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Bills camp battles: Isaiah McKenzie catching opportunity with Jamison Crowder injury

The Bills have a slot receiver competition

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

One of the starting spots up for grabs on the Buffalo Bills’ roster was at slot receiver, where the team was looking to replace Cole Beasley. When they cut Beasley, they had an internal candidate to replace him but also added two more this offseason. A key injury is shaping the battle early on in camp.

Free-agent signing Jamison Crowder was expected to be the early front-runner. With the most experience in an NFL offense, he had the potential to break out with a better quarterback than he has had in his entire career. But after practicing Sunday, he’s been out with “general soreness,” missing practices on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the team’s scheduled rest day Thursday. We do not have a timeline for his return.

With Crowder sidelined, Isaiah McKenzie has been the first man up and he’s delivering. With obvious chemistry with Josh Allen, he’s having a great early part of preseason. He’s going to have to translate that to a time when the cornerbacks and linebackers can be more physical with pads on, but for now, he’s the clear leader in the group.

It’s not just opportunity, either. Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic had high praise this week for McKenzie’s improvement since his 2021 benching. He came back, had a monster game against the New England Patriots with Cole Beasley out, and hasn’t looked back.

“McKenzie’s route running this summer has taken a definitive step up, as has his savvy to find soft spots in the defense,” writes Buscaglia, before describing the touchdown in the embedded video above. “That type of deceptiveness is a significant addition to his game, considering that he has primarily won on speed in the past. And to do so against Taron Johnson, who is one of the better nickel cornerbacks in the NFL, is another great sign.”

Also looking good in early action is fifth-round pick Khalil Shakir. Dan Fetes of WHAM 13 in Rochester has been singing the praises of the Boise State product during camp, saying he “plucks that ball... like a veteran.”

The Bills return to the field Friday morning at St. John Fisher. We’ll see if Crowder is back to stake his claim. His contract is fully guaranteed, so it’s unlikely he’s going to get the axe, but the veteran was hoping to turn his one-year deal into a big contract in Buffalo or beyond, and it’ll be hard to do that from the sideline.