has been split on him. Then the Bills decided to make things even murkier on what to expect when they drafted another rookie running back in Zack Moss. In this article, I break down the coaches, how past offenses have looked under Daboll, and both players to see if either guy may take a major role to use in lineups.
The two important people to consider for the coaching staff are HC Sean McDermott and OC Brian Daboll. Sean McDermott has a long past history as the defensive coordinator mostly with Rivera in Carolina. While there, he watched as Rivera used an offensive scheme that regularly finished no lower than fourteenth in rush attempts and no higher than nineteenth in pass attempts.That focus on a strong defense and better running game transferred over when McDermott became the head coach of Buffalo in 2017. Since then, McDermott has used that play style to get to the playoffs in two of the last three years.McDermott in a recent interview even mentioned Moss by name saying he has been impressive in what he’s able to do year after year, in gaining a lot of yards, showing production, and breaking tackles. In the same conversation, he also mentioned that he wants his players to compete to truly see who can rise above the others. McDermott is the type of coach who is not afraid to play rookies with a large contribution of rookie playing time even last year if it’s best for the team winning. That signifies that the RB1 role is wide open.
With McDermott focusing more on the defense, it seems the offense will mostly be up to Brian Daboll. Brian Daboll has been in some NFL offensive role since 2002. His jobs have varied as he has led the receivers, quarterbacks, tight ends, and the offensive coordinator. The chart below highlights how his offense has ranked during the times he was OC for a team.
That chart seems very revealing on how Daboll runs his offenses. He has yet to have any team that was able to be in the top half of passing. The team has also struggled with being able to get into the top half of total yards gained or points scored. The one area Daboll seems to excel is in his rushing game which consistently ranked in the top half for rushes, yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards per attempt. That is nothing crazy until you look back over the teams he has worked with those seasons. Thus I went through each season’s rushes to attempted passes ratio along with their win-loss record. *Leaving out the college season with Alabama*
As this shows, the running game will still be heavily involved in any situation. Even in the years where the team had a losing record, the running game was never abandoned for trying to win with passing. This is great to see for Buffalo since the backfield should stay involved no matter how the team does in 2020. Therefore Singletary and Moss should not have many concerns about opportunity with Daboll.
Past Offenses Under Daboll:
Next I decided for us to look at the past offenses to see what Daboll has done with his backfields to see what kind of roles the running backs had. First up, let’s look at what happened for the Bills in 2019.
So this sticks with the narrative about how both backs maintained a split with the backfield which is what some expect next season. Singletary took more of a lead in the second half of the season but could never quite break away from the thirty-six year old Gore who is well past his prime. Singletary did take the majority of the targets which is nice, but Gore is not a big threat there. I used this opportunity to also look at the redzone since scoring is an easy way to be relevant.
Looks Inside the redzone (rushes/ “looks” = any rush attempt/ target inside the redzone)
Once the team got ready to score, Singeltary lost so many opportunities. Even to be the pass-catching back, he saw only five targets. The number of rushes also was exclusively controlled by a very old man who could not do much. Even with Gore not effective, Singletary was almost never used. History tends to repeat itself so I decided to look at those same things to see if this trend continues further back. Unfortunately, redzone looks only went back to 2016.
Looking back through all of the offenses Daboll has run, the numbers show that the majority of the time the lead back gets most of the running back work ranging from just over half the total rushes and targets to over eighty percent. Therefore the work may not be as much of a split after a few weeks into the season if one guy can claim the feature back spot. The other part I wanted to observe is that the lead back does not always end up being the biggest guy. McCoy, Charles, Bush, Hillis, and Harrison as the lead guys were able to keep their jobs because they were the best of the position group overall. That included rushing and passing targets in each case. So while Singletary has the advantage in the beginning of the season like Frank Gore did last year knowing the offense, expect the better overall prospect to keep the lead role for the rest of the season.
Now it is time to actually look at the talent of both prospects. Both guys will be part of an offense that finished 11th in yards before contact. I want to also use this moment to see that both players carry the same draft capital and finished their college careers with high efficiency levels of avoiding tackles. That is great considering the Bills finished near the top in total broken tackles already. Both backs have also been stated to be capable pass blockers. Now to start breaking down the two beside each other in various categories. (PD=pro day)
This comparison straight up looks very concerning for Singletary. I know people love to mention his rookie success so I decided to go break down some of the data about it. He faced the 12th lightest front carry rate compared to the 3rd heaviest stacked front rate for Gore. Part of that can be Singletary’s skill in the receiving game, but Moss comes in with an even better target share from college showing he can be more than a two-down plodder. That is significant because teams will need to respect Moss in a similar manner as Singletary keeping light boxes more often. Moss also comes in with an expected goal line role where he can see valuable touches.
The other factor is looking at the injury history of both players. For Singletary, I found only his issue with his hamstrings. The oldest case I could find was at his pro day where he messed it up while running. Then during the season, Singletary again strained his hamstring. For Moss, he missed two games in 2016 for toe injury, meniscus tear in 2018 cutting short his season after nine games, and left AC joint sprain in 2019. There is talk about a potential hand injury in 2019 but no time was missed. He did also claim to strain his hamstring at the combine but seemed fine at his pro day. The AC joint sprain is not a major issue as many players including Russell Wilson have dealt with them in the past. The meniscus tear recovery also comes with a high level of sustained success causing little concern of further complications. The most worrisome thing for both players is their hamstrings as that is the highest rate of recurring injury in the NFL. It has already happened to both, so if a pattern continues for either player, it may keep coming back.
Fantasy Football 24/7 also has a RB metric grading system that looks at a wide variety of factors including the prospects’ athleticism. It is quite revealing in how it had Moss with a score of 67.81 which was close to some vets like Chris Carson’s 69.65 and Derrick Henry’s 70.52. Singletary on the other hand landed a score of 52.38 which was lower than David Montgomery’s 57.99, Eno Benjamin’s 53.53, and slightly ahead of Kalen Ballage’s 49.15.
With everything the data shows, Singletary may be at risk of a reduced role this season as his biggest strengths were his catching skills and ability to avoid tackles. Moss comes in with similar skills and is the leading candidate to take the majority of the goal line work. Moss has such versatility that he should see similar defensive fronts like Singletary last year and be able to show he is worthy of the top spot. Moss does have a little longer injury history, but most of those injuries do not follow patterns of re-injury. If I had to go with just one, go with the bigger, faster, stronger rookie who will be a great flex play at least similar to what Singletary did last year if not more.