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New Bills returner Andre Roberts expects to 'impact the team in a big way'

Andre Roberts understands why the Buffalo Bills made him one of their priority signings in free agency early in the offseason.

Could he help them at wide receiver, one of their primary positions of need? Sure, although probably not to the same extent as fellow newcomers John Brown and Cole Beasley.

The Bills signed Roberts to a reported two-year contract that includes a $1 million signing bonus and a guaranteed base salary of $2 million in 2019 mainly because of his prowess as a kick returner. After ranking 24th in the NFL with 21.2 yards per kickoff return and 21st with 6.7 yards per punt return, while failing to score a touchdown in either category, they knew they had to do something.

"I feel like I'm going to impact the team in a big way," Roberts told The Buffalo News during the offseason workouts.

If recent history is any indication, there's every reason to believe he will.

Although Roberts is 31 and entering his 10th NFL season, he appears to very much have what it takes to be a difference-maker on kickoff and punt returns. During a one-year stint with the New York Jets last season, he led the league in kickoff yards with 1,174 and was second with an average of 29.4 yards per kickoff return. One of his returns, a 99-yarder against the Green Bay Packers, went for a touchdown.

Roberts also led the NFL by averaging 14.1 yards in punt returns, scoring a TD on one, and became the Jets' first Associated Press All-Pro selection since 2011.

"I think the return spot is a very special part of special teams," he said. "I know I'm going to have the ball in my hands a lot. There's a lot of people's jobs on the line when it's kicked, so I take a lot of pride in it and I work hard and be the best I can be."

The Bills have not forgotten the impact Roberts had on the Jets' 27-23 victory on Dec. 9 at New Era Field. He averaged 35.2 yards on five kickoff returns, including an 86-yarder that set up a second-quarter touchdown.

"He kicked our butts here," Bills quarterback Josh Allen told reporters at the end of mandatory minicamp.

Given Roberts' tremendous production, why would the Jets have allowed him to get away? It's a question Roberts wondered about at the time while dealing with the blow of shockingly being unwanted by a team to which he made such a significant contribution.

"Yeah, back when it happened," said Roberts, who caught 10 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown for the Jets. "But now, I really don't even care. I love it here and I'm enjoying every single day. The atmosphere here that coach (Sean) McDermott brings and what he expects is pretty awesome. And I love it."

Still, he has two dates mentally circled: Sept. 8, when the Bills open the season against the Jets at MetLife Stadium, and Dec. 29, when they close the regular-season schedule against them at New Era Field.

"Of course, of course," said Roberts, who also played for the Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions, and Atlanta Falcons. "I want to play well those two games for sure. But each and every game is very important and I'll treat it as such."

The graduate of The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina -- where he excelled in football and track -- is meticulous about his craft as a returner. He takes nothing for granted when it comes to each phase.

"First, catching the ball," Roberts said. "And pretty much making the first guy miss. I know my guys are going to be working hard to get blocks. But my job as a returner, if they do slip up on a block, is to make their guy miss. You can't be great and score touchdowns if you don't make the first guy miss us, so that's always the goal."

His elusiveness has more to do with instincts and the ability to recognize and anticipate how opponents cover kicks than exceptional physical qualities. Roberts will readily acknowledge he doesn't rely on extraordinary speed, even though he's plenty fast.

At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, he's large enough and strong enough to be physical on returns, especially wtih kickoffs.

"I'll go full speed through those holes and sometimes I might get hit pretty hard," said Roberts, who in nine NFL seasons has 5,335 yards and five touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns. "But the effort that I try to bring to the to the return game, I think, is second to none. I go hard every single time trying to score a touchdown.

"Sometimes you have to take what the punt team or the kickoff team gives you. But for the most part, when I get the ball in my hands, I try to something special."

Roberts and new Bills special teams coach Heath Farwell spent a good deal of time during the offseason discussing ways to maximize the returner's effectiveness.

"(Farwell's) going to take a little bit of what I did last year and my skill set and try to marry that with what he's doing with his scheme," Roberts said. "Just based on some of the big returns we had last year with the Jets, trying to scheme it up similar to that and just using my skill set. I'm not really the quick, shifty, smaller kind of guy. Sometimes I can hit it in the middle and just go full speed. We're going to work on that with the schemes that he has."

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