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Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones lead unimpressive Buffalo Bills wide receiver group

The Bills would be wise to add another body to the receiving corps in 2018

The Buffalo Bills supposedly had a weak wide receiver group for the majority of the 2016 NFL season. What was supposed to be a group headlined by Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Greg Salas became a group where Justin Hunter was claimed off waivers and instantly saw snaps, Marquise Goodwin saw the most significant playing time of his career, and Percy Harvin was signed off of his couch.

In the offseason, the Bills jettisoned nearly every wide receiver who was on the roster the year before. They allowed Woods and Goodwin to depart via free agency, then they traded Watkins. Salas has not played in the league since his release from the Bills, and Harvin re-retired after a short stint with the team last year.

With an overhauled wide receiver group, the Bills saw even less production than they did the year prior. What makes it even more maddening is that two former Bills had career-best seasons elsewhere. In today’s look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we profile a wide receiver group that is in need of skill-set diversity more than anything else.

Kelvin Benjamin

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $8.459 million cap hit
  • Age: 26 (27 on 2/5/18)
  • Playing time: 220 snaps (20.91% of offensive total), 3 ST snaps (.69%)
  • Key statistics: 27 targets, 16 receptions, 217 yards (13.6 YPC), 1 TD with Buffalo

Buffalo’s big-ticket acquisition in the middle of the 2017 season didn’t quite live up to expectations, although that wasn’t entirely his fault. after making his debut with the team in an embarrassing home loss to the New Orleans Saints, he injured his knee on the first play of his second game in red, white, and blue, taking a direct hit after making a twenty-yard reception against the Los Angeles Chargers. After missing two games, Benjamin gutted out the rest of the season with a torn meniscus.

Benjamin is an absolutely tremendous target, standing at 6’5” and weighing in around 240 pounds. He isn’t lightning-fast, but he certainly isn’t slow. Gaining separation isn’t his greatest asset, but he does a fantastic job winning contested balls in one-on-one situations—a throw that, to put it lightly, isn’t a strength of Tyrod Taylor’s.

It will be interesting to see what a fully-healthy Benjamin can do next season in an entirely different offense. He averaged fewer than 4 targets per game as a Bill, which is absurd given the dearth of talent behind him, but not entirely surprising given that he came to the team halfway through the year. Establishing a rapport with his quarterback, whomever it may be, will be priority number one for Buffalo’s passing offense next season. He is too big of a weapon to waste.

Zay Jones

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $1.5 million cap hit
  • Age: 22 (23 on 3/30/18)
  • Playing time: 792 snaps (75.92% of offensive snaps), 4 ST snaps (.92%)
  • Key statistics: 74 targets, 27 receptions, 316 yards (11.7 YPC), 2 TD

The rookie had his share of struggles this season, as his lack of receptions even with the most targets among Bills’ receivers would indicate. Not all of those balls were catchable, as he was second in the league in uncatchable passes thrown his way at the season’s midway point. For whatever reason, he and Taylor could not find a rhythm with each other in Jones’s rookie year.

Add to that the revelation that Jones played this year with a torn shoulder labrum, and I’m willing to cut Jones a break on a statistically sub-par rookie campaign. The Bills moved up in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft to select him knowing that he has talent, and he also clearly has quite a bit of toughness and heart.

Andre Holmes

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $1.75 million cap hit ($600,000 cap savings if cut)
  • Age: 29 (30 on 6/16/18)
  • Playing time: 339 snaps (32.22% of offensive total), 208 ST snaps (47.6%)
  • Key statistics: 22 targets, 13 receptions, 120 yards (9.2 YPC), 3 TD

Count me among those who didn’t believe that Holmes would last the whole year as a Buffalo Bill, as I fully expected that the team would cut him prior to Week ten in an effort to game the NFL’s compensatory selection process. Alas, Holmes made it the whole season on the roster, although he was not active at the end due to a neck injury that caused the team to place him on injured reserve.

Holmes’s roster spot would appear to be in jeopardy based solely on his receiving numbers, but his contributions on special teams make me think that he’ll be around in 2018 again. He led the Bills in receiving touchdowns this year, as well, hauling in 3 on the year.

Malachi Dupre

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $480,000 cap hit
  • Age: 22 (23 on 10/12/18)
  • Playing time: N/A
  • Key statistics: N/A

Brandon Reilly

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $555,000 cap hit
  • Age: 24 (25 on 9/24/18)
  • Playing time: N/A
  • Key statistics: N/A

Quan Bray

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $630,000 reserve/future contract
  • Age: 24 (25 on 4/28/18)
  • Playing time: N/A
  • Key statistics: N/A

The three players above are all essentially lottery tickets, so it’s best to tackle their roster outlook all at once. Reilly and Dupre ended up on the active roster by season’s end due to injuries to other players, but neither player saw any field time. Dupre and Reilly were never active for a game, and Bray was only signed to the practice squad on December 30. All three are at least as likely to be released as they are to be kept next season, but if one proves himself to be worth a shot, it could save the Bills some capital in terms of investing another outside body into the position.

