Fan and locker-room favorite Isaiah McKenzie is a free agent. Known mostly as a gadget player for the Buffalo Bills, McKenzie was called to action against the New England Patriots with Cole Beasley sidelined. And he had himself a day, opening the door for questions on an expanded role. I apologize in advance as that game was the best opportunity to get good footage on a McKenzie-oriented game. The NFL wasn’t having it, with Game Pass omitting most plays, so there’ll be some supplements to help complete the picture.
This is what Isaiah McKenzie is known for. The main takeaway from this exact play is that even with a play designed to take advantage of top-end speed, blocking is pretty important. McKenzie rounds the corner versus the first threat but can’t avoid everyone when they start shedding blocks.
This is NOT the type of route McKenzie is known for (see below), but there’s a lot to like. The left hand gives a quick shove and McKenzie is off. He fakes to the sidelines and cuts back in—and there is likely a moment of opportunity if Josh Allen was looking his way.
Here’s a benefit to that speed. The two defenders circled on the paused slide are both focused on McKenzie, seemingly worried about the deep threat. That makes the throw to Emmanuel Sanders laughably easy.
Here’s another way McKenzie’s speed can be used to create a bit of chaos. Everyone knows that sometimes McKenzie will get the ball in this situation and he succeeds in drawing some attention to the bottom of the frame. A fake to the running back draws more attention and Jake Kumerow is wide open for a touchdown he definitely didn’t drop.
The Bills create a natural pick here. Pre-snap motion confirms McKenzie has a defender assigned to him and the crossing route leads him into some clutter. Combine that with the speed we keep discussing and this is pretty wide open. I’ll actually give Miles Bryant credit here. He seems to know that if he tries to go directly to McKenzie he’ll get beat vertically even worse, and he immediately starts taking an angle to force McKenzie toward the sideline. It’s guaranteed to give up a large chunk if Allen sees McKenzie (clearly he did), but prevents what may have been a long touchdown.
Mockdraftable and their spider chart draft profile format (here) have Isaiah McKenzie in elite territory on the 3-cone drill. This play isn’t showing off elite change of direction exactly, but it does highlight how creative play designs can find ways to use it.
Let’s come full circle to Play 1. Better blocking and better misdirection from the other skill position players make this one a little more effective.
Next Gen Stats Route Chart
While the All-22 failed us to a large degree, here’s the route chart for all of McKenzie’s targets in the New England game where he took over for Beasley. The Bills loved having McKenzie run crossing routes. This is important because there will inevitably be comparisons between McKenzie and Beasley, and this chart helps answer that question. Check out the companion piece on number 11 to see the other piece to the puzzle.
Isaiah McKenzie had a career breakout against New England but there is a question of sustainability. McKenzie’s speed is supplemented by a good set of hands and a variety of ways he can be brought in to cause some chaos. His athletic profile suggests that’s he’s physically capable of a complex route tree, but it appears the Bills are convinced otherwise with a clear emphasis on gadget plays and crossing routes.
That of course leads us to the ultimate question for these pieces. If I’m the Bills I try to keep McKenzie in Western New York because I want McKenzie in Western New York. I’m not trying to keep him here as a Cole Beasley replacement. I’m not saying McKenzie isn’t talented, it’s just a different skill set.
- All-22 Review: Cole Beasley’s 2021 season
- All-22 Review: Isaiah McKenzie’s 2021 season
- Salary cap consequences of releasing Cole Beasley
- Contract projection for Isaiah McKenzie
- In-house replacement options for McKenzie/Beasley
- Free agents available at slot receiver
- NFL Draft options at slot receiver
- Opinion: Bills should use multiple tools to improve slot WR position this offseason