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: WR John Brown set to return from injured reserve

As the Buffalo Bills close in on a playoff berth, they’re set to welcome back one of their veteran receiving options this holiday season.

The Buffalo Bills (10-3) have gained their share of supporters and believers as they continue their trek towards the NFL postseason. Now, it appears they’re going to gain back one of their most experienced receiving options as the playoffs approach.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott mentioned this week that the team will test Brown in practice with the intention of having him play in Saturday’s visit to Denver (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network). Brown is eligible to come off injured reserve after spending the past three weeks on the list with an ankle injury sustained during the November 15 loss in Arizona.

McDermott said that while Brown will practice during this short week, he mentioned that “we’ll have to see how it goes” when asked if the receiver will suit up at Mile High, per Thad Brown of RochesterFirst.com.

Injuries have prevented Brown, 30, from building on the best season of his career, which began in 2014 as a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. Last year, his first in Western New York, Brown earned personal bests with 1,060 yards on 72 receptions, also scoring six touchdowns. Separate calf and ankle ailments have limited Brown to only eight games so far this season, during which he has earned 29 receptions for 386 yards and two touchdowns. Brown did rise to the occasion during the Bills’ November win over Seattle, picking up a season-high 99 yards on eight grabs in the 44-34 triumph. His most renowned moment in Buffalo came in the team’s playoff cameo last January, when he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass against Houston in the AFC wild-card round.

Bills receivers have certainly risen to the occasion in Brown’s absence, winning each of their three contests played with Brown on injured reserve. Stefon Diggs became the second receiver in Bills history to reach triple-figures in receptions, currently leading the NFL with 100. Cole Beasley also took advantage of an increased workload, posting a career-best showing (9 receptions, 130 yards) in a Monday night win over San Francisco earlier this month.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Cody Ford out for the year, John Brown to miss Sunday

The Buffalo Bills lose two key pieces of their offense to injury as they prepare to enter a crucial final stretch.

As the Buffalo Bills prepare for a crucial final stretch that could lead to a long-sought division title, they’ll be without two of their key offensive starters, one of which will be done for the year.

Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott announced on WGR 550 that offensive lineman Cody Ford will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury in Wednesday’s practice and that receiver John Brown (ankle) will miss at least the next game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). The Bills (7-3) are looking to clinch their first division title since 1995 and lead the Miami Dolphins a game for the AFC East lead.

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Ford suffered a torn meniscus and will undergo surgery that will feature a 3-4 month recovery period. It’s the latest blow to a Bills’ offensive line that has seen its share of medical absences. Ford had already missed three games due to other injuries and Jon Feliciano missed the first seven contests after tearing a pectoral muscle before the start of training camp. Mitch Morse has also missed time, and further turnover came when Quinton Spain was released. Ford’s duties will likely be assumed by a combination of Feliciano, Brian Winters, and Ike Boettger.

Brown’s injury is the latest in what’s been a star-crossed season. A calf injury sustained during the third game of the season previously forced him out and he was previously removed from the Bills’ last game in Arizona with an ankle ailment. The injuries have prevented Brown from capitalizing on a career-best 72 receptions and 1,060 yards from last season’s playoff trek.

In other injury news, defensive end Mario Addison (knee) missed Wednesday’s practice. His status for Sunday has yet to be determined.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

Buffalo Bills: John Brown is in the spotlight in return to Arizona

After coming up big against Seattle, Buffalo Bills WR John Brown hopes Sunday is just the start of something bigger for Orchard Park.

It’s not often that the athletic paths of Western New York and the Arizona desert converge. The most notable incident is probably a 2015 NHL showdown between the Sabres and Coyotes where hometown Buffalo fans cheered an overtime loss because it bettered the odds in the NHL Draft Lottery’s Connor McDavid sweepstakes (the gambit didn’t even pay off, as the Edmonton Oilers leapfrogged them both on lottery night).

John Brown serves as rare middle ground in the Buffalo-Arizona Venn diagram. The Division standout from Mars Hill and Pittsburg State entered the league as a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 2014. Injuries prevented him from reaching his full potential after four seasons, leading a transfer to Baltimore in 2018 before settling in his current Buffalo surroundings through a three-year, $27 million deal with the Bills. Brown will face his original employers for the first time when the Bills meet the Cardinals for their quadrennial showdown at State Farm Stadium on Sunday afternoon (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

Brown has had his share of success on the NFL level, posting four digits in yardage in both his Arizona and Buffalo incarnations, including a career-best 1,060 in his Bills debut. The aforementioned ailments, however, have stopped him from making a truly lasting mark on the NFL game, even if his likelihood of success could be considered astronomical considering his Division II roots. A knee and calf issue has already cost him two games this season, preventing him from capitalizing on his career year, when he led or tied for the lead in all major Buffalo receiving categories (also earning 72 receptions, six of which went for scores).

“I think the vertical presence that he has, the speed and the quickness that he has, he’s able to run some really good in-breaking routes,” quarterback Josh Allen said of his two years working with Brown, per Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. “He’s another matchup that you have to focus on. You can’t just play man to man and roll somebody to (Stefon Diggs). You got to worry backside what John’s doing too.”

Last Sunday seemed to hint at Brown returning to full strength. The receiver played a large role in the Bills’ statement win over the Seattle Seahawks, earning a season-best 99 yards on eight receptions. None were bigger than a 33-yard tally on a screen pass on a 16-yard third down in the fourth quarter. It set the Bills up for a one-yard touchdown run from Zack Moss, a score that permanently put the Bills ahead by two possessions in what became a 44-34 victory over the NFC leaders.

In addition to the considerable amount of talent and potential he has left, the 30-year-old Brown brings a sense of veteran leadership and direction to a young team potentially on the cusp of something bigger. That was perfectly on display during a chaotic offseason where minicamps and preseason games were wiped out by the ongoing health crisis. When the Bills brought in UCF rookie Gabriel Davis in the fourth round of April’s draft, Brown was immediately on the case through mentorship.

“When I got drafted ‘Smoke’ took me in,” Davis said in reference to Brown, per Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com (no relation). “I was asked to stay at his crib for a few days to get with him on some football things.”

“That’s something I had to accept,” John Brown told Buffalobills.com about his new role in the locker room. “I couldn’t put myself first. The plays were going to come but helping others would help the team even more. It was a lot, but I got there.”

Brown’s impact is felt beyond the receiver room. According to Thad Brown (also unrelated) of RochesterFirst.com, offensive lineman Dion Dawkins referred to the receiver as one of “(his) my favorite players on this offense”, as well as a “silent sniper…an assassin”.

Brown will get a chance to reunite with the man who bestowed the knowledge of leadership to him on Sunday, Upon his arrival to Arizona in 2014, Brown worked closely with veteran Larry Fitzgerald, who’s in the midst of his 17th NFL season with the Cardinals. Fitzgerald has earned 261 on 33 catches thus far in 2020.

“I was able to help out because I know a lot from being around Larry Fitzgerald,” John Brown said in Chris Brown’s report. “I’m real thankful for Larry because I’m able to help these guys and I see them taking it in.”

Arizona (5-3) is coming off a 34-31 defeat at the hands of Buffalo’s divisional rivals from Miami.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags