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Reassessing the Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver depth chart

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After dealing away its top dog, the receiving corps looks different

With Sammy Watkins no longer a member of the Buffalo Bills and Jordan Matthews taking his place on the roster, it’s time to take a closer look at the wide receivers. The Bills will need to do some shuffling of their depth chart prior to their next preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial field on Thursday, August 17th.

It’s difficult to asses the receiver group in “traditional” terms (who’s the 1, 2, 3, etc.) because Watkins was so clearly that “1.” Instead, we’re going to look at it in terms of groupings. With a lot of skill-set redundancy on the current roster, it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff utilizes all of the individual players.

Group 1—Jordan Matthews, Anquan Boldin, Zay Jones

This part is easy. The top-three receivers on the squad are easily the veteran, the rookie, and the replacement (okay, that last part is unfair). Both Boldin and Matthews operate best out of the slot, with Matthews actually gaining more yards as a slot receiver than anyone in the NFL since he entered the league in 2014. Boldin took 81% of his snaps as a slot receiver or as a tight receiver last season with the Detroit Lions, so one of them will have to play outside on occasion.

Jones, the first of Buffalo’s two second-round picks in this year’s NFL Draft, will now be asked to play outside. While NFL.com noted that his “high-volume production [was] helped by a high percentage of wide receiver screens and short throws,” we heard nearly-identical criticisms of Watkins upon his entering the league (his production “was the result of a gimmick offense”). Jones is a big, tough receiver who can move inside and outside. All three of the receivers in this group can play both inside and out, which will help the offense to keep its three best receivers on the field together.

Group 2—Rod Streater, Andre Holmes, Walt Powell

General manager Brandon Beane specifically mentioned two out of three names from this group when asked “who blows the top off on offense” now that Watkins is gone. He said, “We have different guys who can run. Streater, Walt Powell can run. We have some different guys.” This certainly bodes well for Streater’s chances to make the roster, as he has had a phenomenal camp to date. If the general manager is mentioning you as a deep threat, you’re in pretty good shape. The same goes for Powell, although he won’t be eligible to play until the Bills’ week five tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals thanks to a suspension for PEDS.

I’m including Holmes in this group because I believe he’ll be on the roster when the Bills host the New York Jets on September 10. Depending on a host of factors, including the elusive compensatory selection formula, he could find himself the odd man out when Powell returns from his suspension. His special teams prowess and contract status are two other reasons to consider him safe-ish.

Group 3—Brandon Tate, Corey Brown

Tate is probably the sixth receiver and full-time kick returner. I have him listed in this group not because I think he’ll be cut, but because I think the team will do everything it can to avoid playing him at his listed position this season. Brown was signed as veteran depth, and early on it was assumed that he would be battling with Streater for a possible last roster spot. However, his camp has not been nearly as productive as Streater’s, hence his placement here. If the team decides to cut Holmes prior to the beginning of the regular season, Brown could be kept until Powell’s suspension is up; however, I think he’ll be on the outside looking in come cut-down day.

Group 4—Jeremy Butler, Dezmin Lewis, Brandon Reilly, Rashad Ross, Daikel Shorts

This is the practice squad possibility group. Ross will probably be a straight cut, as he was brought on to compete with Tate for the return job. Reilly and Shorts are intriguing prospects who joined the team this season as undrafted rookie free agents. Shorts hauled in four of his five targets against the Minnesota Vikings in the preseason opener, gaining 39 yards, while Reilly caught just one 18-yard pass on four targets. Dezmin Lewis caught Buffalo’s only touchdown, a one-yard fade pass from Nathan Peterman, but his time as the Bills’ requisite “tall project receiver” seems to be coming to an end. The team has very quickly reworked the corps to feature a bunch of huge dudes, so Lewis no longer can stand tall on his biggest asset (all terrible puns intended). Butler had been practicing well, and he could sneak his way into the discussion for the back-end of the roster, but I don’t think it’s likely. He did not dress for the preseason opener due to a concussion.

If I had to project a receiver depth chart, it would look like this:

  1. Jordan Matthews
  2. Zay Jones
  3. Anquan Boldin
  4. Rod Streater
  5. Walt Powell
  6. Brandon Tate
  7. Andre Holmes
  8. Corey Brown
  9. Jeremy Butler
  10. Daikel Shorts
  11. Dezmin Lewis
  12. Brandon Reilly
  13. Rashad Ross

I’m keeping six receivers, with Holmes taking the nod to begin the year and Powell taking his place in October. The Bills could keep seven receivers, which would seem to be a mistake given all the talk about offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s fondness for 2-tight end sets, but the 2016 Denver Broncos actually spent more time with a third receiver on the field than it did a second tight end. When taking into account the disastrous injuries the Bills had at the position last year, it may not be the worst idea to hold onto an extra player just in case.