The Bills have flipped back and forth between three and four man fronts a few times in the recent past so the change from a 3-4 under the Ryan brothers to Leslie Frazier's 4-3 does not mean a lot of guess work. All it really means for fantasy owners is a couple more quality options at defensive end. In the 3-4 both Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson were outside linebackers; in 2017 they will be putting their hands in the dirt. As a veteran entering his eighth year with Buffalo, Hughes has been through the switch before. The effect on his production has been minimal in terms of numbers. In 2013 Hughes posted his best totals as a linebacker at 32-14-9.5 with a couple forced fumbles. In 2014 he put up career best numbers as a defensive end of 36-17-9.5 with 3 forced fumbles and a recovery. The difference in numbers between the two years was marginal but the difference in fantasy value was huge as Hughes was the numbers seven lineman in 2014. His sack totals have been down over the past two seasons with 5 in 2015 and 6 last year, but that seems to be a trend for players in the Ryan's scheme. Hughes is a little undersized and can be taken advantage of when teams run right at him but he is an excellent pass rusher with both the pure speed to get around the corner and an arsenal of moves. At 28 years old he is in the prime of his career physically so another season with tackles in the mid to upper 30s and 8-9 sacks are reasonable expectations. Hughes is likely to be overlooked by many drafters and can be picked up at a bargain price in many leagues this year. Some owners may even be able to steal him as their third lineman.
Shaq Lawson was the Bills first round pick last year so he has not been through the flip flopping of scheme. He was a defensive end a Clemson so Frazier's 4-3 is not going to be foreign. Lawson missed the first six games of his rookie season and never seemed to get going when he returned. As the third man in the OLB rotation he finished the year with 7 tackles, 6 assists and a pair of sacks. With Lorenzo Alexander staying at linebacker, Lawson will step into the starting role at end this year. He had 20 career sacks for the Tigers and was 35-24-12.5 in his final seasons there, so the history of production is a positive. Lawson's strength is his ability to set the edge and hold ground at the point of attack versus the run. In college opponents often avoided running in his direction because he was so disruptive. He is not a quick twitch blazer that can consistently beat pass blockers with speed and athleticism but Lawson is powerful and relentless. Double digit sack totals are probably not in the cards for him but 40+ solo tackles and 7-8 sacks are a reasonable expectation. Target Lawson as quality depth with high DL2 upside.
Depth at defensive end could be an issue for the Bills. Ryan Davis is a veteran that had 11 sacks in two years with the Jaguars (2014-2015). He will be the third man in the pecking order at the position. After Davis the depth chart is filled with first or second year undrafted free agents or late round picks with virtually no NFL game experience.
For many of us the change of scheme will be huge for Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams as well. Williams finished 2016 at 42-22-4.5; as a defensive end those numbers made him top twenty and a solid DL2. The same production would have been top five at the far less deep tackle position where both he and Dareus will now play. Over the course of his career Williams has played nose tackle and end in three man fronts as well as both nose tackle and 3-technique in 4-3 schemes. Looking at his career numbers it is impossible to tell where he was lining up in a given year because he tends to put up the same steady numbers regardless. If we throw out his injury shortened 2015, Williams has averaged 35 tackles, 20 assists and 6 sacks since 2012. The sack average is a little skewed by his career best of 10 in 2013 but 35-20-4.5 are reasonable expectations, making Williams a solid DT1 candidate in 2017. He is 33 years old and contemplated retirement this offseason before the new coaching staff expressed their desire for his return. Dynasty owners will want to consider that this may be his final season.
Like Williams, it does not seem to matter where Marcell Dareus lines up. In 2013 he was 46-25-7.5 as a 3-4 end; the following year Dareus finished 35-14-9 and was the fantasy game's number three tackle. At 331 pounds he is a powerful, athletic big man that keeps blockers off balance with a rare ability run over them on one play and around them on the next. Last season Dareus missed four games due to suspension and five more with injury. In the other seven contests he recorded 24 tackles, 15 assists and 3.5 sacks. He and Williams are interchangeable at the interior positions so neither will line up at nose or 3-technique on every snap. Dareus turns 28 in November and is set to be a perennial top ten interior lineman for the next several years if the Bills stick with the 4-3. He has the potential to push fifty solo tackles and should be good for at least 5 sacks. Dareus tweaked a hamstring early in camp but the injury is not expected to linger.
It would be a big loss if Williams retires after this season, but not one the organization is unprepared for. Last year's third round pick Adolphus Washington is waiting in the wings for his opportunity. Washington will be the third man in the rotation this year and has already shown plenty of promise. As a rotational defensive end he was 12-9-2.5 on 314 snaps in his rookie season. Washington is a little smaller than Williams but has the same explosion off the ball and excellent upper body strength. If he uses this season to sharpen his technique while learning from the master, Washington should step right in as a quality fantasy starter when his opportunity arrives. He is not a target for redraft leagues at this point but is a strong dynasty stash or injury pickup should either of the starters be lost for a while.
DT Marcell Dareus - DT1 with top five potential; second starter with upside in leagues not breaking out the DL positions
DT Kyle Williams - Solid low end DT1 or priority DT2
DT Adolphus Washington - Dynasty/injury sleeper with good long term potential
DT Jerel Worthy - Veteran backup with no fantasy value
DE Jerry Hughes - Solid second starter than can usually be picked up late/cheap
DE Shaq Lawson - Sleeper with DL2 expectations
DE Ryan Davis - Injury sleeper with limited upside
DE Jake Metz - No value at this time
DE Ian Seau - No value at this time