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State of the Buffalo Bills roster: Wide receivers

WANTED: A dynamic playmaker to make a great offense even better

Syndication: Democrat and Chronicle Jamie Germano/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Buffalo Bills are blessed with one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in Josh Allen. They have one of the NFL’s best offenses as a result. The offensive line? Excellent. The tight ends? A group led by one of the best young players in the league. The running backs? Spearheaded by an emerging superstar.

It’s funny how quickly things change, though. Just two years ago, Buffalo’s offense had some glaring weaknesses, but the consensus about their wide receiver group was clear it was spectacular. However, thanks to age and attrition, that group is one in desperate need of attention and a talent-injection entering the 2024 NFL season.

In today’s discussion about the state of the Buffalo Bills roster, we profile the receiver room. There's one elite weapon on hand, one emerging one, and a whole host of average.

Gabe Davis

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 24 (25 on 4/1/2024)

Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 966 offensives snaps (82.99% of team total), 1 special teams snaps (.23% of team total)

Key statistics: 81 targets, 45 receptions, 746 yards, 7 TD, 1 rush, -2 yards, 1 fumble

The degree of consistency with which Davis has performed inconsistently throughout his career is actually fairly impressive. There were many times over the last two seasons where it felt as if Davis were on the verge of taking that next step, yet he just never seemed to find it within either Ken Dorsey or Joe Brady’s offensive scheme. Davis has been an outstanding blocker throughout his tenure with the Bills, and he has shown that he is capable of making incredible plays and being a go-to passing target for long stretches of time. By the same token, his inconsistency in catching the ball combined with numerous instances of he and Josh Allen not being on the same page is a frustrating remembrance of Davis’ time with the Bills. It’s highly unlikely that he’s back next year.

Stefon Diggs

Contract status for 2023: Signed; first year of four-year, $96 million extension ($27.845 million cap hit; $31.096 million dead-cap charge if released or traded; 11.49% of team’s cap)

Age: 30 (31 on 11/29/2024)

Playing time: 17 games (17 starts), 949 offensive snaps (81.53% of team total), 1 special teams snap (.23% of team total)

Key statistics: 160 targets, 107 receptions, 1,183 yards, 8 TD, 1 rush, 5 yards, 2 fumbles

I’ve already talked at length about Diggs’ fades in the second half over the last two seasons. One of the better suggestions in the (outstanding, and thank you all for that!) dialogue around that piece was that perhaps Diggs just doesn’t recover as well as he used to as the season progresses. At 30 years old and with a slighter frame, Diggs absorbs plenty of punishment throughout. This year, he seemed to be dealing with a litany of core injuries, and a foot ailment cropped up towards the end of the season. Diggs’ best season with the Bills came in 2020, when he also had wide receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown with him. Buffalo needs to add a high-profile target to the passing attack this season to optimize the elite weapons they already have. Diggs has cemented a Hall of Fame trajectory here with the Bills, and he’s expressed his desire to retire with the team multiple times. Adding a first-round wideout will help take coverage off of Diggs in key moments, and it will help Buffalo’s passing attack to operate at an even deadlier level.

Deonte Harty

Contract status for 2023: Signed; final year of two-year contract ($5.57 million cap hit; $1.375 million dead cap if released or traded; 2.3% of total team cap

Age: 26 (27 on 12/4/2024)

Playing time: 16 games (1 start), 155 offensive snaps (13.3% of team total), 68 special teams snaps (15.8% of team total)

Key statistics: 21 targets, 15 receptions, 150 yards, 1 TD, 2 fumbles, 4 rushes, 0 yards, 1 kickoff return, 7 kickoff return yards, 26 punt returns, 323 punt return yards, 1 TD

Harty had one highlight moment — the 96-yard punt return touchdown that brought the Bills back from the brink in the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins. Otherwise, it was a really disappointing year for a player who was thought to be an upgrade from Isaiah McKenzie. I suppose the Bills could try to sign him to a one-year extension so as to lessen his cap hit in 2024, but after such an underwhelming season on the whole, it’s more likely to me that the Bills release him and move on entirely.

