Andre Roberts wasn’t expecting to make it to the open market.
The Buffalo Bills didn't think he would either, but when that happened, General Manager Brandon Beane acted quickly to sign Roberts away from the New York Jets. In the process, Beane solved a problem the Bills never figured out in 2018. Roberts made the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro kick returner last season. Just like that, the Bills know who will handle kickoffs and punts for them in 2019.
“We had an up-close look at Andre last year,” Beane said last week during an appearance on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “We were up on the Jets here in Orchard Park and he had two big returns on us that were game changers and allowed them to get field position to get some scores that eventually cost us the game.”
Roberts returned five kicks for 176 yards in that December game, helping the Jets to a 27-23 win. He jokingly said last week during his introductory press conference that he didn’t want to talk about that game since he’s joined the Bills, but wasn’t shy discussing how things ended in New York.
“I think that was the biggest thing first – being able to play the Jets twice a year,” he said when asked what made Buffalo a good fit. “Coming from there, I know all about what they’re about. Being able to go against my old team is always going to be fun. … The way they kind of handled it was a little shady, but it is what it is. I'm a Buffalo Bill now, and I'm enjoying being here.”
The Jets opted not to bring back Roberts even though he led the NFL with 1,174 kickoff return yards (an average of 29.4 yards that ranked second in the league) and tied for the top spot in punt-return average at 14.1 yards.
“I was surprised,” Roberts said. “Any guy that was an All-Pro, and their team doesn't really want to sign him back, I think would be surprised. It is what it is. This is my sixth team, so I've been in free agency more than once. I understand what it is. I understand it's a business thing.”
“We kind of thought the same thing,” Beane said of the Jets’ assumed interest in retaining Roberts. “Once free agency opened, he was one of the guys we were looking into. He had an excellent year, All-Pro, Pro Bowl, and he’s a pro’s pro.”
Roberts’ age-30 season ended up being the best of his career. He turned 31 in January.
“Every team I've gone to, I've been productive. That's the reason I've been able to stay in the league,” he said. “I don't really care about the age thing, because some people say 30 is old, but I've got some guys in my class, 2010, Golden Tate, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, who are all the same age pretty much. You can call us old if you want, but we all feel young. I'm sure of that. A lot of it has to do with your mind, but my body feels great.”
Data backs that up. According to the NFL's NextGen Stats, Roberts reached 20-plus miles per hour on 9.3 percent of his touches in 2018, the third-highest percentage in the league.
Roberts played college ball at The Citadel. Bills pro scout Gerald Dixon at the time was on the coaching staff there. Roberts then entered the NFL as a third-round draft pick of the Cardinals and had four reasonably productive years as a receiver, topping out with 64 catches for 759 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. After two seasons in Washington, he’s bounced around, with stops in Detroit, Atlanta and New York the past three seasons. Roberts hasn’t had more than 188 receiving yards in a season over the last four years, but said he enters every season planning to contribute on offense.
“I never let it go. I always see myself as a receiver first and a returner second,” he said. “Teams see me as a returner first now, but I always try to refine my skills at receiver every year. … Obviously I know my role and I know how I am as a returner. I respect the fact teams see me as that. But I always come in trying to play receiver. I plan on doing that here as well.”
The Bills greatly improved their depth at receiver this offseason with the additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley in free agency. They join Zay Jones and Robert Foster atop the depth chart at the moment, and may still address the position in the draft. That means Roberts may not be in line for a lot of time on offense, but his contributions will still be meaningful.
Having one player able to return kicks and punts is a luxury. For example, the Bills were forced to use safety Micah Hyde as a punt returner at times last season. Coach Sean McDermott surely would like to keep one of his most important defensive players away from that role. Roberts can be trusted fielding punts around the goal line – he has just three muffed punts on 196 career attempts.
“I think it's pretty big for a team to have one guy handle both,” Roberts said. “Obviously there's teams around the league that have two guys doing it, but I think me being able to handle both at a high level is important.”
Rules changes designed to make the kickoff a safer play have meant fewer return attempts, but Roberts will get his chances. New Era Field, like MetLife Stadium, can get windy, meaning kickers won’t always be able to bomb the ball through the end zone for touchbacks.
“Playing in a place like this, playing in cold weather, windy weather, punters and kickers have to kick you the ball and it makes us that much more important to be able to catch it and be impactful,” Roberts said. “We have our hands on the ball just as much as some of the play-makers on offense on any given day, any given game, so we can be an impact in a good way and a bad way, and I plan on being a great impact here.”
Dixon reached out to Roberts at the start of free agency to sell him on coming to Buffalo.
“They proved to me early on that they wanted me to be here,” said Roberts, who reached out to Lorenzo Alexander, his former teammate in Arizona, before signing in Buffalo. “That means a lot to me. … I know they're building something special here.”
Roberts will be playing for a former opponent in Buffalo. New Bills special teams coordinator Heath Farwell is just 37, and played against Roberts as a member of the Seattle Seahawks from 2011-14.
“I don't think he's ever gotten a hit on me, but we did play against each other when I was in Arizona early in my career, he was in Seattle. So we crossed paths,” Roberts said. “When you have a coach, regardless of whether it's special teams, offense or defense, who played the game, it means a lot more. They understand what you're going through and what you have to deal with. They get it.”