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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: Wake-up time at wide receiver

For the Bills’ brass, for the players, for everyone involved—change is afoot at the receiver position

In 2018, the Buffalo Bills began the season with a wide-receiver group that was, to put it lightly, lacking in talent and depth. The team seemed ready to rely on big receivers with a big catch radius at the expense of wideouts who could create separation in their routes. The top three receivers on the depth chart to open the season were Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, and Jeremy Kerley, with Andre Holmes playing the role of fourth receiver.

By December, three of those four players were gone, with Kerley unable to make it out of the month of September before his release, and Holmes and Benjamin making it until the end of November. Only Benjamin signed with another team this season. In their place, the Bills prioritized smaller, quicker players who might not win many contested catches, but who could create separation with their speed and quickness.

In our latest look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we look at the receivers, a group that has changed dramatically since September, and will almost definitely change again before training camp begins.

Zay Jones

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $1,849,044 cap hit ($1,535,394 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 23 (24 on 3/30/19)
  • Playing time: 16 games (15 starts), 941 snaps (88.86% of offensive total); 2 ST snaps (.46%)
  • Key statistics: 102 targets, 56 catches, 652 yards (11.6 YPC), 7 TD, 1 fumble

For much of the year, Kelvin Benjamin was referred to as Buffalo’s number-one receiver; however, playing time and production data both clearly indicate that Jones was actually the top dog in this group. The young wideout rebounded from a dreadful rookie season to post solid, albeit unspectacular, numbers during his second year. Early in the year, Jones operated mostly in the slot, ceding outside time to Benjamin and Andre Holmes. As the bigger veterans were phased out of the offense, Jones moved outside and was able to show his versatility. After a big jump from year one to year two, Jones taking another huge leap in year three would make a world of difference for Buffalo’s passing game in 2019.

Ray-Ray McCloud III

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $609,956 cap hit ($119,868 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 22 (23 on 10/15/19)
  • Playing time: 10 games (1 start), 121 snaps (11.43%); 10 ST snaps (2.28%)
  • Key statistics: 6 targets, 5 catches, 36 yards (7.2 YPC), 2 rush, 4 yards, 2 fumbles, 4 punt returns, 20 yards, 1 kick return, 18 yards

The Bills drafted the speedy wideout from Clemson in the sixth round this season, and they seemed ready to deploy him as a returner/slot receiver/Swiss Army knife player. That role never quite materialized for McCloud, as issues with fumbling took him out of the running for returning punts, and mid-season acquisitions of better receivers with similar skill sets lessened his role in the offense. McCloud has a tenuous-at-best hold on a roster spot for next season.

Isaiah McKenzie

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $645,000 cap hit (dead cap if cut unknown)
  • Age: 23 (24 on 4/9/19)
  • Playing time: 7 games (1 start), 222 snaps (20.96% of offensive total); 43 ST snaps (9.79%)
  • Key statistics: 30 targets, 18 catches, 179 yards (9.9 YPC), 10 rush, 66 yards, 2 TD, 2 fumbles, 14 punt returns, 87 yards, 12 kick returns, 237 yards

McKenzie is a player the Bills clearly liked, as they claimed him off waivers from the Denver Broncos after trying to sign him from the Broncos practice squad a few weeks earlier and immediately inserted him into the lineup. His first game with the team came against the New York Jets in Week 10, and he became Buffalo’s primary slot receiver upon Benjamin’s release three weeks later. He had some good moments, showing proficiency as a jet-sweep rusher and as a kick returner, and he was able to gain separation while running routes, but inconsistent hands leaves McKenzie less in a solid place than he seemed to be upon his acquisition.

Robert Foster

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed; $570,000 cap hit (0 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 24 (25 on 5/7/19)
  • Playing time: 13 games (3 starts), 450 snaps (42.49% of offensive total); 42 ST snaps (9.57%)
  • Key statistics: 44 targets, 27 catches, 541 yards (20 YPC), 3 TD

Buffalo’s best find of the 2018 season is definitely Foster, who easily surpassed his entire collegiate total in receiving yards (389) during his rookie season in the NFL. The deep threat seemed to develop as a route runner as the year progressed, and his rapport with quarterback Josh Allen is evident. Foster may be no better than a low-end number two receiver or a top-end number three in the NFL, but he is certainly the kind of player who belongs on an NFL roster. Credit the Bills for finding him, but credit Foster for working hard to succeed after the team released him and demoted him to the practice squad.

