I love ranking things. Tiering things is my preference, but comparing and contrasting things is a valuable mental exercise that forces you to make tough decision and illuminates your priorities and values. It’s not for someone with difficulty making decisions and it’s not for someone who struggles with conviction.
This is especially true in American football, where QB rankings have dominated conversations around both the water cooler and the broadcast table. Football fans love to rank things and they love to consume content ranking things. There is no ranking that will make everyone happy, but a lot of rankings will make everyone engage. It’s popular and low-hanging fruit for a lot of content outlets and it can be beneficial to the discussions at large.
Let’s not do that with Isaiah McKenzie and Cole Beasley right now.
A backup or previously underutilized player playing well in relief has been a spark for controversy and discussion since the beginning of football, and this week is no different. After torching the New England Patriots for 11 catches, 125 yards and a touchdown in relief of Cole Beasley in the slot, Isaiah McKenzie is starting to obtain some praise that extends beyond the game of his life; praise that includes the possibility or even preference for him to assume the starting slot receiver role over Cole Beasley. McKenzie’s dynamism, straight-line speed and ability in the jet-sweep game are crucial to holding linebackers. Those attributes have all been brought up as valuable items that can benefit the Buffalo Bills’ offense in ways that Cole Beasley’s skillset does not allow.
It’s important to point out, however, that McKenzie’s breakout game may have occurred when taking the snaps previously allocated to Cole Beasley from the position previously filled by Cole Beasley, but it did not occur while filling the role of Cole Beasley.
Let’s take a look at Isaiah McKenzie’s route chart against the Patriots, courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats:
With New England playing a lot of man coverage underneath, McKenzie was used for his straight-line speed both in the jet-motion game and from the slot to run away from the assigned Patriots defender (notably Myles Bryant) on crossing patterns with varying depth, but predominantly right to left between ten and 25 yards.
Now let’s look at the last two notable Cole Beasley games using the same route charts from NFL Next Gen Stats:
Against the Tennessee Titans, Cole Beasley was involved in the quick game (notably off RPO) and helped to find spots in zone coverage in the hook/curl areas and helped to open up the middle of the field for Josh Allen. In the Miami Dolphins game outlined above, the quick screen game was a part of the plan. Also, out-breaking routes allow Beasley to showcase his change-of-direction ability to provide separation at the route stem rather than through straight-line speed.
I always enjoy looking over route charts like these because they provide a clear visual indicator of what the wide receiver was asked to do. This grants greater appreciation for an offensive coordinator’s game plan evolution game over game and how different receivers are being utilized in different fashions. It’s clearly evident that McKenzie’s role on Sunday against the Patriots was extremely effective, designed around his skill set, and 100 percent not what Cole Beasley has essentially ever been asked to do in his career from the slot. At no point in this article have I opined that McKenzie is incapable of being utilized in such a role, only that he hasn’t been asked. What offensive coordinator Brian Daboll drew up for McKenzie worked wonders against the Patriots, and now that Marquez Stevenson is finding comfort as both the kickoff and punt return man, I’m absolutely interested in seeing the full breadth of what McKenzie can do on offense, but there’s no data to confirm a hypothesis that he can step into a fully formed “Cole Beasley role” with success at this point.
And the “Cole Beasley role” is important. The feel that great slot receivers (and make no mistake, Beasley has been a great slot receiver during his NFL career including his time in Buffalo) have for zone coverage and their ability to present themselves to a quarterback is incredibly valuable for keeping the chains moving. When the Bills have historically found themselves in an offensive lull, they have been able to channel the passing offense through Beasley to help get back on schedule and open up other areas of the passing game. The assumption that McKenzie is ready for that right now without any evidence of him being asked to do those types of things with successful results minimizes the difficulty of that skill set and the value it holds to the offense.
Not either/or. No rankings present. The season will run for at least two more games with hopefully a deep playoff run, and we may be able to see some of these items sprinkled in for McKenzie that would provide valuable data points to this potential offseason discussion. But McKenzie spent the entire offseason preparing to replace Andre Roberts as the Bills’ designated return specialist. Maybe we should give him more than a game before we thrust the mantle of “starting slot receiver” for a top NFL passing offense upon him. It may be what’s best for Josh Allen, what’s best for McKenzie, and best for my stress level.
Not all rankings are necessary.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings Podcast Network!