The 2017 Buffalo Bills’ receiving corps is not good. There, I said it.
Through five games, the Bills are on pace to have some of the worst totals by NFL wide receivers since at least the turn of the century. The leader in receptions and receiving yards is Jordan Matthews, who has 10 catches for 162 yards. He didn’t play in Buffalo’s Week five loss to the Cincinnati Bengals due to a broken thumb, and although it’s possible that he will return Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s more likely that he won’t return until the following week against the Oakland Raiders.
Andre Holmes is Buffalo’s leader in receiving touchdowns, with 2 on the year. He’s also second among Bills’ wideouts in receptions. He has six. Zay Jones has only caught five of 23 targets this season, and he is second on the squad in receiving yards by a wide receiver. He has 66 yards on the season.
Why are Buffalo’s receivers so darn unproductive? It certainly isn’t work ethic—each player is a professional, and each man is working as hard as he can to succeed. However, the production just isn’t there. Tyrod Taylor could shoulder some of the blame, but even when his receiving corps was without top target Sammy Watkins last season, Robert Woods still stepped up and performed at a better pace than Matthews is currently slated to produce. Woods caught 51 balls for 613 yards and a touchdown last season. Matthews is on a a 40-catch pace, and that’s if he plays in all 16 games, which he obviously can’t. It’s possible that Deonte Thompson, who signed with the team on Tuesday , could start on Sunday and instantly be the best or second-best player in the position group.
To paraphrase David Byrne, “You may ask yourself, well, how did we get here?!” There are some glaring ways in which Buffalo has dropped the ball with regard to its pass catching unit.
They spend less on receivers than anyone
If the price is what the Bills have paid, the value, in this case, is what they deserve. The Bills have spent less than anyone on their receiving corps, according to Spotrac, investing a meager 3.13% of their cap dollars at the position ($4,962,596 between five players). Andre Holmes is the highest-paid of the group at $1.4 million. Without a willingness to spend at the position, it is very difficult to improve the position. Sure, money doesn’t buy production, but it certainly helps to avoid starting players who are no better than special teamers and return men one month into a season. This number will rise with the addition of Thompson, but it will only move them to 30th. The New York Giants are currently listed as the 32nd-ranked team in wide receiver spending, but that’s because Odell Beckham Jr. has been moved to injured reserve, thus eliminating his cap hit from the equation.
They don’t invest high draft picks on receivers
This seems crazy with the controversy surrounding the Sammy Watkins selection in 2014, but the Bills have not drafted many wide receivers highly. The Bills have only spent 13 picks on wide receivers in the first 2 rounds of the NFL Draft since 1980. Of those 13, only five (Chris Burkett, Eric Moulds, Josh Reed, Lee Evans, and Roscoe Parrish) signed their second contract with the team. Yikes. Without investing picks in premium talent, it’s difficult to solidify a position. Without retaining that talent, it makes continuity impossible. Among the Bills’ current receivers, Zay Jones is the highest selection (36 overall), followed by Matthews (42), Brandon Tate (83), and Kaelin Clay (184). Holmes and Thompson both entered the league as undrafted free agents.
Other sad but true statistics
Zay Jones is one of the two worst wide receivers in football, according to this tweet from Adam Levitan... Brandon Tate’s 2-catch, 25-yard, 1-touchdown performance against the Bengals was Buffalo’s best fantasy scoring output by a wide receiver on the season, and that’s only 10.5 points even in a PPR format.. Buffalo’s receivers have averaged a combined 4.8 catches and 63.2 yards per game, according to ESPN Stats and Information (via The Buffalo News). That would be the worst full-season total since 2001.
The bottom line is that the receiver position cannot be overlooked. Trading Watkins away hurt the unit’s depth, and the sudden retirement of Anquan Boldin removed an NFL-caliber player, albeit one who was at least on the back-nine of his career and potentially already on the 18th green. The Bills will need much more production out of the players on the current roster as the season progresses. Let’s hope that they’re capable of more than they’ve shown so far.