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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: several additions to watch at wide receiver in 2019

Lots of changes at wide receiver. How will they pan out?

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 (and now he’s a free agent again). 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.

Buffalo did the same thing this offseason, adding a slew of pass catchers to their roster in the hopes that someone will do something during training camp. The biggest question now is how will the depth shake out?

Zay Jones

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $1,849,044 cap hit ($1,535,394 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: Turned 24 on 3/30/19
  • 2018 Playing time: 16 games (15 starts), 941 snaps (88.86% of offensive total); 2 ST snaps (.46%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 102 targets, 56 catches, 652 yards (11.6 YPC), 7 TDs, 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 2019: Signed; $609,956 cap hit ($119,868 dead cap if cut)
  • Age: 22 (23 on 10/15/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 10 games (1 start), 121 snaps (11.43%); 10 ST snaps (2.28%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 6 targets, 5 catches, 36 yards (7.2 YPC), 2 rushes, 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 2019.

Isaiah McKenzie

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $645,000 cap hit ($0 dead cap if cut unknown)
  • Age: Turned 24 on 4/9/19
  • 2018 playing time: 7 games (1 start), 222 snaps (20.96% of offensive total); 43 ST snaps (9.79%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 30 targets, 18 catches, 179 yards (9.9 YPC), 10 rushes, 66 yards, 2 TDs, 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. He’s the poster child for Buffalo’s lack of talent in 2018 still receiving snaps based on the bare cupboard.

Robert Foster

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed; $570,000 cap hit ($0 dead cap hit if cut)
  • Age: Turned 25 on 5/7/19
  • 2018 playing time: 13 games (3 starts), 450 snaps (42.49% of offensive total); 42 ST snaps (9.57%)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 44 targets, 27 catches, 541 yards (20 YPC), 3 TDs

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.

Victor Bolden Jr.

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed one-year $645,000 ERFA contract ($0 dead cap hit if cut)
  • Age: Turned 24 on 4/4/19
  • 2018 playing time: 2 games, 3 snaps (.28% of offensive total); 9 ST snaps (2.05%)
  • Key 2018 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. With the addition of a Pro Bowl free agent at kick returner, it’s hard to see how Bolden cracks the roster.

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: Turned 26 on 5/13/19
  • Playing time: 18 games in CFL for Edmonton Eskimos
  • Key statistics: 88 catches, 1,579 yards (17.9 YPC), 11 TDs 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. While many Bills fans have been talking up his great CFL tape, it’s unlikely he’ll be a significant factor in Buffalo’s 53-man roster.

John Brown

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a three-year deal this offseason; $7.5M cap hit ($10.1M cap hit if cut)
  • Age: Turned 29 on 4/3/19
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (15 starts), 757 snaps (63.67% of offensive snaps) for Baltimore Ravens
  • Key 2018 statistics: 97 targets, 42 receptions, 715 yards, 5 TDs for Baltimore Ravens

A speed threat to take off the top of the defense, Brown should be one of Buffalo’s top two receivers in 2019. A solid NFL veteran, his skill set complements Josh Allen’s in a very nice way. If they can develop chemistry, it could be a match made in heaven.

Cole Beasley

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a four-year deal this offseason; $6.9M cap hit ($10.7M cap hit if cut)
  • Age: Turned 30 on 4/26/19
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (4 starts), 712 snaps (66.17% of offensive snaps), 49 snaps (11.78% of special teams snaps) for Dallas Cowboys
  • Key 2018 statistics: 87 targets, 65 catches, 672 yards, 3 TDs for Dallas Cowboys

One of the top slot receivers in the NFL, Beasley has been with the Cowboys for his entire career. As Buffalo shifts from large, tall receivers to shifty receivers, Beasley should end up being Josh Allen’s security blanket (especially with Tyler Kroft’s injury and Dawson Knox learning to be an NFL tight end). Hopefully, instead of taking off with his legs, Allen can find the reliable Beasley to gain YAC.

Andre Roberts

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a two-year deal this offseason; $2.6M cap hit ($3M cap hit if cut)
  • Age: Turned 31 on 1/9/19
  • 2018 playing time: 16 games (1 start), 195 snaps (19.48% of offensive snaps), 177 snaps (35.69% of special teams snaps) for New York Jets
  • Key 2018 statistics: 17 targets, 10 catches, 79 yards, 1 TD, 23 punt returns, 324 punt return yards, 1 punt return TD, 40 kick returns, 1174 kick return yards, 1 kick return TD for the New York Jets

Roberts was an All-Pro and Pro Bowler in 2018 for the Jets, but his receiving numbers are underwhelming. You’d expect more out of a player with that many snaps. Was it Sam Darnold not wanting to go deep to the speedster? Will he have a role on the roster beyond special teams? They are certainly paying him a lot of money unless that’s the case. Lots of questions to answer in camp and the preseason.

Nick Easley

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a three-year UDFA deal; $500k cap hit ($13,000 cap hit if cut)
  • Age: Turned 22 on 1/14/19
  • 2018 playing time: 12 games for University of Iowa
  • Key 2018 statistics: 52 receptions, 494 yards, 5 TDs for the University of Iowa

Primarily a slot receiver at Iowa, Easley out-caught two first-round tight ends during the 2018 season but fell out of the 2019 NFL Draft. If he makes the team, he’ll have to jump Isaiah McKenzie and Ray-Ray McCloud at a minimum as well as make a mark somewhere on special teams. It’s a tall order, but Easley is talented.

Cam Phillips

  • Contract status for 2019: In second year of a three-year UDFA deal; $570k cap hit ($0 cap hit if cut)
  • Age: 23 (24 on 12/16/19)
  • 2018 playing time: 2 games, 27 snaps (2.55% of offensive snaps), 8 snaps, (1.82% of special teams snaps)
  • Key 2018 statistics: 1 target, 1 reception, 9 yards

Phillips has an uphill climb back to the roster. He replaced Robert Foster on the active roster in October but was released at the end of the month in favor of Robert Foster. Foster exploded after that and Phillips remained on the practice squad. With the new additions, he’s almost certainly playing for game tape this preseason.

David Sills V

  • Contract status for 2019: Signed a three-year UDFA deal; $507k cap hit ($35,000 cap hit if cut)
  • Age: Turned 23 on 5/5/19
  • 2018 playing time: 12 games for University of West Virginia
  • Key 2018 statistics: 65 receptions, 986 yards, 15 TDs for the University of West Virginia

If “Buffalo Bills: Embedded” is to be believed, Sills was the top undrafted free agent on the Bills’ board. He has good speed and length, but he’s still learning the position. If he has a good training camp but a so-so preseason, Buffalo might be able to stash him on the practice squad instead of devoting a roster spot to a developmental receiver.

Positional Outlook

The Bills are in a really unique position with four receivers who could make waves in 2019 but no one knowing how the playing time is going to shake out. Lots of Bills fans think Robert Foster is going to take the next step to becoming a number one receiver. I’m a lot more reserved in my opinion of a guy they cut last year and went undrafted 15 months ago.

I think think it shakes out with Jones, Brown, Beasley, and Foster earning snap counts in that order. The depth will only help them and Brian Daboll.

If those four are on the roster, and Andre Roberts is your fifth WR with return abilities, they might keep a sixth guy who will be a developmental player and inactive most Sundays plus a practice squad guy or two.

There are going to be legit NFL WRs who don’t make the roster this year and fan favorites left on the outside looking in. Which skill sets will the Bills prioritize on cut down day?