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State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster: wide receivers

Josh Allen needs weapons — but does the front office agree?

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills had one of the NFL’s best passing offenses in 2022, landing in the No. 8 spot in passing yards and the No. 2 spot in passing touchdowns — in spite of the fact that they played one game less than everyone except the Cincinnati Bengals. (For posterity, the Bengals were tied with Buffalo for No. 2 in passing touchdowns, and they were No. 7 in passing yards.) In short, Buffalo had an elite passing attack in 2022.

Did it always feel that way, though? Even with a superstar quarterback in Josh Allen, it sometimes felt like the offense was unable to impose its will through the air on teams, at least in the way that we came to expect after the torrid ending to the 2021 season and the hot start the team had in 2022. Granted, Allen’s elbow injury played a part in that, but it also became obvious as the season progressed that the Bills’ receiving corps was comprised of one star and a bunch of “other guys.”

In our final installment of our State of the Bills’ roster series, we profile the receivers — a group that underwent a few permutations last season, and should see some change again in 2023.

Cole Beasley

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 33 (34 on 4/26/23)

Playing time: 2 games (1 start), 17 offensive snaps (1.57% of team total)

Key statistics: 2 targets, 2 receptions, 18 yards

The veteran receiver began the season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a member of their practice squad, and he appeared in two games with the Bucs before he was released and then retired. Beasley came out of retirement and re-signed with Buffalo at the end of the regular season, appearing briefly in two games — but it was in the postseason where he saw plenty of time on the field. He was Buffalo’s WR3 in terms of snaps, appearing on 31 and 30 offensive snaps, respectively, in the Bills’ two playoff contests. He caught five passes for 68 yards and a touchdown in the postseason. This isn’t to say that the Bills should bring him back — they shouldn’t, in my opinion — but it does further drive home the point that the coaching staff boxed themselves in at the position to the point where they didn’t have players they trusted to suit up when it mattered most.

Gabe Davis

Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of four-year rookie contract ($2,916,845 cap hit; $174,845 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 23 (24 on 4/1/23)

Playing time: 15 games (15 starts), 926 offensive snaps (85.35% of team total), 4 special teams snaps (.98% of team total)

Key statistics: 93 targets, 48 receptions, 836 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns, 1 fumble

Most of us, myself included, assumed that an increase in opportunity for Davis would lead to a big step forward in terms of production. That isn’t what happened in 2022, however. The third-year wide receiver played more snaps than any receiver by a wide margin, outsnapping his nearest teammate by 90 overall snaps in spite of playing one less game overall, yet he still hung right around his career averages in terms of catches and touchdowns. In his first two seasons, Davis’ stat lines were incredibly similar — he went for 35/599/7 as a rookie on 62 targets, and then for 35/549/6 on 63 targets in 2021. He only managed to catch 13 more passes on an additional 30 targets this season, although he did convert those 13 receptions into an additional 237 yards on his career high. If you’d have told me that Davis would have had over 800 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns before the season, I think I’d have been happy with that output. It’s the receptions that he left on the table that make the way he achieved that yardage last year seem so disappointing overall. This year is a big one for Gabe, who figures to remain a large part of what the team does moving forward.

Stefon Diggs

Contract status for 2023: Signed—technically, this is the final year of the five-year deal he signed with the Minnesota Vikings, but he inked a four-year, $96 million contract extension with Buffalo that keeps him under contract through the 2027 season ($20,271,111 cap hit; $45,466,111 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 29 (30 on 11/29/23)

Playing time: 16 games (16 starts), 836 offensive snaps (77.05% of team total), 4 special teams snaps (.98% of team total)

Key statistics: 154 targets, 108 receptions, 1,429 receiving yards, 11 receiving touchdowns, 1 fumble, 1 rush, -3 rushing yards

Once again, Diggs was the main man in the passing game, leading the team by a wide margin in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns. He actually tied Bill Brooks for the franchise record in touchdown catches, nearly putting an end to my favorite random single-season record-holder in franchise history. Diggs’ season is definitely a tale of two halves. He was on pace for 128/1,821/15 through Buffalo’s Week 9 loss at the New York Jets, but finished his final eight games with a pace of 102/1,216/8. And yes, that’s how good this guy is — that we can look at his second half as somewhat disappointing statistically because his first half was otherworldly. What was the main difference after that Jets’ loss? Quarterback Josh Allen’s elbow injury, for starters, and teams started scheming to force Allen to look for other options by doubling Diggs with extra help over the top.

Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey has one of the toughest easy jobs in the league: He has an alien at quarterback and an Alpha Dog at receiver, and everyone knows that 17 is looking for 14 when the chips are down. Scheming him some easy looks, preferably ones that aren’t always well down the field, would help negate some of the “boom or bust” tendencies that we saw on offense towards the end of the year. Diggs is an elite separator and a tremendous competitor. He may have been angry while the team was taking their medicine in the playoffs against the Cincinnati Bengals, but I can’t say I blame him. Every elite team needs a fire-starter, and Diggs is that guy for Buffalo.

Isaiah McKenzie

Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($2,517,647 cap hit; $300,000 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 27 (28 on 4/9/23)

Playing time: 15 games (8 starts), 555 offensive snaps (51.15% of team total), 28 special teams snaps (6.83% of team total)

Key statistics: 65 targets, 42 receptions, 423 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns, 9 carries, 55 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 6 kickoff returns, 144 kickoff return yards

McKenzie served the “Jack of All Trades” role for the offense, but his first foray into being the full-time slot guy wasn’t the dashing success many hoped it would be. He definitely has value as a horizontal field-spreader, and running him on crossers against man coverage is almost a guaranteed pickup. He didn’t fumble once, which has been a problem for him in the past, but by the end of the season, he’d essentially been phased out of the offense in favor of a rookie and a 33-year-old receiver who’d been without a job for most of the year. At a shade over $2.5 million on a tight budget, I think it’s pretty likely that he’s asked to take a pay cut or accept his release.

Khalil Shakir

Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($956,787 cap hit; $260,361 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 23 (24 on 2/3/24)

Playing time: 14 games (2 starts), 275 offensive snaps (25.35% of team total), 18 special teams snaps (4.39% of team total)

Key statistics: 20 targets, 10 receptions, 161 receiving yards, 1 touchdown, 1 kickoff return, 34 kickoff return yards, 3 punt returns, 23 punt return yards

If there’s a player whose usage this year — or lack thereof — is more confusing on the roster than Shakir...well, I suppose it would be running back James Cook...or maybe cornerback Kaiir Elam. All three players have one thing in common: they were rookies last year. For whatever reason, the coaching staff watched Shakir have an electric preseason only to bury him on the depth chart entering the regular season. Then, when he was pressed into duty in Week 5, they watched him catch three-of-five targets for 75 yards and a touchdown — only to relegate him back to bench duty thereafter. He did see increased time in the playoffs, turning seven targets into five receptions for 91 yards. I imagine he’ll be in the running to be the team’s primary slot receiver next season, and I think he’ll be a popular breakout candidate all offseason.

Jamison Crowder

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 29 (30 on 6/17/23)

Playing time: 4 games, 93 offensive snaps (8.57% of team total), 18 special teams snaps (4.39% of team total)

Key statistics: 13 targets, 6 receptions, 60 receiving yards, 1 fumble, 9 punt returns, 100 punt return yards, 1 kickoff return, 17 kickoff return yards

The new slot weapon for 2022 never quite materialized, as Crowder and Allen never seemed to have any sort of chemistry in the early going. Crowder fractured his ankle and spent much of the season on injured reserve. There may be some interest in another one-year deal, but I don’t think I’d do it for much more than the veteran’s minimum.

Jake Kumerow

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 31 (32 on 2/17/24)

Playing time: 6 games (1 start), 92 offensive snaps (8.48% of team total), 71 special teams snaps (17.32% of team total)

Key statistics: 7 targets, 4 receptions, 64 receiving yards, 2 special teams tackles

For the first time in his tenure with Buffalo, Kumerow played more snaps on offense than he did on special teams. That’s mostly because he started in place of Gabe Davis during Buffalo’s Week 2 blowout victory over the Tennessee Titans. He injured his ankle against the Miami Dolphins the following week, causing him to miss the team’s next three games. He returned, albeit briefly, before he was placed on Injured Reserve. Most of us assumed that was related to the ankle injury, but it turns out that Kumerow was also dealing with a back injury, which required offseason surgery, since before the season even began. He won’t be a priority free agent, but he’s a guy the team clearly likes in that special teams/big-bodied blocking receiver role, so they will likely have conversations about a reunion.

John Brown

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 32 (33 on 4/3/23)

Playing time: 3 games, 22 offensive snaps (2.03% of team total)

Key statistics: 2 targets, 1 reception, 42 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown

Buffalo was so desperate for trustworthy targets at the end of the year that they went full Blues Brothers by signing Beasley and Brown, Josh Allen’s main weapons in 2019. My oldest is eight now, and he was devastated when the Bills released Brown following the 2020 season since that was his favorite player on the team. He was thrilled when I told him Brown re-signed and, when the speedster caught a 42-yard touchdown from Allen against the New England Patriots, it gave my guy one more time to exclaim that “John Brown catches everything!” Brown wasn’t active for Buffalo’s playoff loss against the Bengals, although he did play 21 snaps against Miami during Super Wild Card Weekend. I can’t see a scenario where the Bills look to bring him back next year.

KeeSean Johnson

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/23/23 ($946,500 cap hit; $6,500 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 26 (27 on 10/9/23)

Playing time: N/A

Key statistics: N/A

Johnson was wildly productive in college at Fresno State, catching 275 passes for 3,463 yards and 24 touchdowns during his four-year college career. He hasn’t been so productive in the NFL, having caught just 36 passes for 360 yards and a touchdown during his first two years in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals. As an older practice-squad player, he’s probably not someone with a great shot at the final roster, though stranger things have happened.

Dezmon Patmon

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/23/23 ($1.02 million cap hit; $10,000 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 24 (25 on 8/6/23)

Playing time (with Bills): N/A

Key statistics (with Bills): N/A

Patton is another former sixth-round draft choice, this time of the Indianapolis Colts. He was with Indy through the end of the regular season this year. He played in just one game, seeing six targets and making two catches for 24 yards. Since the Colts didn’t sign him to a reserve/futures deal at the end of the regular season, he became a free agent. The Bills signed him to their practice squad on January 17. Patton is a physical specimen — he’s 6’4” and 225 pounds, and he ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 2020. He never found a role with the Colts, but a strong camp could lead to some possibilities with Buffalo. He’s an intriguing player to follow for sure.

Isaiah Coulter

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/9/23 ($872,500 cap hit; $2,500 dead-cap charge if cut or traded)

Age: 24 (25 on 9/18/23)

Playing time: N/A

Key statistics: N/A

Coulter is interesting for a multitude of reasons. For starters, he isn’t on Buffalo’s official roster at present. He’s on the books according to Spotrac, but he’s not listed on the team’s official website. The best I can determine as to why is because of when he signed his reserve/futures deal. Since he signed it on January 9, which is before Buffalo’s season ended, that means he isn’t on the roster until the 2023 league year opens. With that said, Coulter is another 2020 late-round draft choice with intriguing athleticism (4.45-second 40-yard dash, 36” vertical) and good size at 6’2” and 198 pounds. He’s appeared in four NFL games across two seasons, and he’s only been targeted once.

Stefon Diggs is a sure thing. Every other receiver on the roster is either well past his prime or a player in need of a breakout. Davis is probably both the most underrated and overrated player in the group simultaneously, a difficult feat to accomplish but one that makes sense given his boom-or-bust career thus far. General manager Brandon Beane has said this offseason that expectations for him were probably too high following his amazing performance in Buffalo’s 42-36 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that ended the 2021 season, and we’ve also heard that an ankle injury lingered throughout much of the year, limiting his performance.

Expecting the team to outright replace a guy who they drafted and who played more snaps than even their superstar at the position is unlikely, but it’s not asking too much for One Bills Drive to add someone who could at least push him for some of those snaps next season. Given the team’s budget constraints, this means that they’ll probably need to add a receiver in the draft. I’ve seen plenty of folks clamoring for one in Round 1, and if the right guy is there at No. 27 overall (I’m looking at you, Jaxon Smith-Ngjiba, or Jordan Addison, or Zay Flowers), I’m all for it. There’s no way TCU’s Quentin Johnson will be there, and I don’t know how I feel about Josh Downs in the first round, though trading down a bit would be enticing.

There are some other prospects who seem to be fits — Jalin Hyatt, Rashee Rice, and Jayden Reed, for example — but there’s another rather large elephant in the room to consider: If one of these guys is drafted, I don’t exactly have confidence that they’ll see much field time given the coaching staff’s propensity for bringing rookies along slowly. The team hasn’t addressed the receiver position with a pick prior to Day 3 since the 2017 NFL Draft, when they traded up to select Zay Jones. Granted, they did trade a 2020 first-round choice to the Vikings for Diggs, but they haven’t drafted a receiver higher than they took Jones before Brandon Beane joined head coach Sean McDermott in Orchard Park, NY.

Shakir should step into a larger role this year, and a decision on players like McKenzie, Kumerow, and Crowder should be made fairly quickly. Of those three, I actually feel like the easiest to re-sign will be Kumerow, and even though McKenzie is literally on the roster at present, I don’t know if I’d give him the best chance to be on the roster come September. The practice-squad guys are lottery tickets, and while there are some intriguing ones, the Bills are in a win-now phase. They aren’t in a “let’s hope a former sixth-round pick pans out” phase. They can continue to develop those players while continuing to stockpile more proven talent, or players with a better athletic profile and/or draft pedigree.

I still think that my preferred pick in Round 1 is a guard like O’Cyrus Torrence, but if the Bills find a weapon for Allen and they believe that they can use him early, I’m all for it. The team needs to continue stockpiling weapons for their star quarterback, and receiver needs to be a priority this offseason.