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90 players in 90 days: Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie

“Lil’ Dirty” looks like the man to return kicks this year

NFL: Buffalo Bills Minicamp Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills had a Pro Bowl return man in 2019 and 2020, as Andre Roberts held the job and added plus field position for the Bills throughout his tenure in Orchard Park. Another thing Roberts did was add calm to an otherwise nerve-wracking endeavor: punt catching, which had been a problem for one of Buffalo’s other prospective returners early in his career.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how explosive you are if you can’t field the punt or kick as it’s booted. Securing a catch before beginning a return is something that we often take for granted as fans, but it is one of the most difficult things to do on a football field.

Has the presumptive return man for the 2021 Buffalo Bills shaken those early career issues? We’ll find out. For now, he’s the subject of our latest installment of “90 players in 90 days.”

Name: Isaiah McKenzie

Number: 19

Position: WR

Height/Weight: 5’8” 173 lbs

Age: 26 (27 on 4/9/2022)

Experience/Draft: 5; selected by the Denver Broncos in the fifth round (No. 172 overall) of the 2017 NFL Draft

College: Georgia

Acquired: Claimed off waivers on 11/5/2018

Financial situation (per Spotrac): The Bills and McKenzie agreed to a one-year deal this offseason. McKenzie is set to earn $1,127,500 this year, and his salary cap hit is $987,500. The Bills are responsible for a dead-cap charge of $350,000 if they trade or release him.

2020 Recap: McKenzie had the best year of his career, though much of his overall production came in one game—the season finale against the Miami Dolphins. In that contest, McKenzie caught six passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns, returned two kicks for a total of 32 yards, and returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown. The returns were the only ones of his season, but the receiving numbers gave him a total of 30 catches on 34 targets for 282 yards and five touchdowns overall. McKenzie ran ten times for just nine yards on the year. He also completed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Josh Allen in Buffalo’s 32-30 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. In a non-football note, McKenzie opened a barbecue restaurant on August 1, 2020—La Traila Barbecue in Miami Lakes, FL.

Positional outlook: McKenzie has the inside angle on the returner job, with Marquez Stevenson and Brandon Powell the other competitors. He looks like he’ll slot in as the fifth wide receiver behind Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, and Gabriel Davis. Isaiah Hodgins, Lance Lenoir, Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams, and Tanner Gentry fill out the depth chart.

2021 Offseason: McKenzie is healthy and he has participated in all offseason work to date.

2021 Season outlook: Barring an injury or some sudden downturn in performance, McKenzie should continue in his role of gadget/jet-sweep specialist on offense, adding the title of full-time kick returner to his resume. McKenzie muffed six punts in 2017, then had some trouble upon arriving in Buffalo in 2018, muffing two more. That’s all eight of his career fumbles right there—McKenzie hasn’t fumbled once since 2018. I’ve certainly jinxed him now, so blame me for his first one in 2021. If McKenzie has eliminated the shaky punt-catching from his game, then he has the agility and explosiveness to be an elite return weapon for Buffalo this season.