Wide receiver/return specialist Brandon Tate led the Buffalo Bills in both kickoff return yards and punt return yards in 2016, but head coach Sean McDermott said the team will examine all options when it comes to the return game in 2017.
This offseason, the Bills signed speedster Rashad Ross, a fourth-year wide receiver/return specialist out of Arizona State, as competition for the returner role. Ross, who has been a member of the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, and Detroit Lions during his NFL career, has earned the nickname “The Rocket” with his blistering speed (4.42 40 time).
“Both have done a good job,” head coach Sean McDermott told Buffalo Bills.com. “Brandon’s been out a little bit with the injury there, it’s good to get him going again; He’s done a great job in getting healthy again. I like what he brings to the table in the return game and then he gives us line of scrimmage value as well as a receiver. With Rashad it’s the same thing; you look at his ability in the return game and the speed element, and the vertical game with the receiver part of it. Both are working extremely hard and adding good competition right now.”
Tate averaged 22.8 yards on 29 kickoff returns (with a season-best return of 45 yards), and averaged 11.6 yards on 26 punt returns last year, including an electrifying 43-yard return during Buffalo’s 28-21 win over Jacksonville on Nov. 28.
In his ninth season out of North Carolina, Tate has been a dynamic threat in the return game during stints with the Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, and New England Patriots. During his career, he has averaged 24.4 yards per kickoff return (219 returns). As a member of the Patriots in 2010, Tate eclipsed 1,000 kickoff returns, returning a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns while averaging 25.8 yards per return on 41 run-backs.
Ross returned a kickoff 101 yards against the New York Giants, on Sept. 24, 2015, the NFL’s fastest play that season with a maximum speed of 21.5 miles-per hour. During the 2015 season, Ross averaged 24.4 yards per return on 28 kickoff returns.
The Bills also recently signed running back Taiwan Jones as potential competition in the backfield and the return game. McDermott told BuffaloBills.com that Jones, who possesses great speed and was clocked as running the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds, will also have the chance to return kicks and punts. In his five-year NFL career (all as a member of the Oakland Raiders), Jones averaged 23.3 yards per return on 75 run-backs.
Tate is the only current member of the team who returned punts for the Bills in 2016, while only Tate and tight end Nick O’Leary are active Bills who returned kickoffs during the 2016 season. As a team, the 2016 Bills ranked sixth in the NFL in average punt return (11.2 yards per return), and were 19th in kickoff return average (21.3 yards per return).
Expect the preseason games to be a deciding factor when it comes to the pecking order in the return game.