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2020 Analysis: Buffalo Bills kick returner Andre Roberts

Specialists deserve some love too

As we continue our offseason evaluations we come to Andre Roberts. Nominally a wide receiver, Roberts is of course better known for his kick returning duties for the Buffalo Bills. We’ll focus more on the latter. The best strategy is to evaluate based on known usage, as Buffalo Rumblings’ goal is effectively an attempt to mirror the team’s path as they make tough personnel decisions.


Play 1

OK, OK. I know I said I’d focus on kick returns but I don’t want to completely ignore the whole wide receiver thing. Plus this was a fun play. Roberts was only targeted five times this season. The good news is he caught four of those, and two were for first downs. I’ve done analysis on Roberts before as a receiver but honestly after several years of infrequent time on the field I’m not really comfortable giving much concrete analysis.

I will say this though. Bills fans have seen worse. Recently. This play does show his kick return traits translating to the offense as he patiently looks the ball in while having no idea if he’s about to get jacked up.

Play 2

I’m not sure I really need to convince people that Roberts is good at what he does or even why he’s good at it. Physically, it’s obvious he’s pretty fast with good acceleration. He’s pretty shifty at speed and has good vision. One thing to maybe add is the mental aspect of the game. Look at the hit at the end. That’s not even all that bad for a returner. The ability to decisively sprint through narrow lanes knowing at any second you could be hit full speed from any direction is something special.

Play 3

In just a second I’ll try to prove that Andre Roberts consistently does a better job than his peers but first let’s take a look at another play to show what can go wrong. In both returns, the Bills fall into a similar pattern of blockers. Essentially they try to form layers to react to the kicking team in the hope of winning enough one-on-one battles to open a lane.

In the first return, the Arizona Cardinals in the middle of the field drift right, compressing a good amount of their players. The couple of guys on the left stay left, which opens up the lane we see. The Los Angeles Chargers on the other hand look more like fence posts, spaced out in regular intervals. Buffalo still tries to create a lane and Roberts shoots for where his blockers are doing their best but as you can see nothing ever opens up.

That said, the Chargers didn’t really do all that well. The shorter kick means that even though they limited the return to 20 yards, he still made it to the 30.

Stats

Andre Roberts had 32 returns during the 2020 regular season and I could show you more of them but the two above are a pretty good representation. In both he’s fast, accelerates well, is decisive, and aggressive. Getting to the 30 on a short, high kick is pretty dang good.

First the bad news. When it comes to punt returns, Andre Roberts is merely seventh-best in the league with 9.9 yards per return. There’s only 16 qualifying players so that’s pretty average.

Kick returns are the great news. At 30.0 yards per return, he’s comfortably in the top spot. He’s 0.9 yards per return better than the second place Cordarrelle Patterson. It’s the largest gap between any two players in the top five.

There’s more to this stat than kick returns, but kick returns definitely impact starting field position. Buffalo was the sixth-best team in the league, starting at the 30.7 yard line on average.

Another thing to consider is the ratio of negative to positive plays. Remember I said Roberts had 32 returns. Of those, 21 gained at least 25 yards. And of those, 12 went for 30 or more. He had eight returns in the 20-24 range and only three returns under 20 yards. Personally I’d take out the 20-30 range and call those “break even” range. That would leave a dozen impact plays to three “probably shouldn’t have done that” plays.


Summary

Return specialists are intriguing because they have to pass an added layer of scrutiny. We can’t just ask “are they good at their job?” We also have to ask if the job is valuable enough to keep a guy around to do that and only that. Put differently: Is it more valuable to have a great kick returner who won’t see the field at another position, or an average returner who will contribute somewhere else on the team?

For me it’s an easy answer. Kick returner adds enough value on its own to want a great one regardless of whether or not they’ll regularly play in another phase. A true depth player might make a difference as a fill-in. A great kick returner will consistently make a difference.

One last thought. If you’re worried about him declining, the season average of 30 yards per return is the second-highest in his career. If I’m the front office, I try to keep Roberts in Buffalo.


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