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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Wide receivers

This group is one player away from being truly special

Philadelphia Eagles v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills overhauled their wide receiver group last offseason, investing $58 million in two free agents intended to help second-year quarterback Josh Allen’s progress. While that progress was apparent thanks in large part to the two free-agent acquisitions, the state of the positional group could still best be described as average at best.

Buffalo has plenty of needs overall for a team that went 10-6 in 2019, but the wide receiver position is among the greatest priorities to address this spring. In our final look at the state of the Bills’ roster, we examine what the Bills have at wide receiver and discuss what they might want to add through the draft and free agency.

John Brown

Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of three-year deal ($9,718,750 cap hit; $3.2 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 29 (30 on 4/3/2020)
Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 913 offensive snaps (85.4%)
Key statistics: 115 targets, 72 catches, 1,060 yards, 6 TD, 2 carries, 7 yards, 1/1, 28 yards, 1 TD passing

To say that “Smoke” had a good season in his first year with the Bills would be an understatement. Brown, who spurned Buffalo in 2018 to sign with the Baltimore Ravens, reconsidered after a downturn in his role in the second half of that season, signing a three-year, $27 million contract with Buffalo last March. For their investment, the Bills were the beneficiary of the best season of Brown’s career. Brown set career high in targets, receptions, and receiving yards this year, and he missed his career-best in receiving touchdowns by only one score. While we could debate whether he is a “true” number-one receiver in today’s NFL, he was the clear number one in Buffalo this year. Adding another target to start on the outside should only add to Brown’s overall effectiveness, as defenses would be less inclined to roll coverages his way with a more-talented threat lurking on the other side of the field. The Bills could opt out of Brown’s contract this year and save $6.5 million in the process, but that isn’t happening. Expect Brown to continue producing for Buffalo in 2020.

Cole Beasley

Contract status for 2020: Signed; second year of four-year contract ($7,068,750 cap hit; $4.5 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 30 (31 on 4/26/2020)
Playing time: 15 games (10 starts), 729 offensive snaps (68.2%), 3 ST snaps (.7%)
Key statistics: 106 targets, 67 catches, 778 yards, 6 TD

The man signed to be Allen’s security blanket-slash-man-coverage beater did exactly that this year. Beasley was targeted a career-high 106 times, and he also set a career high in touchdowns with six. Somehow, I felt at times as if the Bills could have used him even more than they did, though, as it often felt like Beasley was targeted in clusters rather than serving as a consistent point of focus in the game plan. Granted, he’s a better against man coverage than zone, but it’s not as if he’s incapable of thriving against both styles of coverage. He saw at least seven targets in seven of Buffalo’s 17 games. For an offense that threw the ball an average of 33 times per game (including the playoff game against the Houston Texans), that’s a sizable target share. If the Bills add another outside receiver, Beasley’s target share will probably drop, but his overall efficiency may increase as he sees better match-ups. Beasley isn’t going anywhere, and he was a very good addition this year.

Andre Roberts

Contract status for 2020: Signed; final year of two-year deal ($2 million cap hit; $500,000 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 32 (33 on 1/9/2021)
Playing time: 13 games (0 starts), 109 offensive snaps (10.2%), 121 ST snaps (29.2%)
Key statistics: 28 punt returns, 223 yards, 25 kickoff returns, 664 yards, 7 targets, 3 catches, 20 yards, 1 rush, 7 yards

Roberts made the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive season, albeit this year as an alternate, thanks to his prowess as a return man. Roberts was fourth in the league in total kick-return yards this year and eighth in total punt-return yards; by average yards per return, he ranked 16th in average per kickoff return and 23rd in average per punt return. Those rankings include players with far fewer returns, and they don’t necessarily indicate how close Roberts was to breaking one to the house on numerous occasions throughout the year. In a league that continues to de-emphasize the return game, it’s worth arguing whether a return specialist is worth $2 million, but when factoring in his ability as a blocker and the fact that he is among the best returners in the league overall, it’s a small price to pay for a solid veteran. Expect Roberts to remain with the team in his current role next season, as well.

Duke Williams

Contract status for 2020: Signed; final year of two-year deal ($585,000 cap hit; zero dead money if cut)
Age: 26 (27 on 5/13/2020)
Playing time: 4 games (3 starts), 175 offensive snaps (16.4%), 18 ST snaps (4.4%)
Key statistics: 19 targets, 12 catches, 166 yards, 1 TD

This year’s fan-favorite at wideout was the big-bodied Williams, whom the Bills signed out of the CFL last January to compete for a spot on the 53-man roster. After initially failing to make the squad, Williams was called up from the practice squad on October 5, and the very next day he caught all four of his targets for 29 yards and the game-winning touchdown against the Tennessee Titans. Williams was often a healthy scratch, appearing in just four regular-season games for the Bills, but he was targeted a team-high 22 times in the Bills’ last two games against the New York Jets and the Houston Texans, respectively. He only managed to catch ten of those 22 targets, totaling 157 yards in the process. Williams clearly has the trust of his quarterbacks, as he saw more targets than John Brown (8) and Cole Beasley (5) in the Wild Card game, but he had some trouble with consistency in terms of actually catching the ball. He’ll be a fringe roster guy again next year, though he should have a leg up on some of the players lower than him on this list based on the opportunities he saw at season’s end.

