Orchard Park, N.Y. (WGR 550) – With Cole Beasley gone, it’s going to be an interesting battle to see who is the slot receiver for the Buffalo Bills this season.
Buffalo signed seven-year veteran Jamison Crowder in free agency to battle with Isaiah McKenzie, and later drafted Khalil Shakir in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Boise State.
In 2021, Marquez Stevenson was taken in the sixth-round out of Houston, and he got into five games last season, mostly as a kick returner. He, too, will be in the mix.
The Bills also signed former first-round pick Tavon Austin, who has never lived up to the promise he had when he started with the St. Louis Rams, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars and Green Bay Packers. Austin also seemed to have a good spring, once the Bills signed him as a free agent.
Three of the four in the battle can also return kicks, with Crowder the one that doesn’t. The veteran receiver spent four years with the, then, Washington Redskins, and three more seasons with the New York Jets. His best season was his first with the Jets, when he grabbed 78 balls for 833 yards and six touchdowns.
Crowder rarely runs the football, while McKenzie excels at it. McKenzie has 37 carries with the Bills for 171 yards and three touchdowns. In his last two seasons, he has caught seven touchdowns. McKenzie had a career day in New England last year, catching 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown.
McKenzie was drafted in the fifth-round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos out of Georgia. He only played 12 games with the Broncos before being released in 2018 and claimed by the Bills.
Many said McKenzie would never make the NFL. After he did, many had the 27-year-old cut before the regular season begins.
McKenzie knows what has been said, but he never lets it get in the way.
“I just never stop going," said McKenzie during offseason workouts. "I look at the noise, but I don’t listen to it. I just keep going to go about my day, whether it’s on the field or off the field. I do what I do. I may let some people know along the way, and if they don’t believe me, oh well.
“I also show people along the way, and if they don’t believe it, oh well, I’m going to keep going, and that’s how I look at it. I don’t take no day for granted. I’m working, and it shows each and every year.”
McKenzie got a good look during the spring and says it’s been fun.
"Just talking to Josh [Allen], getting the ball from Josh. We communicate, and the way he and 'Bease' communicated, I want that, the chemistry they had. But we’re going to have to speed it up a little bit, because the season’s right around the corner.”
With Beasley gone, McKenzie may be asked to run more option routes, and he says he and Allen are getting it down.
“It’s not much of an adjustment, it’s just the communication of it all," McKenzie said. "It’s certain words or certain signals he gave 'Bease'. I mean, I’ve watched, but now that I’m in it, I’ve got to do those. So being behind 'Bease', he taught me a lot, and just watching him run routes and how he reads coverages, I learned a lot from that and brought it to the spring. Josh was very intrigued in what I could do now that 'Bease' is gone. So we’ve been on the same page so far, and I want to keep it that way.”
McKenzie lost his job as a returner to Stevenson last year after he had an unforced fumble on a kick return against the Indianapolis Colts. He was inactive the next two games, but didn't sulk about it.
“I’ve learned there’s always going to be ups-and-downs, whether I’m a receiver or a returner. I’ve just got to control what I can control, and when opportunity comes, I’ve got to seize it," McKenzie said. "I feel like I’ve done a good job of that each and every year, and now that my role is getting bigger, I want to keep seizing those opportunities and help the team win.”
You will no longer see McKenzie wearing his familiar No. 19, as he has changed to No. 6. This season, rookie punter Matt Araiza is wearing 19.