Khalil Shakir

Contract status for 2023: Signed; third year of four-year rookie contract ($1,071,787 cap hit; $173,574 dead-cap charge if released or traded; .44% of total team cap)

Age: 23 (24 on 2/3/2024)

Playing time: 17 games (10 starts), 604 offensive snaps (51.9% of team total), 92 special teams snaps (21.4% of team total)

Key statistics: 45 targets, 39 receptions, 611 yards, 2 TD, 1 rush, 10 yards, 1 fumble, 5 kickoff returns, 98 kickoff return yards, 5 punt returns, 37 punt return yards

As the year went on, it became apparent that the Bills needed to find ways to ensure that Shakir became a more prominent figure in the passing game. In the Bills’ final three games — the playoff games and the regular-season finale — Shakir caught 16 passes on 18 targets for 180 yards and two scores. He can line up in the slot and on the outside, he’s a willing blocker, he’s a strong route runner, and he has the speed to run by corners and safeties alike. The Bills shouldn’t just make him WR2 next year, but if they add a player and give Shakir the slot wideout job to start the year, they’ll be in good shape.

Trent Sherfield

Contract status for 2023: Unsigned; UFA

Age: 27 (28 on 2/25/2024)

Playing time: 17 games (1 start), 150 special teams snaps (34.9% of team total), 392 offensive snaps (33.7% of team total)

Key statistics: 22 targets, 11 receptions, 86 yards, 1 TD, 3 tackles

Sherfield had some buzz throughout training camp and the preseason as if he would be a fairly big contributor on offense. Well, he wasn’t. While most of that was opportunity-based, as he played fewer snaps at wideout than the top-three by a wide margin, a lot of that was ability-based, as well. Sherfield was pressed into duty as a starter for the playoffs thanks to the knee injury Gabe Davis suffered against Miami in the season finale, and he did little to inspire confidence that he could be much more than a depth player or a special teams contributor. Sherfield dropped two deep passes in the Bills’ final game against the Kansas City Chiefs, and while he caught one big third-down pass, that was the entirety of his offensive contribution on that day.

Justin Shorter

Contract status for 2023: Signed; second year of four-year rookie contract ($995,987 cap hit; $242,961 dead-cap charge if released or traded; .41% of total team cap)

Age: 23 (24 on 4/17/2024)

Playing time: N/A

Key statistics: N/A

Shorter missed the entire season, as he spent the year on Injured Reserve thanks to a hamstring injury he suffered in the preseason. He saw 11 targets in the preseason, catching six passes for 66 yards and a touchdown in those games. He likely enters his second season trying to earn a role similar to the one that Davis had in 2020 and 2021, as he has similar athletic traits to Davis. Shorter is, oddly enough, a little taller than Davis, as he is 6’4” and Gabe is 6’2”. They ran almost identical 40-yard dash times, with Shorter running it in 4.55 seconds and Davis in 4.54 seconds. Their vertical (35.5” for Shorter, 35” for Davis), bench press (18 reps for Shorter, 14 reps for Davis), and broad jump (10’6” for Shorter, 10’4” for Davis) were also similar. If the Bills go out and add, Shorter could be a nice piece for them moving forward.

K.J. Hamler

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures deal on 1/22/2024 ($1.055 million cap hit; .44 of total team cap)

Age: 24 (25 on 7/8/2024)

Playing time: N/A

Key statistics: N/A

This is an interesting signing, as the former second-round pick did not play in an NFL game this past season. He spent the year on the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad after flaming out with the Denver Broncos. Hamler can absolutely fly, but a series of leg injuries has derailed his pro career. At worst, this is a good flier for the Bills to take on a player who could give them something they don’t really have a lot of, which is downfield speed in the passing game.

Andy Isabella

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/22/2024 ($993,000 cap hit; $8,000 dead-cap charge if released or traded; .41% of total team cap)

Age: 27 (28 on 11/18/2024)

Playing time: 2 games, 21 special teams snaps (4.88% of team total), 2 offensive snaps (.21% of team total)

Key statistics: 1 kickoff return, 25 kickoff return yards

Speaking of downfield speed, Isabella spent the season with the Bills, as he was on their practice squad for the duration of the year. He wasn’t asked to do much in games for the Bills, but he was active for two regular-season games and both playoff games. Against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Super Wild Card Weekend, it looked like offensive coordinator Joe Brady had some designed looks for Isabella in space. Again, he’s not someone to build the receiver room around, but he’s a good person to have in camp as the Bills look to add that downfield, dynamic speed element to the passing game again in 2024.

Tyrell Shavers

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/22/2024 ($799,500 cap hit; $9,000 dead-cap charge if released or traded; .33% of total team cap

Age: 24 (25 on 8/18/2024)

Playing time: N/A

Key statistics: N/A

Shavers spent the year on the practice squad. He caught three passes for 45 yards and a touchdown on eight targets in three preseason games.

