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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: wide receivers

A talented group may look a little different next year

AFC Championship - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Just a few short years ago, the Buffalo Bills had one of the league’s worst receiving groups. Of the Bills’ top wide receivers in 2018, which was quarterback Josh Allen’s rookie year, only one—Zay Jones—even played a down in the NFL this past year. He caught 14 passes for the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020.

Essentially, the Bills were trying to break in a brand-new Ferrari, but rather than giving that car the set of tires it deserved, they equipped it with a set of balding Supermax tires and hoped for the best. General manager Brandon Beane quickly realized the error of his ways, investing heavily in the position in the offseason in both 2019 and 2020. The results have been positive, as Buffalo’s 2020 offense was the best in franchise history in most statistical measures.

With an introduction like that, it should seem that the team would want to leave well enough alone at receiver; however, the salary cap dictates otherwise. In our latest look at the State of the Bills roster, we profile a wide receiver group that might see some changes this year.

Stefon Diggs

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of five-year contract ($12,258,333 cap hit; $6 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 27 (28 on 11/29/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (15 starts), 895 offensive snaps (82.26 percent), five ST snaps (1.11 percent)
Key statistics: 166 targets, 127 receptions, 1,535 receiving yards, eight touchdowns, one rush, one yard

There were some who thought that the Bills overpaid in acquiring Diggs, sending their first-, fifth-, and sixth-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft (in addition to their fourth-round choice in the 2021 Draft) to acquire Diggs and a seventh-round pick. After Diggs rewrote the Bills’ record books in 2020, those fears are all but forgotten. Diggs immediately gelled with quarterback Josh Allen, as the duo rose to elite status right from the jump. Diggs became the first player in team history to lead the NFL in receptions and in receiving yards, and he was also the first First-Team All-Pro at receiver in franchise history. Diggs is one of the main reasons that Allen was able to raise his game to an elite level, as he provided Josh with the elite target he lacked even in 2019.

John Brown

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of three-year contract ($9,531,250 cap hit; $1.6 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 30 (31 on 4/3/2021)
Playing time: Nine games (eight starts), 453 offensive snaps (41.64 percent)
Key statistics: 52 targets, 33 receptions, 458 receiving yards, three touchdowns

After a breakout 2019 campaign where Brown had one of the best seasons of his career, he spent the 2020 season dealing with injuries for almost the whole season. Brown missed time this year due to calf and ankle injuries, and he also spent time on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. It’s a shame that Brown was injured so early in the year, because in the first two weeks, he was excellent as the Robin to Diggs’s Batman, catching ten passes on 16 targets for 152 yards and two touchdowns. He exploded for eight grabs and 99 yards against the Seattle Seahawks, but he was a shell of himself for much of the year. With a tight salary cap, there are cuts looming, and Brown is one of the more likely veteran cap casualty candidates. The Bills would save nearly $8 million by releasing the speedster.

Cole Beasley

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of four-year contract ($7,368,750 cap hit; $3 million dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 31 (32 on 4/26/2021)
Playing time: 15 games (ten starts), 619 offensive snaps (56.89 percent), seven ST snaps (1.56 percent)
Key statistics: 107 targets, 82 receptions, 967 receiving yards, four receiving touchdowns, 1/1 passing, 20 yards, one passing touchdown

The No. 3 wideout in terms of snaps was Buffalo’s No. 2 wideout in terms of targets, as Beasley built off the career year he had in 2019 by having an even better season in 2020. Had he not suffered a broken bone in his leg during the team’s Week 16 victory over the New England Patriots, which caused him to miss the season finale, he almost certainly would have eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career. Instead, Beasley had to settle for a career-high 967 yards as Josh Allen’s go-to guy over the middle. While the decision to sign Brown in free agency in 2019 was obviously a great move, the better move was Beasley, and it’s the one that was more heavily criticized at the time—remember when people thought that Allen was too inaccurate to benefit from a player like Beasley? While it’s possible that Beasley is a cap casualty, I’d call it very unlikely, as the savings are far outweighed by the loss of talent Beasley provides. No one on the current roster comes close to doing what Beasley does as well as Beasley does it.

Gabriel Davis

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of rookie contract ($954,845 cap hit; $524,535 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 21 (22 on 4/1/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (11 starts), 735 offensive snaps (67.56 percent), 32 ST snaps (7.13 percent)
Key statistics: 62 targets, 35 receptions, 599 receiving yards, seven receiving touchdowns, one rush, zero rushing yards, one fumble

The rookie was actually Buffalo’s No. 2 wideout in terms of sheer playtime percentage, as injuries to Brown forced him into a greater role than he otherwise would have had. There were some question marks about how Davis would react to the jump from a mid-major college program like UCF to the competition at the professional level, and like his alma mater, Davis proved those doubts to be unfounded. The big-bodied target showed excellent route-running, sure hands, strong presence in the red zone, and an uncanny ability to toe-tap his way to great catches on the sideline. I love John Brown, but Davis made him expendable with his strong play this year.

Andre Roberts

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 33 (34 on 1/9/2022)
Playing time: 15 games, 121 ST snaps (26.95 percent), 62 offensive snaps (5.7 percent)
Key statistics: 29 punt returns, 286 punt return yards, 32 kickoff returns, 961 kickoff return yards, five targets, four receptions, 34 yards, one rush, minus-three rushing yards, three fumbles

The veteran once again made the Pro Bowl as a return man, leading the NFL in average yards per kickoff return with 30 yards per runback. With the depth Buffalo had at wideout, Roberts rarely saw time on offense. It seems foolish to allow a Pro Bowl player to walk, but re-signing Roberts isn’t a guarantee. The Bills do emphasize special teams heavily, so it’s likely that they’ll reach out and talk about contract details at the very least. A one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum would be a great deal, though I’m not sure the team will be able to afford much more for a niche player—even one as good as Roberts—given their financial obligations and needs elsewhere.

