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2017 Buffalo Bills All-22 in Review: Wide Receivers

Posted: 1:22 PM, Jan 31, 2018
Updated: 2018-01-31 18:22:24Z

For the Buffalo Bills and all but two franchises in the NFL, the reality of the offseason has set in. Preparations by teams of how to attack the offseason, their own free agents, and late April’s draft are starting to take hold.

So as the next deadlines start to creep up, WKBW.com is taking a hard look at the roster and evaluating what happened in 2017, what could be on the horizon in 2018, and a recommendation for what to do moving forward. The grades you’ll see attached to the players are the result of film study of each and every week throughout the 2017 season for the Buffalo Bills.

Next up, we head to the offensive side of the ball and take a look at the wide receivers:

2017 In Review
*In order of 2017 Grade Point Average

Kelvin Benjamin
2017 Season GPA: 2.87 (Snap Count: 284)
2018 Contract Status: $8.459 million cap hit, signed through 2018 on option year
Age: 26 (DOB: 2/5/1991)

- It was a truly challenging season for Kelvin Benjamin after being acquired by the Bills for a 2018 third-round pick, but one that showed a lot of promise even through a fairly significant injury. Even when injured, it was pretty clear that he was the best option that they had at wide receiver — which goes to show how much talent he has, and really, how little depth the Bills had at wide receiver around him. When Benjamin was the focal point of the passing offense — however fleeting those moments were — he was a matchup nightmare for opponents not in the traditional sense, but in dominating the underneath areas and the red zone. His highlights include early on against the New Orleans Saints before Tyrod Taylor didn’t look his way the rest of the game, the Indianapolis Colts snow game, his outright dominance underneath against Stephon Gilmore and the New England Patriots — they all showed that he has a lot to him when he was injured. For the Bills, they shouldn’t think twice about keeping that fifth-year option unless something goes horribly wrong with his knee surgery. He might not be a true number-one receiver, but he is a fantastic number-two… and one that can play the role of the top receiver if they do not add a top target.

Jordan Matthews
2017 Season GPA: 2.78 (Snap Count: 509)
2018 Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Age: 25 (DOB: 7/16/1992)

- Jordan Matthews had his moments early on in the season, but it was pretty clear that he just never really fit in with the Bills. He faded into the background in far too many games, and with a quarterback that likes to see a lot of separation to pull the trigger, Matthews just didn’t give enough of a cushion to garner many targets his way. It had to be a frustrating season for him, especially given the success of his former team and with him heading into his first look at unrestricted free agency. His performance through the first four weeks was his best stretch of the season, but even then, he wasn’t as much of an impact player as the Bills had hoped for.

Andre Holmes
2017 Season GPA: 2.77 (Snap Count: 340)
2018 Contract Status: $1.75 million cap hit, signed through 2019
Age: 29 (6/16/1988)

- Special teams were the name of the game for Andre Holmes, who when active, was in on over 54-percent of the teams special teams snaps — which was one of the highest percentages on the team in 2017. On offense, Holmes served as a player used to run block, on third downs, and in the red zone area earlier in the season, which made him quite a valuable fourth wide receiver. Even with other options like Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones, there were quite a few times where Tyrod Taylor looked for Andre Holmes on third downs, and he made several key pickups through the year. Now that a compensatory selection is no longer on the line, the Bills should keep him on the roster in 2018 as a key special teams piece.

Zay Jones
2017 Season GPA: 2.71 (Snap Count: 847)
2018 Contract Status: ~$1.541 million cap hit, signed through 2020
Age: 22 (3/30/1995)

- A key part to the Bills 2017 NFL Draft, the second-round pick really struggled to find his place in the offense for long stretches of his rookie season. Early on in the season, it was well-chronicled about how drops had defined him, and you could tell he was in his head with a skill that is second nature to him. After he shook that off, he had a four-game stretch in the middle of the year — against Oakland, the NY Jets, the LA Chargers, and Kansas City — that Jones was showing the potential the Bills saw in him when they traded up to select him. Then, to end the year, Jones disappeared once more, making only two catches on six targets over the final three weeks. He likely would have benefitted by not seeing the most snaps of any wide receiver on the roster in 2017, but injuries necessitated him taking as many as he did. The key for 2018 will be finding the right role for him, and to help him become the player they hoped he would when they drafted him. He certainly has the maturity and self-awareness required in the league, but it’s a matter of results and the right role.