Bryan Thompson

Contract status for 2023: Signed reserve/futures contract on 1/22/2024 ($795,000 cap hit; .33% of total team cap

Age: 24 (25 on 4/7/2024)

Playing time: N/A

Key statistics: N/A

Thompson spent the season on the practice squad. He caught two-of-three targets in the preseason for 11 yards.

It’s clear that the Bills need a talent injection here, and the best way to do that would be to add a first-round draft choice in a loaded wide receiver class. Looking at the list of wideouts available here, there are probably eight that I’d be content with being the first name the Bills mention coming across that stage in April.

Of that list, there’s almost no chance that Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., LSU’s Malik Nabers, or Washington’s Rome Odunze is available when Buffalo picks. If someone can write a smear piece on Odunze to make his draft stock sink like a rock, by the way, now would be time to do it. Adding him to Buffalo’s offense would be absolutely electric.

However, the next-tier of wideouts still possesses incredible players who would add to the Bills’ attack. Whether it’s FSU’s Keon Coleman, Oregon’s Troy Franklin, LSU’s Bryan Thomas Jr., South Carolina’s Xavier Legette, or Texas’ Adonai Mitchell, the Bills can and should find help at wideout early in this draft. Perhaps the team really wants to address the safety position first by drafting someone like Minnesota’s Tyler Nubin or Miami’s Kameron Kinchens. It wouldn’t be my favorite move, but it would be one that makes sense.

Does that mean the Bills miss out on a potential game-changer at wideout? Absolutely not. There are players who will be available in the second round of the draft and later who can help immediately. A description of this draft is to wide receivers what the lyrics to Eric Burdon and War’s Spill the Wine is to descriptions of beautiful women: There is something for everyone to enjoy here regardless of one’s tastes in wideouts.

Want a big, physical type after the first round? Maybe you draft UNC’s Devontez Walker, FSU’s Johnny Wilson, or USC’s Brendan Rice. Need a speed-burner who doesn’t have prototypical size? How about Texas’ Xavier Worthy, Illinois’ Isaiah Williams, or Oregon State’s Silas Bolden. Want someone balanced who could help right away for limited capital? May I interest you in Washington’s Ja’Lynn Polk, Georgia’s Ladd McConkey, Florida’s Ricky Pearsall, or Michigan’s Roman Wilson. Want a slot guy? How about Virginia’s Malik Washington, Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith, Arizona’s Jacob Cowing, or Western Kentucky’s “YAC God,” Malachi Corley?

I’ve seen plenty of “mock drafts” where the person doing the mock has the Bills select a wideout in every round. Of course that’s silly, but there is truth in knowing that Buffalo needs to add dynamic play makers on offense. Diggs isn’t getting any younger, Davis’ contract isn’t getting any less expensive, and Shakir isn’t going to immediately take a leap and become a superstar overnight. If the Bills add two players here who can immediately contribute to the offense, then their 2024 passing attack could be among the best in the league.

While I’d love to say that Buffalo should add Odunze and Corley, I don’t see a scenario where they can do something like that without trading up for the former, which would thereby use up the picks necessary to draft the latter. Bryan Thomas is a draft crush for the Bills at No. 28 overall, but even he projects to be gone before that. “Settling” for a player like Legette, who looks like a D.K. Metcalf clone, would be one hell of a consolation prize. Franklin has the wiry frame and tremendous speed that could help Buffalo’s vertical attack, as well. I like Adonai Mitchell in that spot, too. There really are so many good wideouts available in this draft that it seems impossible to go wrong.

Wait, where have I heard that before? Oh, yes, probably in the 2014 NFL Draft, where rather than sit and remain patient, the Bills traded up to secure a wideout, Sammy Watkins, who was viewed as being a sure-thing in a strong class of receivers. Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin were the other receivers selected in Round 1 that year (side note: How did Buffalo end up with both of the weakest first-round wideouts from that draft?). Jarvis Landry, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson II, and John Brown were all drafted after the first round in that year, as well.

My point is less that the Bills made questionable draft decisions back in the day than it is to emphasize that a trade-up for a wideout is likely not in the team’s best interests. With a lot of roster holes to fill and ten choices with which to fill them, being patient and staying true to their board is going to be the key to success here. Normally, I’d be against picking the seventh or eighth prospect at a position in the first round, but given the Bills’ needs and the depth of talent at the receiver position this year, consider me all aboard the WR train for Round 1.