PITTSFORD – The need was clear a year ago. The Buffalo Bills' offense, and especially their passing game, doesn't work without a highly effective slot receiver.
They didn't have one in 2018. They set out to find one when free agency began in March.
And there he was Sunday, putting on a show during the fourth practice of training camp at St. John Fisher College. No. 10 in the white jersey, the guy on the receiving end of six of the 12 passes Josh Allen completed during 11-on-11 drills.
Get used to seeing plenty of that from Cole Beasley. Or, shall we say, the Bills are desperately hoping that will be the case.
Think Julian Edelman with the New England Patriots, making all of those fast grabs within 10 or 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Sneaking in and out of traffic. Snatching the ball inches above the grass while diving to the ground. Frustrating defender after defender left wondering how he was beaten for a first down or touchdown.
Of course, having Tom Brady throwing the ball is no small part of the equation. But with former Patriots assistant coach Brian Daboll in charge of the Bills' offense, a major factor in moving the ball through the air involves that shifty, savvy, go-to weapon.
The thinking behind signing Beasley to a four-year, $29 million contract (including a $6 million signing bonus and $14.4 million in guaranteed money) was so Allen would have his version of Edelman. Beasley, entering his eighth NFL season after spending the past seven years with the Dallas Cowboys, understands that as well as anyone.
"I've got so much respect for that dude," he said of Edelman. "I've watched him even before I came here. I watched him a ton. So even though I wasn't running the same routes, you can still kind of take little niches out of his game and apply it.
"I'm never a guy that thinks I'm too good or anything to watch another player. There's always something you can grab from somebody else. And I've watched a lot of him."
At 5 feet, 8 inches and 174 pounds, Beasley has the classic frame for a slot receiver to go along with skills that produced 39 first-down catches for the Cowboys last season. The best of those, and the top attraction for the Bills, is the short-area quickness necessary to provide the open target for Allen to find almost instantly after taking the snap.
The first thoughts that come to Allen’s mind when he’s asked to describe Beasley are “really smart, really elusive and really shifty.”
”He gets so low to the ground when he’s running his routes and getting in and out of his cuts,” the quarterback said. “He’s shown why he was a really good target on third down last year, and he’s going to be very vital in this offense here.”
You'll easily know when the Bills' offense has found its groove this season. Allen and Beasley will be connecting on pass after pass, mostly on short and intermediate routes that start and/or finish inside. The goal is for their collaborations to draw greater attention from the defense and open opportunities for longer completions to the outside, while helping to loosen things for the running game.
"His separation quicks at the top of the route is the best thing he does," Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said of Beasley. "There were several guys that we looked at that were slot players that we thought could help us. Those guys did some things better than him, but the one thing that he did was, at the top of the route, his immediate separation was elite.
"You know, Cole is not a big run-after-catch guy. But he's a great safety valve. He can make plays with (the ball), but that's not going to be his No. 1 skill set. His thing is going to be to get open, create separation, make plays and be an outlet for Josh at all times inside."
That starts with Beasley's impressive knack for not giving away the type of route he's going to run before the snap.
He makes sure his stance and body language offer no hints to a defender looking for the tiniest edge he can find when lined up across from him. Will he be running to the left? The right? Faking one way and going another?
There are all sorts of tells that can be found through studying videotape. However, the 30-year-old son of a football coach is ultra careful to offer no such assistance, something he credits to being a teammate of veteran Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.
"He was one of the best route runners I've ever seen," Beasley said. "He makes all of his routes look the same. It could be four different routes, but how it starts is always the same. And that's why he's had so much success in the league, it's why he's one of the best tight ends that's ever played.
"So then I tried to find different ways to use what I do, and take a little bit from him, because we're two completely different players and our styles are different. But you can still take little things from players here and there. I've taken so many things from other players across the league. There's a lot of good guys to watch. You just have to be humble enough to look for those guys and take that."
He wasn't quite so humble making public his dissatisfaction over his role with the Cowboys, who signed him in 2012 as an undrafted free agent from Southern Methodist University. Beasley strongly believed he could contribute more to the offense.
In 2016, he led the Cowboys in receptions (75) and receiving yards (833). However, the next season he had 36 catches for 314 yards, followed by 65 for 672 last year. For his career, Beasley has 319 receptions for 3,271 yards and 23 touchdowns. Amongst undrafted players who have been in the NFL since 2012, he ranks fourth with 319 receptions and sixth with 3,271 receiving yards.
"I think a lot of people view that as a negative thing, me voicing my opinion, but I don't think it's ever a bad thing," Beasley said. "You know, when you're as competitive as I am, you just want to do more. You want more responsibility, you think you can handle more responsibility. And I really felt like I could have helped my team win a lot more than they kind of let me, so I was really happy to have this opportunity and very fortunate to keep playing and get in a system like I'm in now."
Guiding a team in the AFC East, Bills coach Sean McDermott knows that system well. His background as a defensive coordinator makes him acutely aware of the sort of problems he is looking for Beasley to present to opponents.
"If you look at it from a defensive standpoint, it’s a match up game," McDermott said. "So one of the first things you look at defensively is how well you match up or don’t match up with the various pieces that the offense brings to the table, in this case in the slot with Cole. It’s a tough match up for some people. I’ve gotten to know Cole and when you spend a couple days with him or around him, you get a feel pretty quick that he has football intelligence."
Much of that shows when it comes to Beasley's recognition of coverages. He also shows exceptional instincts on where to go and how to get there.
"Some guys, they will run themselves into coverage, because they don't pick it up and that's bad," Beane said. "It takes a feel. You cannot just put anybody inside. He has a great feel for where the hole is. Now, the key will be for Josh and him to get on the same page. It's just getting that rapport with Josh, so that Josh has the feel with him of where he's going to be. Because that window only stays open so long for Josh to go and hit it and get it to him."
A year ago, that window remained closed for virtually the entire season. If the Bills are to have any sort of success on offense this season, Beasley's presence must pry it open much more frequently.