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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: Wide receivers

A deep group approaches a crossroads of sorts

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2021 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills had a clear advantage over most teams at wide receiver. Their top three rivaled any receiver group in the league, and fans knew that the player slated to run as the fourth wideout was good enough to start on most teams. The depth included three other players who, if necessary, could turn in solid play, as well.

While some of that depth remains under contract for next season, the sunshine and rainbows-vibe in the receiver room can’t last forever. The realities of the NFL salary cap suggest that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep a band together for long. While the Bills may still have a strong group at present, there is a real possibility that three of the top six wideouts are gone next year.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the state of the Bills’ wide receivers.

Cole Beasley

Contract status for 2021: Signed; final year of four-year contract ($7.6 million cap hit; $1.5 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 32 (33 on 4/26/2022)
Playing time: 16 games (8 starts), 691 offensive snaps (57.68% of team total), 1 special teams snap (.23% of team total)
Key statistics: 112 targets, 82 receptions, 693 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 fumble

Just one year removed from setting career-highs in targets, receptions, and receiving yards, it felt at times like Beasley wasn’t a focal point of the offense this season. It might surprise you, then, to know that this year, Beasley actually eclipsed last year’s target number, as he saw five more targets this season in one additional game. He also equaled his reception total from last year. It was his yardage total that plummeted, falling from 967 yards last year to just 693 this season. Beasley is still a sure-handed safety valve capable of earning tough first downs, and his ability to find soft spots in a zone defense is as good as anyone’s. Is it worth $7.6 million in his age-33 season? Time will provide the answer.

Gabriel Davis

Contract status for 2021: Signed; third year of four-year rookie contract ($1,069,845 cap hit, $349,690 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 22 (23 on 4/1/2022)
Playing time: 16 games (4 starts), 571 offensive snaps (47.66% of team total), 33 special teams snaps (7.6% of team total)
Key statistics: 63 targets, 35 receptions, 549 yards, 6 touchdowns

Speaking of players whose 2021 season felt less than their 2020 season, it also seemed at times that Davis was an afterthought in Buffalo’s plan during the regular season. However, when comparing his rookie year with his second year, his statistics are nearly identical. In 2020, Davis was targeted 62 times, making 35 catches for 599 yards and 7 touchdowns. His largest gains, of course, came in the playoffs, as Davis caught 10 passes for 242 yards and 5 touchdowns this postseason. After two years where speedy veterans were expected to see the majority of the snaps as the team’s WR2, this appears to be the year where the Bills allow Davis to be the guy across from Stefon Diggs. He’s ready.

Stefon Diggs

Contract status for 2021: Signed; entering year four of five-year contract extension signed with the Minnesota Vikings ($17,917,876 cap hit, $8,712,222 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 28 (29 on 11/29/2022)
Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 977 offensive snaps (81.55% of team total)
Key statistics: 164 targets, 103 receptions, 1,225 yards, 10 touchdowns, 1 fumble

Buffalo’s alpha wideout had another exceptional year, and while he didn’t rewrite team record books like he did in 2020, he did become just the second Buffalo wideout ever to record back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, joining Stevie Johnson (2010-2012) as the only other player to do so. He is the only player in team history to record two seasons of 100-plus receptions, and he missed tying Bill Brooks’s franchise record for receiving touchdowns in a year by just one score. After a stellar regular season, it was a little concerning to watch him all but disappear in the playoffs, however, as Diggs caught just 6 passes for 67 yards in two playoff games. He was only targeted ten times, however, and the Kansas City Chiefs double-team may have worked to remove Diggs from the picture—but it just freed Davis up to have a record-setting day. With the highest cap hit on the team, a restructure or a contract extension that lowers that number is all but guaranteed. The combination of Diggs and Josh Allen isn’t going anywhere for a while, and we’re all better for it.

Jake Kumerow

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 29 (30 on 2/17/2022)
Playing time: 15 games (2 starts), 264 special teams snaps (60.83% of team total), 116 offensive snaps (9.68% of team total)
Key statistics: 5 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 6 targets, 2 receptions, 28 yards

I had high hopes of the Bills deploying Kumerow in some sort of hybrid tight end/wide receiver role this year, but those hopes never came to fruition. Instead, Kumerow remained one of the Bills’ top special teams contributors while adding some plays on offense to his resume. With a tight salary cap, re-signing him may not be the highest priority, but he is a valuable member of the team and a capable wideout when called upon.

Isaiah McKenzie

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA
Age: 26 (27 on 4/9/2022)
Playing time: 15 games (2 starts), 257 offensive snaps (21.45% of team total), 91 special teams snaps (20.97% of team total)
Key statistics: 26 targets, 20 receptions, 178 yards, 1 touchdown, 9 carries, 47 yards, 1 touchdown, 19 punt returns, 147 yards, 24 kickoff returns, 584 yards, 2 fumbles

What an interesting season McKenzie had. He was given the return-man role after Andre Roberts was allowed to depart via free agency, and he performed admirably early on. Muffed kicks against the Indianapolis Colts led to a few games where he was a healthy scratch, but rather than sulk, McKenzie remained ready. When Beasley had to miss a must-win game against the New England Patriots, McKenzie went off, catching 10 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in the victory. He definitely fits the scheme, and he is absolutely a beloved figure in the locker room (in that annoying little brother way). Whether he returns or not will likely be determined by cost and trust, both on McKenzie’s part as it relates to the coaching staff and vice-versa.

Emmanuel Sanders

Contract status for 2021: Unsigned; UFA (on Bills’ salary cap at hit of $1.375 million thanks to void year in contract)
Age: 34 (35 on 3/17/2022)
Playing time: 14 games (13 starts), 747 offensive snaps (62.35% of team total)
Key statistics: 72 targets, 42 receptions, 626 yards, 4 touchdowns, 2 carries, 31 yards

Sanders had some big games, but he mostly played the John Brown role this year—in short, he played enough snaps to suppress a younger player in Davis while providing similar, or less, production at a far greater cost. Some of his versatility as a slot player was limited in Buffalo due to Beasley’s presence, so Sanders was almost exclusively an outside receiver here. That’s fine, but heading into his age-35 season, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he’s back next year.

Marquez Stevenson

Contract status for 2021: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($868,136 cap hit; $129,408 dead cap if cut or traded)
Age: 23 (24 on 3/26/2022)
Playing time: 5 games, 40 special teams snaps (9.22% of team total), 6 offensive snaps (.5% of team total)
Key statistics: 14 punt returns, 132 yards, 7 kickoff returns, 165 yards, 2 fumbles

The rookie began the year rehabbing a foot injury only to make his professional debut on Thanksgiving Night against the New Orleans Saints. He muffed a punt in that game, and after sitting during the “Wind Bowl” versus New England, he remained the team’s primary returner through the Week 17 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. He fumbled a punt in that one, too, which led to a safety. He was a healthy scratch from that point onward. Stevenson has some speed and quickness, but he’ll be in a battle for time next year.

Tanner Gentry

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022
Age: 27 (28 on 12/18/2022)
Playing time: N/A
Key statistics: N/A

A practice squad player with familiarity with Josh Allen from college, Gentry was not active at all during the regular season. He provides some roster depth as a slot player.

Isaiah Hodgins

Contract status for 2021: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/24/2022
Age: 23 (24 on 10/21/2022)
Playing time: 1 game, 4 offensive snaps (.33% of team total)
Key statistics: N/A

The second-year man did make his professional debut this year, playing four snaps in Buffalo’s Week 16 win over New England, but he was not targeted. This offseason is a big one for the former sixth-round pick.

As of right now, Buffalo’s receiving group looks pretty solid once again. Sure, it isn’t the embarrassment of riches that it was heading into last season, but the crew is still better than most. The depth chart would probably look something like this:




I think we can all see the problem right away, as four of the team’s six wideouts are slot guys rather than outside receivers. Hodgins has the size to play outside, but relying on him as the Gabe Davis-type, or the one who is always on the field in the event of an injury, isn’t something a team with Super Bowl aspirations should do. At full strength, a top three of Diggs, Davis, and Beasley is on par with any receiver trio in the league.

The above assumes that Beasley comes back, though, and while general manager Brandon Beane has said that he anticipates Beasley returning, I’m not so sure that the team will be able to do it while freeing up enough space to pursue other needs. Releasing Beasley saves $6.1 million on the cap. A Diggs restructure could drop his cap number down to just over $12 million, according to Spotrac, so making those two moves alone would give the Bills an additional $11 million in cap space. I’d love to see Beasley in a Buffalo uniform next year, but I am not confident that it happens.

What does the team do about its trio of free-agent wideouts? I think Sanders is gone, which would leave Kumerow and McKenzie. While it doesn’t match with his past production, I’d think about re-signing Kumerow over Lil’ Dirty, as his cap number will almost certainly be lower, and he gives the Bills a big target who can make contested catches and provide great blocking on the outside. My guess is that McKenzie follows Brian Daboll to New Jersey to sign with the New York Giants. Buffalo should absolutely invest a mid-round draft choice here, too, to provide more depth in the event of an injury.

The team could also look to add a free agent—maybe a veteran slot guy like Jameson Crowder, or a jack-of-all-trades type like Cordarrelle Patterson—but free-agent additions cost free-agent dollars, and that is always a greater expense than draft picks. Buffalo has options here, and while we’d all love to see them keep the stable of incredibly talented players they had this year, this roster needs some other parts in other places. Tough choices have to be made, and this is a group where some of the toughest are coming.