Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Wide receivers

The Buffalo Bills have found some reliable top receiving targets, but will need to analyze the options behind them this offseason.

The Position: Wide Receiver
On the Roster: Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah Hodgins
Free Agents: Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie
Reserve/Future: Tanner Gentry, Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams

Stefon Diggs’ first year in Western New York led to the Buffalo Bills’ single-season record book, at least the receiving chapters, to be completely rewritten.

The (Minneapolis) miracle worker made an immediate impact in his red and blue debut, earning 1,535 yards on 127 receptions…each establishing new team records and led the NFL. Buffalo had their passing weapon in Josh Allen but they now appear to have a strong tandem that can cause Kelly-to-Reed-style levels of offensive destruction. Few can question the potential future Diggs has created in Buffalo. An enduring image of the 2020-21 AFC Championship Game is Diggs watching the Kansas City Chiefs’ celebration from afar, the lone man clad in white to remain on the field.

Diggs wasn’t the only one to enjoy a breakout with the Bills. Cole Beasley likewise earned career-best numbers (967 yards on 82 receptions) while Gabriel Davis established himself a valuable day three find, as he was among four others first-years tied with seven touchdown receptions, second-best amongst rookie competitors.

Yet, the unprecedented success the Bills found last season was tough to celebrate because of the lack of Super Bowl at the end. Startling as such a leap would’ve been, Davis admitted that the semifinal heartbreak made it difficult to watch the Big Game.

“I couldn’t watch it because it made my stomach hurt. I feel like we should have been there,” the Central Florida alum told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s our standard, obviously, now. We set the standard and we’re playing to be above that standard every single year. So our guys are going to get back to work and we’re going to be ready to go, and hopefully, we get a big one next year.”

While the Bills are obviously pleased with the output from the top of their depth chart, they’ll have to analyze their alternative options this offseason. In addition to McKenzie and Roberts’ expiring contracts, the team also has a decision to make on John Brown. The former Baltimore Raven was unable to capitalize on a career-best season in 2019 as he missed several games due to injury. Buffalo would save over $6.3 million if they were to move Brown through either a release or trade.

Free Agents-to-be

Isaiah McKenzie

In a year where seemingly every Bills receiver was setting new career-bests, McKenzie was no exception, albeit on a smaller scale. He put up 282 yards and became a reliable red zone target with five scores. The man of many talents also earned a passing score through trickery and took a punt back for a score during Week 17 proceedings.

Andre Roberts

Roberts has been a consistent Pro Bowl representative for the Empire State, making the last three and the most recent two as a member of the Bills (he notably caught a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson in the 2019-2020 game). Roberts continued to make himself a valuable special teams commodity in 2020, despite getting deeper into his 30s. Appropriately, Roberts led the league with a 30-yard average on kick returns.

Will They Draft?

If they do, likely not until the latter stages. Their top three receivers from last season are all back, and they also might try to develop Isaiah Hodgins, a sixth-round choice in 2020 who missed all of his rookie campaign with an injury. Their reserve/future signees could be diamonds in the rough as well. Kumerow and Williams have extensive professional experience (Williams being a CFL All-Star in Edmonton) and Gentry, a draftee of the XFL’s New York Guardians, was Allen’s favorite target during their shared tenures as (Wyoming) Cowboys. Late projects on day three could be Davis’ former UCF teammate Tre Nixon or Michigan’s Ronnie Bell, who could be a slot-mate for Beasley.

Veteran Possibilities

Curtis Samuel, Carolina

The idea of more offensive firepower in Buffalo is the subject of nightmares in East Rutherford, Foxboro, and Miami. But Samuel is an elite target that’s a realistic option for Buffalo (which likely would require Brown’s release). One of general manager Brandon Beane’s final moves in Charlotte was taking the Brooklyn native with the 40th pick in the 2017 draft. Samuel will likely be looking for some stability with his second contract, but he well could be the proverbial “one move away” from truly pushing the Bills into the aura of Super Bowl contention.

