OPINION: 2021 State of the Bills: Wide receiver

John Brown's status will be one of a few decisions the team faces this offseason

My "2021 State of the Bills" series continues with a look at the wide receivers as the team heads into the offseason:

Under contract:
• Stefon Diggs
• Cole Beasley
• John Brown
• Gabriel Davis
• Jake Kumerow
• Duke Williams
• Tanner Gentry
• Isaiah Hodgins

Pending Free Agents:
• Isaiah McKenzie
• Andre Roberts

State of the position:

Think back four season ago to 2017. That year was notable because it was Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott’s first year together in Buffalo.

The Bills’ leading receivers that season were a running back, LeSean McCoy, and a tight end, Charles Clay, and by a pretty healthy margin. McCoy had 59 catches, while Clay had 49.

Their top wideouts, statistically, were Deonte Thompson, Zay Jones, and Jordan Matthews, but none of them had more than 27 receptions. That’s pretty amazing, especially considering that team made the playoffs. The Bills had, arguably, the worst wide receiving corps in the entire league that season.

It wasn’t much better the following year, but rookie Robert Foster did a really nice job to inject a little life into the group. I’d mention Kelvin Benjamin, too, but he did nothing to move the needle.

Just two years later, the Bills had, arguably, the best top-four wide receiver depth in the NFL, and they used them all.

Last season, the team finished second in the NFL in their usage of “10-personnel,” which is four wide receivers and no tight ends. Stefon Diggs, John Brown, Cole Beasley, and Gabriel Davis were the main four, with Isaiah McKenzie the next man in, and even carving out a little role of his own.

Diggs showed up after a massive trade last offseason that saw Beane send a first round pick to the Minnesota Vikings, and some even saying it was too much. But he proved to be worth it, and then some, leading the league with both 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards. He was deservedly named a First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press. He was a great fit with quarterback Josh Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, he is still only 27-years-old, and he is under contract for three more seasons.

Things are a lot more fuzzy when it comes to Brown, mainly due to his contract and injury concerns.

Brown was the perfect complement to Diggs in the No. 2 wide receiver role, but after staying healthy his entire first year in Buffalo, he was nagged by injuries all season and never seemed to be fully healthy. There’s no doubt that hurt the Bills' offense overall, but specifically in some big games. Brown wound up playing in nine games, catching 33 passes for 458 yards.

He’s scheduled to count over $9.53 million against the salary cap next season, but the team can save roughly $7.9 million on the cap by releasing him, with $1.6 million of dead cap money. That sounds enticing, especially knowing Davis is going into his second year and could be a replacement.

However, Brown is the only receiver the Bills truly have with the top-end speed needed to take the top off the defense. Also, he’s a great route runner, has terrific hands, and is the consummate professional. He fits exactly the kind of player this organization wants on and off the field.

Replacing him goes beyond money. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Davis had a very good rookie season in Buffalo. From the very first week of training camp, when the media was allowed to watch practice, he looked the part of a true NFL wideout. Then he showed it in games, especially as the season went on.

Through the team’s first eight games, Davis caught 15 passes for 205 yards, averaging 13.67 yards per-catch, with two touchdowns.

Over their next eight games, Davis really took off, catching 20 passes for 394 yards, with a whopping 19.70 yards per-catch average and five touchdowns. In fact, over the second half of the NFL season, Davis was the only player in the entire league to have at least 20 catches and average over 19.0 yards per-reception.

There’s no doubt Davis is in for a bigger role going forward, but it remains to be seen just how big, back to the Brown point.

It was revealed after the season ended that Beasley played on a broken fibula throughout the playoffs. He injured it in the Week 16 Monday night win over the New England Patriots at Foxboro. Despite that, he still caught 14 passes for 145 yards in the postseason.

In the regular season, despite missing the final game, he posted a career-year, catching 82 passes for 967 yards. He had a legitimate look at his first 1,000-yard season had he played in the Week 17 finale against the Miami Dolphins.

Beasley is still under contract for two more years and fits this offense perfectly for what they need in a slot receiver.

This will be McKenzie‘s second-straight offseason being a free agent. Last year, he was scheduled to be a restricted free agent, but the Bills did not give him a qualifying offer, because it would have cost them over $2 million to retain his rights. Instead, they let him become an unrestricted free agent, then signed him back to a much more team-friendly, one-year deal for less than $1 million against the salary cap.

McKenzie was a very good option to have as a versatile receiver, who could threaten the defense a couple of different ways. He was used on several jet sweeps (which were actually counted as receptions because they were tossed in front of Josh Allen), and a reliable target in the passing game overall, finishing with 30 catches for 282 yards and five touchdowns. 2020 was the best season of his career in each category.

I’ve often joked on the air lately that what the Bills offense needs to take the next step and contend with a team like the Kansas City Chiefs, is “Isaiah McKenzie with a turbo button.” They need speed, but the kind that McKenzie brings - quick twitch, fast off the line of scrimmage and with the ball in his hands. He’s exactly the type of player they could use, but a better version of him.

It would be great for the Bills to bring him back, but there are two main issues that might prevent that from happening. First, how much are they willing to pay for a part-time player, especially if other teams want to add him after seeing the nice niche he can give them? Second, does McKenzie, himself, want a bigger role, and will he want to look elsewhere for that?

If you’ve listened to me at all on WGR over the past six months, you know I’m a big Andre Roberts fan, because I think what he does as a return man is very valuable, especially for a team that is in contention for a conference championship.

Now isn’t the time to forego really good players in favor of other players’ development. Having elite players at any position is the goal, and that’s exactly what he is as a return man, once again earning All-Pro honors. However, I am certainly not beholden to making sure he’s back on the roster next year, especially given some of the salary cap constraints the team might be facing.

Roberts doesn’t offer much as a receiver, and if they can get him back on a veteran minimum contract, that would be great, as long as he’s not taking up a roster spot from an actual wide receiver who would contribute, which he didn’t this year.