Brandon Tate
2017 Season GPA: 2.71 (Snap Count: 154)
2018 Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Age: 30 (10/5/1987)

- Tate was mostly a return specialist for the Bills, but did step into an offensive role when injuries dictated that he did so. His big moment of the 2017 season was an unforgettable one for a lot of fans, when he took a short reception on a key late-game situation against Oakland, and turned it into a big gain by making a bunch of opponents miss — and was mobbed my teammates on the sidelines when he ran out of bounds. From a return perspective, it always felt like Tate was due to make a big play with his good vision, but it never came to fruition. He’ll be 31 next season and an unrestricted free agent, so that should probably make the Bills want to add competition for their main return specialist — considering they were actively trying others in the return game through the season (see: Kaelin Clay). In the meantime, I wouldn’t be surprised if they signed him to another one-year deal worth under $1 million, which would at least give them one option to return kicks next season if they can’t add another.

Deonte Thompson
2017 Season GPA: 2.67 (Snap Count: 541)
2018 Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
Age: 28 (DOB: 2/14/1989)

- The odds were certainly working against him when he was signed by the Buffalo Bills in the middle of the year, but given how much time he had to acclimate himself, his performance in the season was admirable. Given the expectation of a player signed on a small one-year contract, the performance they got from him in key moments was spectacular. If it wasn’t for his incredible reception in overtime in the snow game against Indianapolis on a lottery ticket throw from Joe Webb, the Bills likely only tie or worse in that contest. The playoff game was not his best, where he ran short of the sticks on a first down chance on one play, and held on a bit too long to the defender as LeSean McCoy ran by for a huge gain that was called back due to his holding call. However, there was plenty to like as a depth player and fringe starter for the Bills in 2017 — especially considering that he was playing from behind in trying to learn the offense on the fly.

Those that did not have a snap in 2017 but are signed for 2018: Brandon Reilly, Malachi Dupre, Rod Streater, Quan Bray

Recommendations for 2018

1) Let Jordan Matthews walk
- This is a pretty easy decision if you ask me. One of the things that GM Brandon Beane doesn’t get enough credit for in those two summer trades he made — one of which yielding Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick from Philadelphia — is the foresight he showed in the players he acquired. Beane is exceptionally well-versed in the compensatory pick formula, and he likely knew  that in Matthews — given the position he plays, how much it gets on the open market, his prior success in Philadelphia, and that he had an expiring contract — that the Bills could not only get a starting caliber receiver for 2017, but that it could yield another player in the form of a draft pick that will be signed to a cheap contract for four seasons. It will certainly take a team to value him highly, but still only a 25-year-old player that was highly productive for multiple seasons, you’d have to expect he makes a solid penny on the open market, which could yield the Bills two long-term players for the price of a cornerback in Ronald Darby that just didn’t fit their scheme. The Bills should let Matthews walk, and not think twice about it.

2) Move Zay Jones to the slot
- I mentioned above that finding the right role for Zay Jones will be critical to his success in the NFL, which leads me to believe that he was a bit miscast in 2017 mainly due to the necessity brought on by multiple injuries. After seeing what he did and how effective he was at the college level — and even in the brief times that he was in the slot for the Bills in 2017 — I think it would stand to benefit all parties involved if they made him the key slot receiver in 2018 and beyond. Think about his key attributes: he’s an exceptional route runner with quick feet, and he’s also a tall and long player. That combination could make him a dependable weapon for the next version of the Bills offense, while taking away a lot of the pressure for him to either be a burner on the outside or to out-physical defensive backs, which are two areas where he isn’t at his strongest. Just as much as Tyrod Taylor was miscast by former offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, I feel similarly about what was done to Zay Jones in 2017. They should put him in the slot, and let him get re-acclimated with spot on the offense that he’s been productive with in the past.

3) Re-sign Deonte Thompson
- The Bills, given their salary cap situation and the fact that they still have all of Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, and Andre Holmes signed in 2018, likely aren’t in a position to add a top flight wide receiver to the roster this offseason. However, for the production they received from mid-season acquisition Deonte Thompson, I wouldn’t think twice about bringing him back on another one-year deal. His demand likely won’t be insane on the open market, and they could probably secure his services for under $1 million on the cap this year. He’d be solid enough to use in three wide receiver sets as a boundary receiver with Kelvin Benjamin, and provides a speed element that no one else at that position has on the Bills roster. As compared to his low cap hit last year and potentially next year, his production makes him quite intriguing to bring back.

4) Select a WR on Day Three of the NFL Draft
- As I pointed out, the Bills likely won’t be able to add a top flight wide receiver in 2018 due to all the other holes they have to fill, and because they spent two huge resources — a second-round pick in 2017, and a third-round pick in 2018 — on Zay Jones and Kelvin Benjamin. So, with three selections early on Day Three of the 2018 NFL Draft, that is a perfect spot to add a receiver that boasts some potential, and that can mix in on special teams and occasionally on offense in the meantime. That would allow the group of Benjamin, Jones, Holmes, Thompson (if they re-sign him), Rod Streater, Malachi Dupre, Brandon Reilly, and whomever they draft in the fourth or fifth-round to battle it out for playing time and roster spots.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia