After allowing Pro Bowl return man Andre Roberts to leave via free agency, the Buffalo Bills had a vacancy at both kick returner and punt returner. Perhaps predictably, the team took step back in both of those phases last season, missing Roberts as much for his consistency and trustworthiness as they did his actual explosiveness.
In all, the Bills had three different players return punts last year and four different players return kicks. In an era where the return game is minimized due to new rules and regulations, having a weak return game is more the norm than it is the exception; however, a game-breaking return man is still a weapon that can flip a contest. As the Bills continue to perfect their strong roster, they have set up a robust competition this summer to see who can be the best returner.
In today’s edition of “90 players in 90 days,” we discuss a second-year man who had a crack at the return gig last year.
Name: Marquez Stevenson
Height/Weight: 5’10” 180 lbs
Age: 24 (25 on 3/26/2023)
Experience/Draft: 2; selected in the sixth round (No. 203 overall) of the 2021 NFL Draft by Buffalo
Acquired: Sixth-round draft choice
Financial situation (per Spotrac): Stevenson enters the second year of his rookie contract, a four-year pact worth a total of $3,653,544. For the 2022 season, Stevenson carries a cap hit of $868,136, and Buffalo would be hit with a dead cap charge of $129,408 if he were to be cut or traded.
2021 Recap: Stevenson had a strong preseason as a rookie, making six catches on eight targets, gaining 68 yards in three preseason games. More impressive was his return ability, as he averaged 25 yards per kick return (five attempts) and added a 79-yard punt return touchdown, as well. That success made it sting when he was placed on injured reserve thanks to a foot injury to start the season. Stevenson wasn’t activated until Week 12, and he made his debut that night against the New Orleans Saints. He returned five punts for 49 yards on the night, though he did muff one of the catches, recovering it himself and gaining nine yards after the recovery. Stevenson appeared in four more games, and he did so almost exclusively as a return man in that time. His last appearance was in Buffalo’s Week 17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, and it was Stevenson who kicked off the scoring in that one—for Atlanta. After the Falcons punted on their first possession, Stevenson fumbled the return, which was recovered in the end zone by Jake Kumerow for a safety. Stevenson finished his rookie year playing on six offensive snaps without a target in the passing game. He appeared on 40 special teams snaps, returning seven kickoffs for 165 yards, and 14 punts for 132 yards with two fumbles.
Positional outlook: Stevenson is presumably in a three-horse race to be the primary return man, as both Isaiah McKenzie and Tavon Austin will also see reps there. He’s one of a plethora of wideouts vying for a roster spot, as he joins McKenzie, Austin, Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Jamison Crowder, Khalil Shakir, Jake Kumerow, Neil Pau’u, Tanner Gentry, and Isaiah Hodgins at the position.
2022 Offseason: Stevenson is healthy and participating in OTAs.
2022 Season outlook: There’s no denying that Stevenson is explosive, and he has the potential to be an elite returner given his mix of speed and experience handling the gig. However, if there’s one thing any coach hates, it’s fumbles in the return game, and by fumbling on right around 10% of his chances as a rookie, it’s going to be hard for a conservative-by-nature head coach in Sean McDermott to trust him until he cleans that up. I won’t pretend to know who holds the advantage as a returner yet, but on a roster that prioritizes versatility, I’d have to assume that McKenzie has that honor—although he has some of the same issues with muffing punts muddying his background.
The question that needs answering is “how many receivers will the team keep,” because if it’s only six, then Stevenson is probably on the outside looking in when the season begins. If the team goes with seven, then that last spot will probably either be Stevenson or Austin to serve as the primary returner. That battle is going to be hotly contested all summer, and it will be one of the big storylines throughout camp.