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Opinion: Khalil Shakir earns more snaps, but not the full-time slot receiver role

Three distinct roles to fill

Buffalo Bills vs New England Patriots Set Number: X164272 TK1

Buffalo Bills rookies Kaiir Elam and Khalil Shakir both played meaningful roles in the team’s playoff win against the Miami Dolphins last weekend. After Elam, the first-round cornerback, and Shakir, the fifth-round receiver, saw fewer snaps this season than some would have preferred, they both contributed heavily toward the Bills moving on to face the Cincinnati Bengals this weekend in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Even though both rookies have acquitted themselves well, and have certainly made the case for more playing time, their situations are not the same: I’m very comfortable saying that Elam should get the lion’s share of snaps at cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White, but I’m perfectly fine with a platoon at slot receiver between Isaiah McKenzie, Cole Beasley, and Shakir. Why?

The slot receiver position for the Bills has many different roles in the Ken Dorsey offense: the jet sweep and gadget function, the traditional quick-hitting shorter routes, and the vertical component. McKenzie, Beasley, and Shakir all neatly fill each one of those roles better than one player — even one as promising as Shakir — could currently fill on his own.

McKenzie has been a gadget player and the designated jet sweep guy for years in Buffalo, and his straight-line speed and knowledge of rushing angles, along with the offensive system, put him in the driver’s seat for touches in that role. Eventually, I’m confident that Shakir could handle a role of that sort, with his speed metrics surprisingly mirroring McKenzie’s:

  • 40-yard dash: McKenzie 4.42 seconds; Shakir 4.43 seconds
  • 10-yard split: McKenzie 1.52 seconds; Shakir 1.49 seconds

For now, given that McKenzie has a leg up on the offensive system and experience in ball handling in those types of plays, it makes sense to have McKenzie continue that role.

Beasley remains a nuanced route-runner who can present himself open as a target to Josh Allen in the short and intermediate parts of the field. He can separate from man coverage and uncover quickly, giving Allen a reliable target to look for on third down and when deeper options are covered. His suddenness has absolutely decreased as he’s aged, but the trust Allen has in him, combined with his football IQ and knowledge of leverage and route-running, makes him valuable in the role he currently occupies in this offense.

Shakir has proven to be shockingly effective vertically during his short time in Buffalo. He is second on the team in average distance of target at 12.0 yards — trailing only established deep threat Gabe Davis — while playing only 58.3% of his snaps from the slot. Beasley and McKenzie, for comparison, have taken 83.3% and 80.2% of their snaps from the slot, respectively. Shakir can be used from the slot, but the team is also clearly more comfortable having him play on the line of scrimmage, allowing Davis or Stefon Diggs to operate out of the slot on that snap.

Shakir has played a fundamentally different role this year than either Beasley or McKenzie. He can absolutely be handed more snaps while, simultaneously, roles are also reserved for Beasley and McKenzie.

..and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!