The race for roster spots at wide receiver with the Buffalo Bills will be a long one.
Coming out of the gates, however, Andre Holmes has the lead.
The veteran, who was signed as a free agent after four years with the Oakland Raiders, took advantage when those ahead of him on the depth chart missed time because of injuries. With Sammy Watkins (foot) and Zay Jones (knee) missing time, Holmes lined up with the starters throughout the spring. He looked good in doing so, too, according to coach Sean McDermott.
“I’ll tell you the guy that’s really stood out has been Andre,” McDermott said. “He’s done a phenomenal job, not only on offense, but also special teams. Very solid performer day to day, consistent and just really – that’s been a nice pickup for us so far and I really appreciate his leadership.”
Holmes, 29, was stuck behind Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree the last two seasons, so his opportunities were limited. Over that time, he appeared in all 32 games, but made just three starts and had 28 catches for 327 yards. Seven of those receptions, however, went for touchdowns, an indication of the type of ability he has in the red zone.
The Bills signed him to a modest contract – three years and up to $5.15 million, with just a $1.4 million charge against the 2017 salary cap. It's the type of deal the Bills could get out of at any time if they felt Holmes wasn't performing well enough – or there was another motivating factor. One example: Holmes factors into the compensatory draft formula. If the Bills released him and two other such players (like defensive end Ryan White, guard Vlad Ducasse and/or kicker Stephen Hauschka) they could receive a third-round draft pick for Stephon Gilmore signing with New England.
With Ducasse sharing starting reps at right guard and Holmes spending plenty of time with the first team, however, that's looking like a remote possibility.
“When you look at the target in the free-agency time period there, we identified players that we felt fit what we were looking for and our DNA,” McDermott said. “The body of work that he’s exhibited since coming into the Bills’ organization has been exactly what we thought, if not more. The intangibles, the DNA again. He’s built like we want them to be built in terms of the insides and he’s a servant. He leads, he plays special teams, he puts the team first and those are the qualities we look for in our players.”
Holmes took the glass-half-full approach to having limited opportunities over the past two seasons.
“The way I looked at it was, for those two years I was able to learn so much from them,” he said of Cooper and Crabtree. “It allowed me to grow as the player I am today. I always look at anything that people might think of as a negative, as a positive.”
There is evidence to suggest Holmes, at 6-4, 210 pounds, can be more than just a bit player on offense. In 2014, he had 47 catches for 693 yards and four touchdowns. For comparision’s sake, Robert Woods averaged 51 catches for 612 yards and three touchdowns per season in his four years with the Bills.
“He can bring a lot to the table,” quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “We haven’t had a big target, I haven’t had a big target, other than Justin Hunter last year, since the time I’ve been here." Andre "is very comfortable in the position he’s in now. He will continue to keep working and making a lot of plays down the field, stretch the defense, go up and get the jump ball – he’s a complete receiver.”
Taylor plans on gathering the Bills’ receivers in Georgia during the break before training camp to continue to build chemistry, which might be even more important this year when considering the Bills figure to have a brand new receiving corps behind Watkins.
“We’ve been able to develop a lot,” Holmes said of working with Taylor. “Whether it was before the OTA period, before phase two, in this mini-camp. There’s always different situations all the time in which we learn together as a whole group. We’ve been doing a great job at doing that. It’s just all positive feedback on both sides. If there is a miscommunication or we’re just a little off, we’ll talk about it; or if I see something I’ll tell him, if he sees something he’ll tell me. Also, positive reinforcement as far as if we make a play, we’re going to acknowledge each other – It’s good communication.
"I think I have a chance to make a lot of plays in this offense to help the team out a lot. I’m really excited for this year, and we’ve been putting the work in to make this offense explosive. The system looks really good."