Every summer, Buffalo Bills fans watch training camp intently. Some of the best moments are the obvious ones: watching the quarterback for improvement from the previous year, seeing a veteran who defies age to remain in great shape, or checking on a new acquisition through the draft for his fit with the club. While these are always good reasons to watch, the traditional “training camp battle” is often the source of the best debate during this otherwise “dead” period.
Thanks to pandemic-related shutdowns, the period of time without any sports has taken on another level entirely—and training camp is going to look a whole lot different as a result. Fans won’t be able to attend live practice, media members won’t be allowed to tweet video clips or discuss formations and/or lineups, and news is going to be a whole lot slower in comparison to the last few seasons.
Rule changes and “new normals” might alter the way our news about Bills practice comes to us, but it won’t stop us from discussing all of the battles for roster space the team has. This is the first in a series of articles where we’ll highlight some of the key camp competitions, providing our thoughts on how those competitions will go, and giving us a space to discuss and debate who stays and who goes.
To begin, let’s talk about the wide receivers.
Buffalo’s top three wideouts are set in stone, as the team added to its solid one-two punch of Brown and Beasley by acquiring the dynamic Diggs to be the true, all-caps-to-show-a-proper-noun Number One Wideout. When the Bills go with “11” personnel, a grouping that they ran 70% of the time in 2019, the trio of receivers will almost always include Diggs, Brown, and Beasley.
The next tier isn’t comprised of players guaranteed to make the roster, but players who will probably make the roster. Davis is here because of draft position, and while a fourth-round pick isn’t completely safe, he’s much safer than players selected later on during the draft’s final day. Davis gives the Bills something they don’t have at the receiver position, which is size—at 6’2” and 210 lbs, Davis also has a 35” vertical and a 124” broad jump. He’s a solid athlete with a great catch radius, and while he may take some time to adjust to the NFL level, the Bills can afford to use him in specific areas (like the red zone) to accentuate his strengths while limiting his weaknesses thanks to the three-headed monster of awesome atop their depth chart.
Roberts is here not for his ability as a receiver, but instead for his ability as a return man. The 2018 All-Pro returner did not have as much success in 2019, but he still made the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year. Roberts seems genuinely angry every time he returns a kick and doesn’t score a touchdown, which is the thing I love most about him. He wants to break the game open every time he touches the ball. Thanks to his salary ($2 million cap hit) and his niche role, he is more likely to be cut at the end of camp than Davis is, but I’d still put his chances at making the roster as being very good.
The Longest Shot
Easley is a practice squad candidate for the second consecutive year, as the diminutive slot man’s best hope is to continue learning from the veteran Beasley while preparing to take over his role in the offense eventually.
To paraphrase Jim Nantz: Welcome, friends, to Thunderdome. At this point on the depth chart, four men enter, and it’s entirely possible that only one remains. So, fellow armchair general managers...make your choice!
McKenzie is the little gadget player who could, coming to Buffalo via waiver claim towards the end of the 2018 season only to earn the third-highest snap share at receiver for the 2019 Bills. He has lined up as an outside receiver, as a slot receiver, and as a move/jet-sweep option for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. In parts of two seasons with the Bills, McKenzie has appeared in 22 games, making nine starts. He has 45 receptions on 69 targets, 433 receiving yards, and one receiving touchdown. He’s also rushed 18 times for 115 yards and two more touchdowns. McKenzie’s reputation as a fumbler followed him to Buffalo when the Denver Broncos released him—somehow, McKenzie managed to fumble six times on just 29 total touches (including kickoff and punt returns) in 2017 with Denver—but he has improved drastically in that category. McKenzie fumbled twice with Buffalo in 2018, and he did not fumble once in 2019. McKenzie has experience as a kick returner, as well.
Williams is the preseason darling turned practice-squad stash turned twitter hashtag, as #freeduke became a standard game-day tweet during the 2019 season. Williams had a strong preseason in his first year with Buffalo, catching eight passes (14 targets) for 71 yards and two touchdowns. Like Davis, Williams offers size and strength that the rest of the Bills wideouts don’t have, as the 6’2,” 225-lb receiver is bigger and stronger than almost all defensive backs. Williams began the year on Buffalo’s practice squad, but he was called up for the team’s Week 5 victory over the Tennessee Titans. Williams caught the game-winning touchdown. He was a healthy scratch for much of the back half of the season, but a strong showing in the regular-season finale led to his activation in the Wild Card game against the Houston Texans. Williams saw more targets (10) than any receiver in that game, although his final line (four catches, 49 yards) was unimpressive due in part to a few dropped passes.
Foster is a 2018 breakout star whose career has been plagued by inconsistency. After catching 27 passes (on 44 targets) for 541 yards and three touchdowns during his rookie season, Foster was limited to just three catches for 64 yards on 18 targets in 2019. Foster played in half as many offensive snaps in 2019 as he did in 2018, but he played on nearly four times as many special teams snaps, landing a role as a gunner on punt coverage. Foster possesses fantastic speed, but his inability to perform consistently is concerning. Whether that inconsistency is due to inconsistent usage, an inconsistent work ethic, or some other factor is up for debate.
Hodgins is a sixth-round pick some draftniks speculate will have a greater impact than Davis, Buffalo’s fourth-round choice. At Oregon State last year, Hodgins put up big-time numbers, catching 86 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns. Listed at 6’3”, Hodgins is the tallest wideout on Buffalo’s roster, but his lack of burst (his 4.61-second time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine was among the worst recorded times for wideouts) has led to concerns that he may struggle to create separation at the NFL level.
To start, if it were me making the roster, I’d keep seven wideouts, which would give the Bills the chance to keep Roberts as a return specialist. I don’t think that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott will do that unless the NFL expands rosters thanks to the ongoing pandemic. So, I’m keeping McKenzie, who’s a better option on offense as well as a passable option on returns, over the return-man only in Roberts, who is also more expensive than McKenzie and the oldest receiver on the team by a wide margin. I think Foster and Williams are as good as gone, as the team has ostensibly replaced Williams with not one, but two draft choices who fit the “big” receiver mold, and Foster’s role as a gunner could be filled by a reserve cornerback rather than a wideout (or even by McKenzie, who technically was both of those things at some point last year).
I may be right. I may be crazy. But whether it’s a lunatic you’re looking for or just some good old fashioned sports debating, we have the chance to talk in the comments section. One thing we should all be able to agree on is this: The Bills finally have enough talent at the receiver position where deciding who to keep is difficult because there are too many good players rather than there being too many guys who fall into the “training camp fodder” category.
Let’s talk, folks. Who would you keep? Who would you cut?
Note: The Bills released Ray-Ray McCloud III on Monday and he doesn’t appear on our list.