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2021 NFL Draft: Investing in a returner

Replacing Andre Roberts through the draft could be a boon for the team

The Buffalo Bills’ front office efforts to improve the team’s special teams rankings has borne fruit in the return rankings—the Bills have ranked in the top ten for the past two years. Andre Roberts’s ability to return both punts and kick returns has been a big reason why, hence his selection to the Pro Bowl with the team for two straight years.

Despite that, Roberts is a 33-year-old free agent—and with the team’s ever-tightening cap situation he may not be re-signed. If Robert isn’t retained, the team could find some value in replacing him with not only a cheap rookie, but ideally one who would also have regular positional value. A wide receiver or running back who doubles as a kick returner saves a roster spot. Below are just a few of the players the Bills might consider. Note that their rankings are determined by both their kick return ability while taking into account their full-time positional talents.

Tier I

Jaylen Waddle WR (Alabama)
DeVonta Smith WR (Alabama)
Rondale Moore WR (Purdue)
Travis Etienne RB (Clemson)

Watch any highlight of Waddle’s best kickoff returns, specifically his 2019 ones against LSU and Auburn, and you’ll know that he is the most talented returner coming out. He’s shifty, has true elite speed but also an ability to ratchet down and follow his blocks. What Waddle was for Alabama on kick returns, Smith was on punt returns. Ranking third in the country in punt return yardage, Smith excels in that area because of his stop-start acceleration. The player who resembles Andre Roberts the most is probably Moore, who’s not only a speed demon (possible 4.2 speed) but he also oozes core strength. Etienne maybe doesn’t have the shiftiness you want in a true punt returner, but he’s got good straight-line speed and is much tougher to bring down than almost any of the players ranked above him.

Tier II

Kadarius Toney WR (Florida)
Elijah Moore WR (Ole Miss)
D’Wayne Eskridge WR (Western Michigan)

Toney doesn’t really have the most ideal deep speed, but his ability to make cuts at full speed and follow his blocks and his general physicality all allow him to be effective. A returner earlier in his career, Moore similarly isn’t a true burner, but gets by on toughness and smarts in the open field. Eskridge tore up the MAC thanks to his speed, finishing 11th in the country in kickoff return yards.

Tier III

Marquez Stevenson WR (Houston)
Amari Rodgers WR (Clemson)

Stevenson is a smaller, slimmer players and likely won’t contribute much at their typical positions but has the speed to be an elite returner. Kind of a jack of all trades, Rodgers is just fast enough, just big enough and just experienced enough to provide value in the return game but shouldn’t be expected to really excel there.

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