When Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane shipped wide receiver Sammy Watkins to Los Angeles and imported Jordan Matthews from Philadelphia, many Bills fans justifiably wondered if the Bills were in full-on tank mode. One of the rarely-spoken differences between Watkins and Matthews was Watkins’ impressive catch radius. Watkins was seen as a guy who could win the jump balls and make plays on balls that weren’t ideally placed. With Tyrod Taylor as the clear starting quarterback for 2017, that was a crucial loss in skill at the receiver position.
The WR group, meanwhile, found other ways to disappoint. Rod Streater was looking like a guy who could fill in the void left by the fee agency departure of Robert Woods, but then Streater was lost due to injury. Meanwhile, rookie Zay Jones hit some kind of mental roadblock and dropped any number of critical passes. Andre Holmes made some nice grabs and Matthews has had some highlights, even with his broken thumb, but their contributions were such that Deonte Thompson was able to come in and eclipse their single-game output just a few days after being signed. Brandon Tate and Kaelin Clay were never going to produce on offense and Clay is now gone.
With the clouds gathering, Matthew returned from a thumb injury (even though his best reception against Oakland was wiped out by an obviously incorrect offensive pass interference penalty) and Zay Jones caught the first 3 passes thrown his way—including one on 3rd down. There was reason to hope.
And then Beane swung a deadline deal for Kelvin Benjamin.
It is natural to look at Benjamin’s stats in his time in Carolina; about four receptions for 60 yards and three first downs per game, with a touchdown every other game. Football Outsiders had a different read on him in 2015. (The story is very much worth clicking as it has some insights on Sammy Watkins as well as Mike Evans and Odell Beckham, Jr.) The story notes that Benjamin was generally a downfield target (average target 14.4 yards beyond line of scrimmage), something the Bills have sorely lacked. Then there’s this:
Cam Newton led all passers with 17 percent of his passes overthrown, and that number would have been higher without Benjamin's tough catches. Based on our breakdown of incomplete passes in game charting, 27.0 percent of Benjamin's targets were deemed uncatchable (27th-most). For comparison, only 16.2 percent of Beckham's targets were uncatchable (81st). Benjamin had 15 above-the-head grabs among his first 40 catches of the season, an absurd rate. He finished with 19, second only to Beckham's 20. His season percentage of catches caught above the head (26.0 percent) is nearly three times higher than the average studied (9.2 percent).
Like Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor isn’t noted for his precise ball placement. Taylor also hasn’t been willing to challenge defensive backs with jump balls because no one on the roster inspires faith in the ability to win those jump balls. Benjamin may change that after earning Taylor’s trust.
Benjamin was still making a lot of contested catches in those moments. The drops are a bit of a concern, but half of them were still balls that weren't thrown very well or where a defender was right there to make contact.
In trading for Benjamin, Beane has given Taylor the type of weapon Beane traded away before the start of the season. The question isn’t whether Benjamin > Watkins. The question is whether Benjamin restores Taylor’s willingness to make the downfield throws he was making to Watkins. If Taylor does target Benjamin 30+ yards downfield when he see Benjamin in man-to-man coverage, the impact will extend to other offensive plays. Defenses worried about Benjamin coming down with a 30+ yard jump ball have a harder time loading the box to stop the run.
This trade could significantly improve the offense, depending on how long it takes Taylor and Benjamin to develop a comfort level.