Some roster moves just make too much sense. When news broke that the Cincinnati Bengals plan to release veteran wide receiver Brandon LaFell, our writers’ Slack channel immediately lit up regarding the fit between the pass catcher and the Buffalo Bills.
First, the connection between LaFell and the Bills’ current decision-makers is obvious. LaFell was a third-round draft pick (78th overall) of the Carolina Panthers in 2010. Beane was Carolina’s Director of Football Operations at the time. LaFell remained in Carolina through the 2013 season, so his path crossed with current Bills’ head coach Sean McDermott, who was hired as Carolina’s defensive coordinator in 2011.
After a two-year layover with the New England Patriots, where he had a career-year in 2014 (119 targets, 74 catches, 953 yards, 7 touchdowns), LaFell moved on to the Cincinnati Bengals, where he played with currents Bills AJ McCarron and Russell Bodine. McCarron only played in two games, both blowout losses in Weeks 13 and 14. While it’s an absurdly small sample size, McCarron threw 4 of his 14 passes in those games LaFell’s way. For comparison’s sake, he only targeted A.J. Green once.
Brandon LaFell isn’t a wide receiver who is going to light the league on fire, but that isn’t what the Bills need him to be. When considering a player like LaFell, there really are only two questions that need to be asked: Is he better than what the team has currently? Will he play for a reasonable contract?
I can answer the first of those questions in the affirmative. LaFell is definitely a better player than Andre Holmes, a receiver who has seen plenty of first-team reps due to the absence of presumed starter Zay Jones. Is LaFell a better player than Jones? That’s hard to say definitively, as Jones is only entering his second season, but based off of last year, the answer is probably yes.
This leave the question of financial terms. Chances are good that LaFell would play for the veteran’s minimum on a one-year deal in 2018, or something close to it. With veterans like Dez Bryant and Jeremy Maclin, who both have more receptions, yards, and touchdowns on their career than LaFell, it decreases the likelihood that a team would pay a premium for LaFell. Also, of the three receivers, LaFell is the oldest of the bunch, as he will turn 32 in November.
The negatives involved with signing LaFell to a one-year contract are few, but his presence does mean that one of a promising group of young receivers may not have the chance to prove themselves this season. By all accounts, undrafted free agent Cam Phillips is having a great training camp, and Ray-Ray McCloud has also had moments where he has performed well. Robert Foster, an undrafted free agent from Alabama, has earned some first-team reps in camp, and Austin Proehl has a strong college resume and good NFL bloodlines.
LaFell also has been consistently underwhelming statistically throughout his career. For 16 games, he averages 53 receptions, 708 yards, and 4 touchdowns. However, those numbers would have made him the 2017 Bills’ leader in receiving yards by a wide margin (Charles Clay had 558), and he also would have led in touchdowns (besting Andre Holmes, who had 3) and trailed in receptions by only 6 (LeSean McCoy).
So no, Brandon LaFell would not give the Bills a number one receiving option. The team runs the risk of taking reps away from younger players in order to give a soon-to-be 32-year-old a chance to prove that he isn’t on the downside of his career quite yet. What it would give them, however, is a solid professional at a position of need.
If the team could do that on a one-year deal, Brandon Beane should work his connections and make it happen.