This is the first in a series on the Buffalo Bills’ key needs entering NFL free agency. This installment looks at wide receiver.
It’s easy to point to wide receiver as the Bills’ most crying need.
With Josh Allen being the face of the franchise’s long-term hope for success, the bulk of the blame for the Bills’ abysmal passing naturally falls on the catchers rather than the thrower.
An equally strong, if not stronger, case can be made for the offensive line, where as many as three new starters might have to be found. But ask fans who have long exceeded their limits of frustration over the team’s inability to consistently generate game-breaking plays through the air, and they’ll tell you there had better be at least two significant additions at receiver.
For their part, coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane don’t sound as if the search for a true No. 1 receiver, something the Bills sorely lack, is keeping them up at night.
“Generally speaking, we’re looking for guys that can get open and catch the ball,” McDermott told reporters at last week’s NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I know that should go without saying, but let’s not make it more complicated than it is.”
Said Beane: “I'm not one that subscribes to a ‘No. 1 receiver.’ Receiver’s a position that comes in all sorts of sizes. You’ve got the guys that are 6-5, 6-6, and out-jumping people and going over the top. And then you’ve got some 5-7, 5-8 guys that are making plays. Even the Super Bowl champions, they've won with those types of guys. So there's a lot of different sizes, flavors, veterans, young guys, speed, size. We're just looking for good football players, good receivers that can make plays and that Josh can count on. When he throws them the ball, they're going to be where they're supposed to be and they're going to make the plays.”
Trying to get the fan base excited about Zay Jones, Robert Foster and the assortment of mediocre players who fill out the rest of the position’s depth chart is an exercise in futility.
However, finding better answers might not necessarily be as simple as busting out the checkbook for free agents, even though the Bills have plenty of cap room. The draft is believed to have some decent receiver depth – headlined by combine star D.K. Metcalf of Ole Miss – although it comes with typical uncertainty.
Making things a bit more complicated in the free-agent receiver market is the likelihood that the best available pass-catcher, Antonio Brown, isn’t a free agent. To get Brown, a team must make a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers. That doesn’t figure to appeal to the Bills, given their desire to mostly build with younger talent and the fact Brown turns 31 in July – and doesn’t always see the need to show up for practice or be on time for meetings.
For that matter, age might be a viewed as a negative for arguably the best receiver in free agency, Golden Tate, who turns 31 in August. Halfway through last season, the Detroit Lions shipped him to the Philadelphia Eagles, although they couldn’t find a way to take full advantage of his skill, which is still at the high end.
Tate does his best work from the slot – which is particularly vital in Brian Daboll’s offense – and uses as much power as finesse to get open and make plays. For being on two teams that determined he didn’t have a future with them, he still had 74 receptions for 795 yards and seven touchdowns, and has averaged about 90 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in the past five years.
One of the more compelling free-agent receivers is Tyrell Williams, a 27-year-old from the Los Angeles Chargers. He has considerable speed that, along with his 6-foot-4-inch frame, adds to the challenge of covering him. Although he only had 41 catches for 653 yards and five TDs last year, Williams did have 1,000 yards in receptions in 2016. He looks like someone who could help enhance the effectiveness of Allen’s big arm.
Jamison Crowder, from the Washington Redskins, is another intriguing free-agent receiver possibility. His situation is similar to that of Trent Murphy, a free-agent defensive end the Bills signed from the Redskins last year. As with Murphy, who missed all of the 2017 season with a knee injury after a strong ’16 campaign, Crowder was limited by an ankle injury that caused him to miss seven games in 2018 after hamstring problems bothered him the year before.
But the 5-foot-9-inch Crowder, who can play inside or out but has made his biggest impact from the slot, has a big fan in Redskins coach Jay Gruden. In four seasons in Washington, the 25-year-old Crowder has 221 receptions for 2,268 yards and 14 TDs.
Gruden was quoted on his team’s website as saying the Redskins have “to try to get him back,” adding, “He is a very young player, developing, and his best years are in front of him.”
Other free-agent receivers who could be on the Bills’ radar include:
John Brown, Baltimore Ravens. He joined the Ravens last year from the Arizona Cardinals on a one-year “prove-it” deal. The soon-to-be-29-year-old Brown proved it. He showed blazing speed that made him a strong deep threat, despite a more run-oriented offense that took hold after rookie Lamar Jackson replaced Joe Flacco at quarterback. Although he didn’t finish the season nearly as explosively as he began it (he had 27 catches for 377 yards and a pair of scores in the final 12 games after catching 15 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns in the first four), Brown still led the Ravens in receiving yards and TDs and will likely cash in. The Bills pursued him last March before he picked the Ravens.
Adam Humphries, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Another 25-year-old who should command a lot of attention for his impressive skills working from the slot. He has it all: extreme toughness, the ability to create separation in the middle of the field, and the quickness/elusiveness for meaningful gains after the catch. The 5-foot-11-inch, 195-pound Humphries was a major contributor to the NFL’s top-ranked passing attack with career-high numbers for receptions (76), yards (816) and touchdowns (five). Allen still has some work to do to make the most out of dynamic play-makers underneath coverage, but you know Daboll would love to have a weapon like this.
Donte Moncrief, Jacksonville Jaguars. After averaging 13.9 yards per catch last season on the passing-game-challenged Jaguars, the 25-year-old Moncrief established himself as a youngster worthy of close look. He could very well thrive even more with the Bills, assuming Allen takes the steps they’re expecting.
Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers. It will take some serious digging to determine what, if any, investment he’s worth. First, there’s the issue of declining production since Cobb’s breakout season in 2014, the only year he had more than 1,000 yards in receptions. Second, there are the injuries that were a significant problem last season and likely played a role in his inability to stretch the field as much as he once did. Third, there is Mike McCarthy. Was the offense that was criticized for lacking creativity and ultimately contributed to McCarthy’s firing a factor in Cobb’s regression? Fourth, how much of a role have Aaron Rodgers’ health issues played in reducing Cobb’s impact?
Devin Funchess, Carolina Panthers. No list of potential free-agent signings for the Bills would be complete without a Panther. Beane, a former Panthers front-office executive, and McDermott, their former defensive coordinator, have shown a clear tendency to lean on their Carolina comfort zone. They were with the Panthers when they made Funchess a second-round draft pick from Michigan in 2015. At 6 feet, 4 inches and 225 pounds, he offers the sort of size that would figure to make him a factor in the red zone, although he has fallen short of lofty expectations … not unlike Kelvin Benjamin, the big ex-Panther receiver for whom the Bills traded in 2017 and released late last year.
Breshad Perriman, Cleveland Browns. His considerable outside speed and tremendous athleticism could be enough to offset concerns over the dependability of his hands, lack of precision on his route-running and willingness to stand up to physical defenders. That he’s only 25 should also work to his benefit.
Dontrelle Inman, Indianapolis Colts. After joining the Colts midway through last season, he worked his way into the No. 2 receiver role. The 29-year-old Inman hasn’t been as effective as he was with the Chargers in 2016, when he had 810 receiving yards and four touchdowns, but he did score a TD in each of the Colts’ final two regular-season games and had more than 50 yards in receptions in each of their playoff games.