With training camp now officially open, I’m re-examining the State of the Buffalo Bills’ roster, going position-by-position.
Here’s an in-depth look at the wide receivers:
- Stefon Diggs
- John Brown
- Cole Beasley
- Isaiah McKenzie
- Robert Foster
- Duke Williams
- Andre Roberts
- Gabriel Davis
- Isaiah Hodgins
- Nick Easley
The Bills made their signature offseason move when they traded their first round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for Diggs, who instantly becomes their No. 1 receiver. In his five NFL seasons, all in Minnesota, Diggs caught 365 passes for 4,623 yards and 30 touchdowns. His yardage total ranks 14th in the NFL over that time period. Diggs caught 63 passes for 1,130 yards last season, averaging 17.9 yards a reception, fourth-most in the NFL.
The addition of Diggs allows John Brown to move to the No. 2 role opposite him, where he should see more single-coverage and fewer No. 1 cornerbacks from opposing teams covering him. Diggs is also regarded as one of the best route runners in the league, and does a great job of catching balls other receivers have more difficulty with, so his presence will also help quarterback Josh Allen’s development from Year 2 to Year 3.
After signing as a free agent last offseason, Brown exceeded a lot of expectations hauling in 72 catches for 1,060 yards, becoming Allen’s No. 1 target. He set a Bills franchise record by having at least four receptions and at least 50 yards in nine straight games, passing Hall of Famer Andre Reed’s record of eight games in 1988-89. He was incredibly consistent all season long, with only three games of under 50 yards receiving. Now he moves into the No. 2 role opposite Diggs, where the Bills may be able to take advantage of his great speed better than they did last year, since there may be opportunities for him to get down the field without a safety covering him over the top.
Beasley had some big games, including two 100-yard performances over the last five weeks and five games with at least six catches. He also disappeared sometimes in the offense, including having only 11 catches over a four-game stretch in the middle of the season. That may have been more of a function of Allen and the offense than it was of Beasley, but with Diggs and Brown both now the outside, it could very well open up the middle even more for Beasley to get open.
McKenzie’s 27 catches for 254 yards was third-most for any wide receiver on the team last season. He was also used on several jet sweeps, totaling eight carries for 49 yards. He was scheduled to become a restricted free agent in March, but the Bills didn’t give him a qualifying offer, allowing him to become unrestricted and test the free agent market. Ultimately, he re-signed with the Bills. He played the third-most snaps of any receiver on the team in 2019 by a wide margin, with 42.19%. The next closest after him was Robert Foster’s 20.02%. He can play both outside and in the slot, and the Bills love versatility from their players. But with the addition of Diggs, as well as draft picks Gabriel Davis and Isaiah Hodgins, McKenzie will be fighting hard for a roster spot.
It was conventional wisdom going into last season that Foster would be a big part of the offense after posting over 500 yards over the final seven games of 2018. However, something went wrong with that plan, and Foster was strangely not even a part of the passing game all season long, catching just three passes for 64 yards. Was it injuries? He did miss three games early on with a hamstring injury. Was it chemistry with Allen? Was it work ethic or not knowing the offense? Whatever it was, 2019 was essentially a lost season for Foster, who was active for 13 games, almost exclusively for special teams use. Foster was an Exclusive Right Free Agent, and the Bills had an easy choice to make to re-sign him to the minimum qualifying offer. The talent is there, we saw it in 2018. With no offseason for the two drafted rookies to get as acclimated as they normally would, Foster may start out a little ahead when it comes to getting ahead on the depth chart during camp. But can he take advantage of that? He’s an intriguing player to pay attention to.
Since he signed a contract with the Bills in early 2019 after leading the Canadian Football League in receiving yards, fans were very intrigued by Williams. Then that intrigue turned into excitement when they saw him make plays in the preseason (eight catches, 72 yards, two touchdowns) to go along with the size and physicality he brought to the offense. Williams was released during final roster cuts and signed to the practice squad the next day, where he spent the first month of the season. He was promoted to the active roster in early October and immediately had the game-winning touchdown catch against the Tennessee Titans. Williams only caught one pass in each of the next two games, was inactive the next eight, but then collected six catches for 108 yards in the regular season finale. He was active for the team’s playoff game against the Houston Texans and was targeted 10 times, catching four passes for 49 yards. Williams should get a legitimate shot at the roster, but even if he makes it, to expect him to be anything more than another complimentary piece is too lofty.
Andre Roberts is one of the best kickoff and punt returners in the NFL. Many have questioned why he’s taking up a roster spot. The answer is simple: because the Bills offense needs all the help it can get to give them good field position, or even possibly break a return for a touchdown. Roberts saves them yardage by catching the ball in situations others would let it bounce and roll. He finished the season seventh in yards per-punt return and fourth in yards per-kick return. There’s no guarantee he makes the roster again, but given general manager Brandon Beane specifically mentioned that he’d like his team to improve on special teams, it wouldn’t make much sense to not have Roberts around and set them back at the return spot. Roberts can also fill-in as a receiver, so he’s valuable to have on the roster and active on game days in case of injury to another wideout, allowing the team to not have to have use up another roster spot. He played 109 snaps on offense last season.
Even though the Bills addressed their No. 1 need when they traded for Diggs, Beane still wanted to give Allen more weapons and do whatever they can to score more points. Davis was a touchdown machine at UCF, finding the end zone 23 times. He brings the offense a vertical threat from a taller receiver who can go up and take the ball away from defenders. He’ll have to refine his route-running better at the NFL level, but will certainly be an option to play early on, behind Diggs and Brown on the outside.
At 6-foot-4, 209 pounds, Hodgins not only has a big frame, but also has terrific hands. What he doesn’t have is blazing speed, and he’ll have to take some time getting adjusted to press coverage at the NFL level. So, he may be more suited to play the slot to begin his NFL career. He’ll compete for a roster spot with Davis, Foster, Williams, McKenzie, and Easley. But as a draft pick, the Bills have an investment in him they’d like to develop and see pay off.
Easley was signed to future/reserve contracts when the season ended after spending all season on the practice squad. The Bills love his work ethic and he flashed at times in camp last year, then had four catches for 41 yards in preseason before being let go during final cuts right before the regular season. He’ll be fighting for reps in training camp.
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