Isaiah McKenzie

Contract status for 2020: Unsigned; RFA (original-round tender approx. $2 million)
Age: 24 (25 on 4/9/2020)
Playing time: 15 games (8 starts), 451 offensive snaps (42.2%), 22 ST snaps (5.3%), 3 defensive snaps (.3%)
Key statistics: 39 targets, 27 catches, 254 yards, 1 TD, 8 carries, 49 yards, 1 punt return, 4 yards, 3 kickoff returns, 65 yards

McKenzie was productive given his role as Buffalo’s Swiss-Army knife/gadget player, coming in motion on jet-sweep action plays for most of his 451 offensive snaps. His totals in yardage and receptions were career highs, and at just 24 years old, he has shown the potential to be a dynamic player when used properly in a creative offense. However, given Buffalo’s need for another player at the position, it’s probably McKenzie who is squeezed out of a role next year. The original-round tender is too much for his snap share and overall level of production given the fact that he is really a gadget player and not a complete receiver. Add to that his struggles in the return game, and it even lessens his use as a potential replacement for Roberts in the long term. McKenzie is a definite non-tender candidate who will probably be elsewhere in 2020.

Robert Foster

Contract status for 2020: Unsigned; ERFA (can be tendered at league minimum for Foster’s service time; player is unable to negotiate with any team if tendered)
Age: 25 (26 on 5/7/2020)
Playing time: 13 games, 2 starts, 214 offensive snaps (20%), 157 ST snaps (37.9%)
Key statistics: 18 targets, 3 catches, 64 yards, 2 carries, 29 yards

Last year’s practice-squad wonder turned fan-favorite fell hard from grace this year, as Foster just could not recapture the chemistry he showed with Allen as a rookie. After catching 27 of 44 targets for 541 yards and three touchdowns last year, Foster’s playing time and target share plummeted, as did his production. As an exclusive-rights free agent, the Bills should absolutely bring him back as, at worst, a camp body and an insurance policy in case of injury; however, it’s more likely at this point that he doesn’t make the roster next year than it is that he sticks with the team.

Ray-Ray McCloud III

Contract status for 2020: Signed reserve/future contract on 1/6/2020 ($662,750 cap hit; $5,500 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 10/15/2020)
Playing time: 6 games, 0 starts, 1 offensive snap, 117 ST snaps (all with Carolina Panthers)
Key statistics: 8 kickoff returns, 174 yards, 10 punt returns, 82 yards, 3 fumbles

McCloud began the regular season with the Panthers after he failed to make the Bills’ roster out of the preseason, only to find himself back with Buffalo as a member of the practice squad after Carolina released him on October 15. At just 23 years old, McCloud has a lot of the same characteristics athletically as McKenzie—he’s electric in space, he can be used as a gadget type, and he has some return experience. Also like McKenzie, he’s had issues with fumbles when returning kicks. McCloud is a good player to have on the practice squad, and he’ll be able to compete for a spot in camp once again. However, it’s likely that the result this year will be the same as it was last season, as Buffalo continues to look for ways to improve its pass catchers.

Nick Easley

Contract status for 2020: Signed reserve/future deal on 1/6/2020 ($513,250 cap hit; $6,500 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 23 (24 on 1/14/2021)
Playing time: NA
Key statistics: NA

A bigger version (5’11” and 203 lbs) of the veteran Beasley, Easley had a nice training camp, and he also did the most with his opportunity during the preseason finale against the Minnesota Vikings. In that game, he led the Bills in targets (6), and was second in both receptions (4) and receiving yards (41). While he’ll probably be looking at a practice-squad spot again next year, he’s a great insurance policy as a slot receiver in the event that Beasley is injured.

Positional Outlook

Buffalo has to add talent here. Even the rosiest outlook on the talent at the position group includes the fact that Buffalo has one very good receiver who can play anywhere, one very good slot receiver, and a bunch of spare parts who may or may not develop into anything great at any given time. Whether you’re a Duke Williams guy (I became one as the season wore on) or you think that Isaiah McKenzie is underutilized, you probably also see the need to add a true game changer here.

Buffalo will probably add at least one receiver through the draft, perhaps doing so as early as the first round. After watching how successful Deebo Samuel was with the San Francisco 49ers, it makes me like a player like Colorado’s Laviska Shenault even more—he’s built like Eric Moulds at 6’2” and 220 lbs, and he runs like Moulds, as well. He can move all around the formation, so he’d be a natural replacement for McKenzie as a gadget player who also has the requisite size to play outside.

The team could also look to sign a big-name veteran. Maybe someone like A.J. Green could try to revitalize his career on a one-year deal at $8 million to $10 million, or the Bills could swing for the fences for someone like Amari Cooper (who didn’t sound too enthusiastic about heading to Orchard Park when interviewed in January). They could also try to strike gold with someone like Breshad Perriman, a former first-round pick who played well with a change of scenery with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.

In any case, the wide receiver group is one that will be watched as closely as any other positional grouping on Buffalo’s roster this offseason.