This is the fourth question in a series featuring the Bills’ training camp. Today: Who emerges as the top wide receiver at the slot position?
Cole Beasley was hard to replace in the Buffalo Bills’ offense last season.
He was so hard to replace that they brought him back in mid-December in a last-ditch move to improve the possession receiving game.
Entering training camp this month, the question remains: Do the Bills have a good enough wideout to fill the slot receiver role?
Drafting tight end Dalton Kincaid in the first round is designed to solve some of the problem.
“We think he’ll pair well with Dawson (Knox) and give us another target in the middle of the field,” Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said.
No doubt Hines will continue to make an impact as a kick/punt returner this year. But when he enters training camp on July 25, what role will he have offensively? Will it be a big role?
But even if Kincaid exceeds lofty expectations as a rookie, the Bills still need a wide receiver to emerge as a go-to target from the slot.
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The Bills used the 3-receiver set – 11 people – on 70.2% of their snaps last year, which was top five in the NFL. The NFL average for 11 hires was 62%.
The Bills will increase their use of 12 personnel (two tight ends) with Kincaid in the opener. But no matter how much Kincaid plays, the Bills will go “major” in 11 man – like pretty much every other team in the NFL. The 11-man set will still be in the 60% range.
That means a new wide receiver has to emerge.
The Bills let Isaiah McKenzie walk in free agency. He signed with Indianapolis. McKenzie caught 38 of his 42 passes last year from the slot, tops on the team and 14th most in the league. Beasley had 69 catches from the field in 2021, which was second in the league.
Overall, the Bills had 32 fewer catches from the field last year compared to 2021 (and those are proportional numbers to account for the 16-game schedule last year after the NFL opted not to resume the Bills’ Jan. 2 game at Cincinnati ) .
It wasn’t a huge drop, but it was a problem. McKenzie was a non-factor the last month of the season. Quarterback Josh Allen didn’t trust him enough to go to him in key, chain-moving situations.
Who can Allen count on as a slot wideout this year?
There are three top candidates.
Second-year man Khalil Shakir, who played 50% of his snaps as a rookie in the slot. Shakir had 12 of his 15 total catches from the field, including the playoff game.
New Orleans free-agent signee Deonte Harty, whose 4.39-second 40-yard dash makes him a threat after the catch. (That was an unofficial time from his pro day.) Harty had 36 catches for 570 yards for the Saints in 2021, a whopping 15.8-yard average. He played 35% of his snaps from the slot that year and had 16 of his catches from the slot.
Sixth-year veteran Trent Sherfield, a free agent from Miami. He had 30 catches for 417 yards for the Dolphins last year. He played 50% of his snaps in the slot and had 13 catches from the slot.
As the snap percentages show, all three candidates are not strictly slot men. They can see the time outside or inside.
Shakir finished last season on a streak with six catches for 119 yards in the final three games. He’s no slouch in the speed department either, clocking 4.43 seconds in the 40. (McKenzie ran 4.42).
Shakir, 6-foot-196, looked really good in spring training. He believes that last year’s experience helps.
“I just want to say you understand the offense as a whole,” he told The News regarding his outlook this spring. “When you come in, the playbook from college to the league is a little different. It’s a lot more. But at the end of the day for me, it’s sticking to what I know. That means studying everything every single day and showing the coaches , that I know all the different positions and make sure I stay on top as well. A big thing for me is that even though I’ve been in the offense for a year and know more and have things a little bit slower for me, not comfortable. To continue to always study the way I study when I first got here and stay on top of things.”
Harty, 5-7 and 171, is arguably the most dangerous with the ball in his hands. He could be valuable on jet-sweep action, which McKenzie did a lot.
“I feel like the thing I bring the most is evasion and speed,” Harty said. “So, being able to stretch the field and open up the field a little bit more and then just, you know, being able to run the quick, short routes and just get the ball into space and just make explosive plays.”
Don’t count Sherfield out either. He has good size at 6-foot-206 and runs 4.45.
“It’s not just about being fast, but it’s like, OK, how can I be fast with the right mechanics and learn to run,” he said. “Coming off the ball and making sure (I’m) quarterback friendly, I think those are two things right now that I have in mind.”