Rod Streater

  • Contract status for 2018: signed; $705,000 reserve/future contract
  • Age: 29 (30 on 2/9/18)
  • Playing time: N/A
  • Key statistics: N/A

A preseason darling last summer, Streater was poised to break camp with the team until a serious toe injury led him to land on injured reserve after Buffalo’s second preseason game. Signing him to a reserve/future contract is only odd given his age—at 30, his NFL future is far more limited than players like Reilly or Bray, who have more time to develop. It’s a wise move on Buffalo’s part, since he knows the staff and their expectations, but assuming that he is a lock for the 2018 roster would be ill-advised.

Jordan Matthews

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 25 (26 on 7/16/18)
  • Playing time: 508 snaps (48.29% of offensive snaps), 1 ST snap (.23%)
  • Key statistics: 36 targets, 25 receptions, 282 yards (11.3 YPC), 1 TD, 1 fumble

The Bills moved on from Sammy Watkins this offseason in part because of his inability to stay healthy; they traded for Jordan Matthews to lessen the blow of losing Watkins. Matthews had only missed 2 games in his 3-year career prior to this season, but he was placed on injured reserve after only playing in 10 games in 2017. He suffered a litany of injuries in his one year with the Bills, including a broken thumb that required midseason surgery, and ankle and knee surgeries that ultimately led to the end of his season.

Matthews is a very talented player who has never seemed to show game-breaking ability. In all likelihood, his days with Buffalo are behind him. The Bills could certainly do worse than Matthews next year, and if his health is in order and he doesn’t generate much interest on the open market, a return is possible. I don’t think it will happen, however.

Brandon Tate

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 30 (31 on 10/5/18)
  • Playing time: 147 snaps (13.97% of offensive snaps), 136 ST snaps (31.12%)
  • Key statistics: 20 punt returns, 193 yards (9.7 YPR), 28 kick returns, 548 yards (19.6 YPR), 14 targets, 6 receptions, 81 yards (13.5 YPC), 1 TD, 1 fumble

Buffalo’s primary return man for the last two seasons is a free agent, and he’ll turn 31 during the 2018 season. He was benched multiple times for different returners this season, and he offers little value as a receiver (though his lone touchdown reception was a beautiful catch against the Cincinnati Bengals in a frustrating 20-16 loss in October). The Bills will probably go younger here, but with very good numbers in the return game, they could do worse than bringing him back.

Deonte Thompson

  • Contract status for 2018: unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 28 (29 on 2/14/18)
  • Playing time: 474 snaps (45.06% of offensive snaps), 4 ST snaps (.92%)
  • Key statistics: 51 targets, 27 receptions, 430 yards (15.9 YPC), 1 TD, 2 carries, -5 yards with Buffalo

Deonte Thompson led all Buffalo Bills wide receivers in yardage, and he was tied with Zay Jones for first in receptions. Yikes. The veteran came over from the Chicago Bears after he was waived, and he stepped in and immediately found a role as a downfield threat in an otherwise conservative passing attack. The Bills’ receiving corps doesn’t really have anyone who can stretch the field, and while Thompson isn’t an elite burner, he at least has enough speed that it has to be respected.

This is one veteran free agent that the Bills way want to look into re-signing. I doubt that there will be too much of a market for his services, and a reasonable two-year deal can be beneficial to both parties.

Offseason Outlook

Bills wide receivers caught 115 passes, the least in the league this season and the lowest total in the NFL in the last eight seasons. There will be changes.

The Bills are in need of some downfield threats in their receiving corps, as they are currently full of slot-types and possession receivers. As we saw against the Jacksonville Jaguars (and really any team that plays press-man coverage), the receivers struggled to separate in a big way. This was a huge difference from 2016, as the Bills went from ranking 3rd in the league in yards of separation at the time of the quarterback’s release (3.2 yards per pass) to dead last in the league in 2017 (2.47 yards per pass).

If receivers don’t consistently separate, the quarterback needs to be comfortable making tight-window throws, and we know that wasn’t the case for Tyrod Taylor. Finding a player whose skill set helps to diversify the passing game and open things up will need to be a priority in the offseason. Overhauling the entire corps shouldn’t be necessary, as the Bills have a solid foundation in Benjamin and Jones, but the lack of depth is a definite concern.

Spending a late-round draft pick on a receiver with speed could help tremendously. There is a host of intriguing options poised to hit the open market this season, and while it would be nice to add a big-ticket acquisition, priorities along the offensive and defensive lines, and the linebacker corps should outweigh free agent adds at wide receiver. With some cap-juggling, however, kicking the tires on a few of those players would be a good idea.