Last offseason, I took a look at some possible candidates to be the Buffalo Bills’ primary return man in 2016. I was pretty much settled on Walt Powell, given that he did a decent job at the end of 2015 and had the most experience of anybody on the roster.
Naturally, Doug Whaley went out and signed Brandon Tate after he was released by the Bengals, and he turned in a phenomenal season returning both kickoffs and punts.
Is Tate going to hold on to the job this year?
Unlike last season, there are a few worthy candidates for the job this year, none more so than Tate himself. Last year, he returned 26 kickoffs and 29 punts; the only other player on the Bills’ roster who returned a kick for them in 2016 is Nick O’Leary, who fielded two pooch kicks for a total of 27 yards.
As I noted when I covered Tate for the 90 Players in 90 Days series, he was a top-five punt returner and a top-seven kick returner who is only on the cusp of his 30th birthday. There’s no reason to believe that he’ll experience a sudden downturn just yet, although special teams can be a fickle business at times when you consider the interchangeability that comes with a limited need for understanding the playbook.
That brings me to another point in Tate’s favor: his limited involvement with the offense. Tate caught nine passes last year after a multitude of injuries forced him into becoming a starting receiver. Generally speaking, Tate isn’t seeing many snaps with the offense, so his legs can remain fresher when it’s time to field punts and kicks. He also isn’t dragging down the offense by trying to run routes after returning (at least, that’s presumably the plan moving forward). There’s a reason return men are usually role players who don’t see a whole lot of offensive plays go their way.
Of course, Tate isn’t the only player on the roster with return experience. While Powell’s four-game suspension makes hi a non-factor in this race, two guys who have returned in the NFL to keep an eye on are safety Micah Hyde and receiver Rashad Ross.
Hyde began his career returning both kicks and punts for the Green Bay Packers, but largely moved to punt returns over the course of his four-year career. In all, he’s returned 76 punts for 738 yards and three touchdowns (none since 2014).
Ross was another free agent signee who was the primary kick returner for the Washington Redskins in 2015, when he returned 28 kicks for 684 yards and a score. He lost the role last year, which is why he was available for the Bills to sign this offseason.
There’s also first round pick TreDavious White to consider. White was the primary punt returner at LSU for three seasons, where he averaged 10 yards per return while reaching the end zone once in each season.
I don’t think Hyde or White are (or should be) real contenders for the job, given the heavy load they should carry for the defense this year. Asking someone to return a punt after playing a full series on defense isn’t a recipe for setting up great field position. It’ll probably come down to Tate and Ross, two receivers who (ideally) won’t see a whole lot of snaps with the offense this year. My money’s on Tate.
I look forward to revisiting this next year, after someone the Bills sign in September leads the NFL in return average,