Isaiah McKenzie

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 25 (26 on 4/9/2021)
Playing time: 16 games (seven starts), 260 offensive snaps (23.9 percent), 12 ST snaps (2.67 percent)
Key statistics: 34 targets, 30 receptions, 282 receiving yards, five receiving touchdowns, ten rushes, nine rushing yards, two kickoff returns, 32 kickoff return yards, one punt return, 84 punt return yards, one punt return touchdown, 1/1 passing, 12 passing yards, one passing touchdown

The Swiss-Army knife is actually the only receiver left from Allen’s rookie season, as McKenzie joined the Bills via waiver claim late that season. He’s developed into a solid player on offense, as offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has used McKenzie as a jet sweep/move piece over the last two years. That role is a niche just like Roberts, but unlike Roberts, McKenzie’s niche see more time on the field. The Bills allowed McKenzie to return kicks and punts in the season finale, and he delivered an 84-yard touchdown on a punt return. Is the team confident that his punt-muffing days are behind him? While McKenzie hasn’t fumbled since the 2018 season, he fumbled eight times in his first 19 career games, and six of those eight fumbles were on muffed punts.

Jake Kumerow

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/26/2021 ($920,000 cap hit; $0 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 29 (30 on 2/17/2022)
Playing time: Six games, 79 ST snaps (17.59 percent), 13 offensive snaps (1.19 percent)
Key statistics: One target, one reception, 22 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown

Talk about making the most of your time on the field. Kumerow converted his only target into a 22-yard touchdown catch against the Denver Broncos, spending most of his time on Buffalo’s active roster playing special teams. Kumerow was released with the hopes of being re-signed to the practice squad, but he was claimed by the New Orleans Saints before that could happen. When the Saints released him, though, Buffalo quickly added him back to their squad. Kumerow is, at worst, a solid camp body.

Duke Williams

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/26/2021
Age: 27 (28 on 5/13/2021)
Playing time: One game, four offensive snaps (.37 percent)
Key statistics: N/A

From practice-squad darling to starter-by-necessity to afterthought, Williams has been through it all as a member of the Bills over the last two seasons. If he sticks with the team next year, it will most likely be in a similar role to what he did this season, as he’ll be fighting for a spot on the practice squad with Kumerow. Buffalo’s improvements at the position have almost certainly squeezed Williams out of a roster spot.

Kenny Stills

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; unrestricted free agent
Age: 28 (29 on 4/22/2021)
Playing time: Ten games, 165 offensive snaps (16.84 percent of Houston Texans’ total)
Key statistics: 19 targets, 11 receptions, 144 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown

The veteran signed with Buffalo’s practice squad heading into the playoffs as insurance, both against COVID-19 and an inability for Cole Beasley to play. Stills never played a down for the Bills, and as a veteran who is sure to have a solid market for his services, he did not sign a reserve/futures contract when the season ended. The Bills and Stills could circle back to one another if no true market develops, but I’d imagine that Stills will be elsewhere in 2021.

Tanner Gentry

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/26/2021
Age: 26 (27 on 12/18/2021)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A

Gentry was Josh Allen’s favorite target in college at Wyoming, and he signed with Buffalo’s practice squad in January. He hasn’t appeared in an NFL game since 2017, but perhaps his chemistry with Allen gives him a shot at sticking with the practice squad next year.

Isaiah Hodgins

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of rookie contract ($819,722 cap hit; $119,166 dead-cap charge if cut)
Age: 22 (23 on 10/21/2021)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A

Hodgins essentially took a red-shirt year, as the sixth-round pick had shoulder surgery early on and spent the year on injured reserve. He’ll have a good shot at making the active roster next year depending on what the Bills do with their trio of veterans (Brown, McKenzie, and Roberts) whose contract statuses are up in the air. At 6’3” and 201 lbs, he gives the Bills an element that they really don’t have in anyone other than Davis. He’ll be someone to keep an eye on throughout camp this summer.

This much is clear: Stefon Diggs will top the Bills’ depth chart at receiver again next year. What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess. If I were Brandon Beane, I would release John Brown, pencil in Gabriel Davis as my No. 2 wideout, keep Cole Beasley, offer Isaiah McKenzie a modest two-year deal, let Andre Roberts walk, and plan to keep Isaiah Hodgins as my last wideout. That would give the Bills a strong group, with Diggs, Davis, and Beasley making up an excellent top three, McKenzie slotting in as a valuable No. 4 who could also return kicks and punts, and Hodgins as the developmental player who could come in and see some snaps in red zone situations. If five is too thin (and it is, in my opinion), my last spot would come down to Kumerow or a late-round draft choice, but I’m leaning towards Kumerow thanks to his size, blocking ability, and his special teams play. Will I be mad if the Bills keep Roberts? Of course not—the guy is arguably the best returner in the league even at 33 years old. Might those funds be better allocated somewhere else? Well, it depends on the contract. Buffalo’s receiving group is strong from top to bottom, and while they’re obviously better with Brown, the numbers unfortunately are not in their favor. There will be some movement here, but how much is the question—and at what cost.