Da’Mari Scott

  • Contract status for 2018: Unsigned; ERFA
  • Age: 23 (24 on 8/8/19)
  • Playing time: 3 games, 3 snaps (.28% of offensive total); 38 ST snaps (8.66%)
  • Key statistics: N/A

The mid-season practice-squad acquisition was promoted to the final roster for three games in December. While he did not accumulate any statistics, he did show a willingness to play special teams, something that Sean McDermott values in his back-end roster players. As an exclusive rights free agent, Scott should be brought back in for at least the offseason and training camp periods.

Victor Bolden Jr.

  • Contract status for 2018: Unsigned; ERFA
  • Age: 23 (24 on 4/4/19)
  • Playing time: 2 games, 3 snaps (.28% of offensive total); 9 ST snaps (2.05%)
  • Key statistics: 5 kick returns, 116 yards

Buffalo added the shifty return-man from the San Francisco 49ers practice squad on December 18, and he served as the Bills’ primary kick returner for the final two games of the season. Also an exclusive-rights free agent, it’s worthwhile to bring him back for offseason work before making a final decision on him for the 2019 season.

Deonte Thompson

  • Contract status for 2018: Unsigned; UFA
  • Age: 29 (30 on 2/14/19)
  • Playing time: 5 games (2 starts), 80 snaps (7.55% of offensive total), 20 ST snaps(4.56%)
  • Key statistics: 10 targets, 3 catches, 37 yards

Buffalo re-signed the veteran on November 14, beginning his third tour of duty in Orchard Park. He never quite fit in with the offense this season, making three catches in five games before a toe injury against the Detroit Lions ended his season. As an unrestricted free agent, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be brought back next year.

D’haquille Williams

  • Contract status for 2018: Signed to future/reserve deal on 1/7/2019; $495,000 base salary ($0 dead cap hit if cut)
  • Age: 25 (26 on 5/13/19)
  • Playing time: 18 games in CFL for Edminton Eskimos
  • Key statistics: 88 catches, 1,579 yards (17.9 YPC), 11 TD in CFL

The Bills signed the big-bodied wideout to a reserve/future deal, meaning he will be with the team at least through offseason work. Williams was a highly-touted junior college prospect in 2014, and he played his major college football at Auburn University. After a solid junior season (45/730/5), he was dismissed from the team during his senior season for his involvement in an incident at a bar. He went undrafted, signing with the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent, before being released and heading to the CFL.

Positional Outlook

The only real “locks” to be on the roster next year are Jones and Foster, as both showed enough this year to warrant being in the top four receivers next season. Keeping both McKenzie and Bolden seems a bit redundant, as each player is similarly sized (McKenzie is 5’8” and 173 pounds; Bolden is 5’8” and 178 pounds) and possesses a similar set of skills. McKenzie showed some promise as a receiver, but he’ll have to do a much better job catching the ball more consistently if he wants to stick on the roster next year. Scott seems like a perfect candidate for the practice squad again, and that may be the route the team goes with McCloud, as well. Thompson should not be with the team next year.

The Bills will almost certainly try to fortify this position in the offseason, both through free agency and the draft. It’s also possible that the team could explore the trade market if they want to go fishing for a bigger prize (Antonio Brown? A.J. Green?) than those available on the open market. There are some intriguing options, including John Brown (whom the team courted last year before he signed with the Baltimore Ravens), Tyrell Williams, and Randall Cobb.

One thing, however, is abundantly clear: general manager Brandon Beane, head coach Sean McDermott, and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll all discovered that the approach the team had taken at the position was not working, and they tried to change course midway through the season. The overhaul has continued into the offseason with the signing of Williams, a huge, intriguing player who is absolutely worth the flier the Bills are taking on him. Expect that overhaul to continue throughout the spring and summer.