State of the Bills: Wide receiver

Cole Beasley
Photo credit Photo: Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

My State of the Bills series continues with a look at the wide receiver position headed into the 2020 offseason:

Under contract:

  • Cole Beasley
  • John Brown
  • Andre Roberts
  • Duke Williams
  • Nick Easley
  • Ray-Ray McCloud

Pending Free Agents:

  • Isiah McKenzie (Restricted)
  • Robert Foster (Exclusive Rights)

State of the Position:

Think back to last year right at this time. Fans, media, WGR callers and hosts were all pretty much on the same page, saying the Buffalo Bills needed to focus on adding to their wide receiving corps, thinking free agent additions and maybe a first round wide receiver was the way to go.

Fast forward a year and here we are having the exact same conversation. This time, it would be to add to a group that was definitely improved over a year ago, as opposed to needing a complete overhaul.

The team signed Cole Beasley and John Brown to free agent deals, and both had solid seasons. Brown exceeded a lot of expectations with 72 catches for 1,060 yards, becoming quarterback Josh Allen’s No. 1 target. But that’s the problem. Brown is an excellent receiver and should really be a No. 2, a role he could really thrive in with a true top wideout across from him.

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 that’s the point.  

Both Brown and Beasley will be back and have major roles again next season. The question is, who else will join them? The Bills needed one more wideout to step up and help out. That never really came, despite a revolving door of players.

Isiah McKenzie’s 27 catches for 254 yards was third-most for any wide receiver on the team. He was also used on several jet sweeps, totaling eight carries for 49 yards. He’s a restricted free agent, which means it will take a minimum qualifying offer of probably around $2.1 million in 2020 for the Bills to retain him. If they did that, they’d have the right to match any offer from another team or receive a fifth round pick as compensation (the round he was drafted in). Chances are no team would offer that high of a salary to McKenzie, so there’s no reason the Bills should, either. They could elect not to and let him become an unrestricted free agent, then sign him to a much lower deal if he chooses to re-sign with the Bills.

Robert Foster was thought by most to be a big part of the offense this year 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? Was it chemistry with Allen? Was it work ethic? Was it 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 is an Exclusive Right Free Agent, so unlike McKenzie, the Bills only have to offer him the minimum salary for a third-year player, which should be less than $700,000, to retain his rights. No other team would be able to sign him to an offer in that scenario either, so there’s no risk at all for the Bills and I absolutely expect them to do that.

Then there’s Duke Williams. Since he signed a contract with the Bills a year ago after leading the Canadian Football League in receiving yards, fans were very intrigued. 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 deserves every shot at being a regular receiver on the roster next season, and he should get it in training camp. But to expect him to be anything more than another complimentary piece is too lofty. I’m bracing for another training camp and preseason of "Duke love," then let's see where it goes.

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 will have every chance to show why he’s valuable once again in camp.

The Bills re-signed Easley and McCloud to future/reserve contracts when the season ended. Expect them to be among many fighting for reps in training camp.

So here we are one year later, and the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. The Bills still need to add a top-end wide receiver talent. There may be some available in free agency, but this is supposed to be one of the best wide receiver drafts in many years, maybe ever. With fewer holes now than they had a year ago, that could be the way to go to make a big addition, or two.

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