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Buffalo Bills 2022 camp battles: Returner

The Bills have a big decision here

Matt Warren is Associate Director of NFL coverage for SB Nation and previously covered the Bills for Buffalo Rumblings for more than a decade.

The Buffalo Bills used Micah Hyde as their punt returner as the season wore on in 2021 because he was consistent and made good decisions. Sticking their All-Pro safety back there isn’t a recipe for long-term success, though.

This offseason, the Bills bring back the two main returners from last year’s preseason plus a couple new faces to enter the mix in what is going to be a much-watched position battle.

We continue our look at the position battles of training camp with the returner spot for kickoffs and punts.

Isaiah McKenzie vs Marquez Stevenson vs Tavon Austin vs Khalil Shakir vs Jamison Crowder vs Micah Hyde

Let’s get this out of the way; they definitely do not want Micah Hyde back there if they can avoid it. He’s out until too many other screw ups happen.

Jamison Crowder was a solid punt returner earlier in his career with Washington, but 2017 was the last time he brought back more than two punts in a season. Let’s set him to the side as a break-glass-in-case-of-minor-emergency situation.

That leaves us with the main battle among four returners. Isaiah McKenzie and Marquez Stevenson split the job in 2021 until fumbles and bad decisions found both of them benched. I expect they will both have a chance, but McKenzie has literally lost the job more times than I can count. A few years ago they brought in Andre Roberts because they didn’t trust McKenzie. Nothing has really changed, as they sidelined him for Stevenson a year ago. I think it’s time to stop trying to make fetch happen, at least on punts. I can see McKenzie getting the nod on kickoff returns, where decisions on whether to field the kick or not are much longer-developing.

In the swirling winds of December against the New England Patriots, the Bills made Stevenson inactive instead of letting him field punts. Then in Week 17 and the playoffs, he once again returned (no pun intended) to the inactive list. That shows me he’s trending down, and in this case, off the roster. If he isn’t the primary returner, I don’t know how he makes the team.

Late this offseason, the Bills signed Tavon Austin, not as a priority but as an insurance policy. Austin is now 32 and hasn’t returned double-digit punts since 2019. One thing they are hoping for is his experience will at least allow him to make good decisions.

The final combatant is the wild card. What role, if any, are they going to give fifth-round draft choice Khalil Shakir? General manager Brandon Beane didn’t mention Shakir’s return ability during his post-draft press conferences, but the former Boise State receiver returned 24 punts and seven kickoffs in college. He averaged 12.8 yards per punt return last year. Are they going to give him a shot to nail down the role?

Head coach Sean McDermott has often given multiple chances to players after they have his confidence, so it wouldn’t surprise me if any of these players are given a first shot, second shot, third shot, or fourth shot. With this many different options, special teams is going to be something to watch at Fisher and, probably more importantly, in the preseason games.

Prediction: McKenzie is the kickoff returner, Austin is the punt returner, Shakir is a replacement option for both, Stevenson is cut