Last year, Isaiah McKenzie was a Restricted Free Agent, but instead of assigning him the RFA tender, the Bills re-signed him to a veteran minimum deal. This offseason as an unrestricted free agent, Buffalo doesn’t have the luxury of considering the RFA tag, and with both McKenzie and kick returner Andre Roberts hitting free agency, it’s possible only one sticks in 2021.
On Friday, we projected a league minimum contract for Roberts just two years after he signed a two-year, $4.6 million contract. It might be a little more than the salary floor, but there aren’t any pure returners in the league making more than that.
McKenzie’s impact on the offense is a touch overstated, in my opinion, as he certainly adds an element of misdirection, but isn’t a game-breaking threat. Forty touches (30 receptions and 10 rushes) for 291 yards and five touchdowns isn’t nothing, but it’s play design more than I think McKenzie is special.
If, on the other hand, the Bills decide not to re-sign the aforementioned Roberts, who is 33, McKenzie could turn into their returner and gadget player on offense. That added value might be enough to get him a deal worth more than league minimum.
Buffalo Bills, 2019
Two years, $4.6 million ($3 million guaranteed)
Roberts signed the deal with the first year guaranteed in 2019 to improve Buffalo’s lackluster returning units. They had discussed using him in the passing game, too, but he was targeted just seven times in 2019 and five times in 2020. He earned two Pro Bowl nods as the team’s returner, but still may have been overpaid.
Buffalo Bills, 2020
One year, $962,500 ($275,000 guaranteed)
McKenzie’s stat lines are pretty similar between 2019 and 2020; roughly 37 touches for 300 yards combine receiving and rushing, though he scored more touchdowns in 2020. He made one punt return in 2021, an electrifying touchdown return in Week 17, but the reason the Bills added Roberts was because McKenzie had problems holding onto the ball. He’s had zero fumbles the last two years but also hasn’t been returning.
So here’s the thing about paying him more money; if they sign him a few hundred thousand over the league minimum, they can’t use the veteran minimum salary benefit. If they sign him for the league minimum, his cap hit is the same as a second-year player ($850,000 in 2021). So signing him at $1.5 million means you’re replacing two minimum players with one McKenzie. I’m not sure the Bills should be doing that in a cap-strapped year.
Yes, the cap only counts the top 51 players, so McKenzie would only add a couple hundred thousand to the salary cap figure at that price point, so maybe it’s worth it, but I don’t see him getting a solid deal from another team. For all those reasons and more, here is my projection.
One year, $1.13 million
$850,000 cap hit
It’s a veteran minimum deal for McKenzie. This is a bad year to be a low-to-mid-tier free agent. That’s the group that’s going to get pinched by the COVID-19 cap reductions. The top players will still get their money.
McKenzie can come in and still be part of the offense, be valued, and potentially start returning kicks and/or punts so he can potentially up his value in 2022.