Breshad Perriman, NY Jets

If the Bills wind up letting both Brown and McKenzie walk, Perriman would be a solid consolation prize in terms of speed and experience. It was clear last season that Perriman isn’t the type of player who can headline your receiving corps, but there’s hope he can create a good NFL career as a solid support man.

Chad Beebe, Minnesota

In some ways, it’s almost fate for Beebe to don red, white, and blue. Born in Buffalo and the son of a Bills legend (Don), Beebe can be the veteran depth option the Bills need if they’re forced to part ways with Brown or lose McKenzie.

Outlook

Overall, the Bills are more or less set with their top-heavy receiver depth chart. It’s unfortunate that Brown’s Buffalo journey might not continue, but that cap space earned with his moving (Buffalo currently ranks 20th in available cap space going into free agency) might be too much to resist. Expect the Bills to bring in a free agent or two to compete for a roster spot, as well as someone with return skills if both Roberts and McKenzie walk.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Three stars from Sunday’s win vs. Miami

The Buffalo Bills booted the Miami Dolphins from the AFC playoff bracket with a dominant effort in Orchard Park.

The Buffalo Bills’ historic regular season ended with “Scoragami“, a No. 2 seed, and a gift for the Tennessee Titans.

Buffalo capped off a dominant stretch with a 56-26 victory over the Miami Dolphins in the 2020 regular-season finale at Bills Stadium. Isaiah McKenzie scored two touchdowns through the air, while Antonio Williams added two more on the ground. Receivers Gabriel Davis and John Brown also had touchdowns, the latter also earned 72 yards in his first action since November 15 in Arizona.

With the win, the Bills (13-3) have clinched their best win tally since 1991 and they also locked up the No. 2 seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs. While the first-round bye only applies to the top-seeded Chiefs, the Bills will be assured of a home game if they reach the Divisional round and will face the defending champion from Kansas City no earlier than the AFC title game. Their win over the Dolphins (10-6) also allowed the Tennessee Titans to clinch a playoff spot and put Miami’s own playoff dreams on life support, now needing a loss from the Indianapolis Colts to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

ESM hands out game balls from the final regular season game…

3rd Star: QB Josh Allen

18-of-25, 224 yards, 3 TD

Those tuning in were treated to a lite version of Allen, who was removed in the early stages of the second half for Matt Barkley. While he struggled in the early going, a stretch that included his first interception since Week 14 against Pittsburgh, he was able to turn the game into one last case for MVP voters, tallying three touchdowns, including one to the returning John Brown, before giving way to Matt Barkley. Allen also managed to cap off his 16-game slate with one more team record, passing Drew Bledsoe’s mark in 2002 for the best passing-yard tally in a single season.

2nd Star: CB Josh Norman

4 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 1 INT/TD 

Norman gave fans an incredible blast from the past in the rout. In addition to two crucial pass breakups (one of which stifled a Miami comeback deep in the red zone), he took back a Tagovailoa interception 16 yards for a score to help bury their aquatic foes. It was Norman’s first touchdown since the pair he scored during his magical 2015 season in Carolina. Under Norman’s veteran leadership, Buffalo’s secondary is firing on all cylinders at the perfect time. In addition to the three turnovers, the defense let up only 171 yards from opposing throwers in their prior contests.

1st Star: WR Isaiah McKenzie 

6 receptions, 65 yards, 2 TDs, 1 punt return, 84 yards, 1 TD

Often seen as a “gimmick” receiver that comes up big on trick plays, McKenzie played a larger role on the receiving front on Sunday with Cole Beasley injured and Stefon Diggs getting some rest. He took full advantage of his extended opportunity, earning new single-game bests and his first multi-touchdown game. McKenzie also scored through more traditional methods, taking back a punt 84 yards for a score that more or less put the game away early in the first half.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Four plays that decided the Buffalo Bills’ Week 4 fate in Las Vegas

Familiar faces in familiar spots came up huge for the Buffalo Bills, who hit the perfect quarter-mark jackpot in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas may have been too much for the Wolfpack, but there was no undefeated hangover for the Buffalo Bills.

Josh Allen threw for 288 yards and two scores, with 115 of those yards going to Stefon Diggs on six hook-ups. The defense also earned a pair of fumble recoveries en route to a 30-23 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders in their first-ever visit to Allegiant Stadium. With the win, the Bills (4-0) are one of six remaining undefeated teams in the NFL after Week 4.

It was another big step for Diggs, who paces the NFL with 403 receiving yards alongside Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf.

“He plays so strong,” McDermott said of Diggs, per Issac Brekken of The Buffalo News. “He’s got the mentality and the attitude and it rubs off on our football team.”

A big play from Diggs is one of several plays that affected Sunday’s win and beyond, as ESM tracks down a big play from each quarter that affects the Bills’ present and future.

1st Quarter: Third’s the Word

Sunday’s matchup featured two of the NFL’s top five teams in third-down conversion rate. Through four weeks, the Raiders and Bills respectively rank third and fifth in the vital category and the two teams lived up to their strong reputation in the department on Sunday. The Bills went 7-for-13 on the down, while Las Vegas countered at 8-for-14 when they had the ball.

Buffalo had an early opportunity to show off that prowess. After converting two first downs on their opening set (including Josh Allen’s 26-yard score to Gabriel Davis), the Bills held a 7-3 lead but a tenuous 13 yards to go at the cusp of Las Vegas territory. Allen threw short of the sticks, but Isaiah McKenzie navigated through traffic to earn a pivotal first down. McKenzie’s elusiveness helped him reach the imaginary yellow line. But the Bills’ non-ball carrying skill players, namely Diggs, John Brown, and Devin Singletary got in the way of pursuing defenders to allow McKenzie the extra steps necessary to get the first.

Five plays later, another third down led to paydirt, as Allen found Cole Beasley from 11 yards out, giving the Bills a 14-3 lead in the early stages of the second.

2nd Quarter: Bitten By Witten

The sight of Jason Witten is one of the few remaining reminders of that classic, uncanny Buffalo choke in an October 2007 Monday night showdown against the Dallas Cowboys. Witten came back to haunt the Bills one last time on Sunday, making his first touchdown grab in a Raiders uniform just before the end of the first half.

Witten’s score is part of what’s becoming a recurring problem in Buffalo: the struggle to cover the tight end. The four receptions for 74 yards between Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee last weekend only seemed pedestrian after Mike Gesicki had eight grabs for 131. So far, the Bills have been able to withstand the storm. But with a meaty part of the schedule looming…including a Thursday night tilt with Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and the defending champion Chiefs…they need to solve this problem sooner rather than later to keep the good times rolling.

3rd Quarter: 4th and Fun

Buffalo has climbed toward the top of the NFL standings and power rankings thanks to their continued willingness to take risks. That includes their situations on fourth down. Through Week 4’s games, the Bills are one of six teams with a perfect conversion rate on fourth down. Of that tally, they’re tied for second with three conversions (only Cincinnati has more at a perfect 6-for-6).

When Las Vegas cut down the lead to 17-16, it felt like they could permanently shift momentum with a stop. But Buffalo trickery, namely an end-around from McKenzie, got things rolling and put a major rut into the Raiders’ comeback plans. The Bills wound up punting on the drive…a holding penalty on the ensuing downs prevented any points…but it provided a strong message to the rest of the league that they’re not going to let fourth-and-short stop them. This is a team that’s willing to take the risks a great team is willing to take.

4th Quarter: Star Power

The Bills’ rise to power has been fueled by a sense of cashing in on opportunities. The biggest chance on Sunday came in the third quarter with the Raider breathing down their necks. Buffalo led 23-16 but stifled a counter when newcomer Josh Norman officially became a member of the Bills by forcing and recovering a Derek Carr fumble. It took only four snaps to cash in, snaps that allowed the Bills to showcase their marriage of homegrown and acquired talent. Allen hooked up with Diggs for a 49-yard gain, a leaping grab over Erik Harris that would set up a two-yard score from Devin Singletary that more or less ended any true Las Vegas threats.

The difference between good teams and great teams is that the latter group finds a way to capitalize to the fullest extent on every opportunity. That’s among the many reasons they’re among the remaining undefeated squads and ready to make the leap toward NFL elitehood.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags