The Buffalo Bills dealt starting cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick in August of 2017. Matthews, a former second-round selection out of Vanderbilt in 2014, is heading to free agency after a disappointing, injury-plagued season in Western New York.
Matthews did not perform to expectations during his one season with the Bills, catching 25 passes for 282 yards with one touchdown while averaging 11.3 yards per catch before being placed on the season-ending injured reserve list in December. One year after averaging five catches per game as a dynamic slot receiver, Matthews averaged 2.5 grabs per game during his 10-game audition with the Bills.
Who do the Bills currently have on their roster that could replace Matthews? Unlike many of these positional previews, the Bills actually do have in-house options should Buffalo not extend a free agent contract offer to Matthews.
Zay Jones, Buffalo’s second-round pick out of East Carolina University, certainly had his share of struggles during his rookie season. Jones caught just 27 of the 74 targets thrown his way for 316 yards with a pair of receiving touchdowns. Jones earned an overall grade of 43.6 (a poor grade) while ranking 108th among wide receivers. A popular criticism of Jones was his dropped passes, though he was officially only credited with seven drops, they seemed to come at the most inopportune moment (the Week 2 loss to the Carolina Panthers and on a key drive in the 10-3 Wild Card round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars). His catch rate of 36.5% ranked 106th among wide receivers (and was less than half of Matthews’ rate). Jones will be the first receiver up to replace Matthews in the slot and has the tools and the talent to succeed.
On the outside, Kelvin Benjamin had an underwhelming debut season in Buffalo, though much of that can be blamed on a knee injury he suffered on his first play of Buffalo’s Week 11 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Benjamin was not the receiving threat the Bills envisioned when they shipped a third- and seventh-round draft pick to the Carolina Panthers. He finished with 16 catches for 217 yards, averaging 13.6 yards per catch with one touchdown. Benjamin should be a big target who can win his one-on-one battles for whoever quarterbacks the Bills in 2018, and a return to his rookie season form, when he caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns, should help ease the loss of Matthews. While Benjamin only caught 48 passes for 692 yards and three TDs in 2017, Pro Football Focus still assigned Benjamin a grade of 79.1, ranking 28th among wide receivers.
Deonte Thompson, the team’s true deep threat in 2017, was a pleasant surprise after being released by the Chicago Bears in Week 5. Thompson came to the Bills and caught 27 passes for 430 yards and one touchdown. He made an instant impact in his Buffalo debut, hauling in four catches for 107 yards in a win over Tampa Bay. Thompson, an unrestricted free agent who ranked third on the team for both receptions and receiving yards, came down with a clutch 34-yard reception in overtime vs. the Indianapolis Colts set up LeSean McCoy’s walkoff TD run in the Snowvertime game. Thompson, too, should shoulder more of the receiving load in 2018 if he returns to Western New York.
Brandon Tate, the Bills primary return man in 2016 and 2017, caught six of the 14 targets thrown his way for 81 yards and a touchdown in limited reps at wide receiver in 2017. Tate, an unrestricted free agent, probably won’t be back with Buffalo considering his kick return average (19.6 yards per return on 28 returns) was the worst mark of his nine-year career. Tate did rank sixth in the NFL in punt returns, averaging 9.65 yards per return on 20 returns.
Practice squad standout Brandon Reilly, who had a terrific preseason for the Bills, catching 11 passes for 139 yards with a touchdown, could step up and contribute more to the receiver corps in 2018.
The only other receiver on the roster and under contract is Malachi Dupree, who spent most of the regular season on Buffalo’s practice squad before being activated for Week 17. Dupree was drafted in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers out of LSU.
Jeremy Butler, who is a restricted free agent, suffered a concussion early in the preseason and was placed on Buffalo’s injured reserve. He did not appear in any regular season games last year.