With their sixth-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills added another speed receiver in Kolby Listenbee of TCU. Will he break into their playing rotation this year? Here's the prognosis.
Listenbee comes to the Bills from the great state of Texas. Originally from Arlington, he was a gifted athlete from a young age, thanks in part to his father, a semi-pro sportsman who ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash as a 30-year old attending an NFL regional combine. Listenbee was originally involved in a multitude of sports, including basketball and baseball, but his small stature in high school (standing only 5'6") spurred him to focus on football. Of course, he would grow six inches before graduating, and eventually became the starting quarterback for his team, a dual-threat player with 1,200 yards passing and 700 rushing. He also ran track in his spare time, although that wasn't his primary sport.
Listenbee committed to TCU to play college football, but didn't see very much action in his first two years, only collecting three receptions for 82 yards. To build up his confidence, he competed with the TCU track team, and quickly developed his running form as a sprinter. That paid off when he came back to football practices in preparation for his junior year. He had 41 receptions for 753 yards and four touchdowns in 2014, and this season he added 30 more for 597 yards and five touchdowns playing opposite Josh Doctson, a first-round pick in Washington.
One thing was immediately clear in the press conferences and interviews following Listenbee's selection: he does not lack for confidence. He believes he's the fastest man in football, he says he could run in the Olympics if he wanted to, and he thinks he can become a great NFL wide receiver.
Listenbee is a sprinter who plays wide receiver, with a personal best 10.03-second, wind-assisted 100-meter dash to his name. That athletic ability was clearly evident at the NFL Combine, when he ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash, broad jumped 10'9", and had a 35-inch vertical leap, all while dealing with a double sports hernia. His coaches and trainers believe a sub 4.2-second time would have been possible if Listenbee were fully healthy.
The speed shows up on tape, as well; Listenbee was a major deep threat for TCU in his final two seasons. The question with Listenbee's ability is how well he can change direction. He didn't run the three-cone or short-shuttle due to his groin injury, and on tape, he sometimes has issues gearing down to break his route. At 6'0" and 197 pounds, Listenbee doesn't have the size of a red zone threat, but he's not a water bug, either.
Listenbee played in an extremely simple route tree at TCU, and he has a lot of work ahead of him before he'll be trusted as anything more than a deep threat for the Bills. He only played from the left side of the formation, and only ran three routes: the go, the post, and the out. He does a solid job of fighting off press coverage, using his threatening speed to buy a cushion, and rides the sideline well to earn positioning. That said, he takes too many steps to slow down or change direction (for now), there isn't much deception to his route running, and he needs to try to mix up his rhythm. Luckily, he'll soon be working with a route-running phenom in Sammy Watkins, and a decent coach in Sanjay Lal.
Listenbee is pretty good in this department. He tracks the ball well over his shoulder, catches with his hands, and catches away from his body. When setting up for a catch, Listenbee has a good sense of using his body positioning to box the defender out from making a play on the ball. He's not a huge target, and he could improve his technique on passes in the middle of the field (sometimes his hands are oriented the wrong way), but this is an ability that could set him up to be closer to the DeSean Jackson end of the spectrum than the T.J. Graham end.
Yards after catch
Obviously, Listenbee's breakaway speed is a major asset here. On go routes, much like Marquise Goodwin, you can expect him to finish with a touchdown if he makes the catch. When he can build up his speed, like on a jet sweep, Listenbee can be dangerous.
I'm not entirely convinced that he has the quick change-of-direction skill that would make him a valuable YAC receiver, but some of my observations are limited by his 2015 tape, in which he suffered a hernia in the third week of the season and played through the pain all year. The groin injury may have made him look less agile. Still, he's renowned as a sprinter for a reason, so I suspect he's not going to be a Tavon Austin for an offense.
The Bills have this somewhat frightening obsession with adding speed to their receiving corps; Goodwin and Graham, a pair of third-round picks chosen mostly for their impressive ability to run a go route, set that precedent. Watkins, whose all-around talent includes his elite athleticism, finished second in the NFL last season in receiving yards caught on passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air. It's also true at tight end, where Charles Clay and Chris Gragg tore up the track. These choices have backfired more than they've succeeded, and you have to wonder why the Bills keep selecting this prototype while they continue to bemoan their lack of size and ball skills at the position (other than Dezmin Lewis, a seventh-round flyer last season).
Yet, Listenbee makes more sense than some of these other choices, because while he's similarly inexperienced, the investment of a sixth-round pick is much more appropriate. Furthermore, I like his chances in the NFL, due to his major aptitude for catching the go route. He's a receiving project who probably spends a lot of time on special teams, but would be able to contribute early on just by running a safety away from Watkins on occasion.