The Buffalo Bills lost one of the most reliable wide receivers this offseason with the release of Cole Beasley, but some insiders believe the free agent who came to replace him could be more than ready to fill his shoes.
The Bills granted Beasley a release in March after failing to find a partner to fulfill his trade request, leaving a major hole in the passing game. The 10-year veteran had 231 catches for 2,438 yards and 11 touchdowns over the course of his three seasons in Buffalo, becoming a reliable third-down target for Josh Allen.
The Bills signed former New York Jets wide receiver Jamison Crowder after Beasley’s release, and he is expected to earn a significant chunk of the slot targets. Though the team has yet to play in real-game situations, Crowder has made a strong early impression.
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ESPN’s Alaina Getzenberg identified Crowder as Buffalo’s biggest standout through OTAs and minicamp, noting that he is shaping into the player the Bills hoped he could be. Crowder has proven to be a productive slot receiver throughout his career, catching at least 50 passes in six of his seven seasons in the league — and all despite a less-than-stellar passing attack with the Jets.
“While speedy Isaiah McKenzie appears to have an early lead in the battle to take over Cole Beasley’s slot receiver role, Crowder looked solid during offseason work in his first offseason with the Bills,” Getzenberg wrote. “After finishing his time with the Jets dealing with injuries (despite having 833 receiving yards in his first season with the team in 2019), Crowder might have found a good fit in Buffalo. The competition between McKenzie and Crowder for playing time at slot receiver will be one to watch in training camp.”
Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports also pegged Crowder as one of the top breakout candidates among this year’s free-agent class. He noted that Allen has a knack for finding receivers open underneath, with Beasley racking up more than 100 targets in all three of his seasons in Buffalo, and Crowder could move into that role.
“That new underneath option now happens to be Crowder, and everything about his signing in Buffalo has legitimate Beasley feels,” Trapasso wrote.
Tough Competition in the Slot
As Getzenberg noted, there could be plenty of competition for the slot targets in the coming season. Though he was used mostly as a kick and punt returner and jet-sweep specialist for the Bills, McKenzie has the most experience in the offense and flexed his slot receiving prowess while Beasley was on the COVID-19 list late last season. In a key Week 16 game against the New England Patriots with Beasley out, McKenzie caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown.
The Bills could also have a wild card in rookie Khalil Shakir, who is seen as an all-around threat. ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller called Shakir a steal in the fifth round and noted that his game is similar to San Francisco 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel.
“Bills getting Khalil Shakir in Round 5 is a steal in my book,” Miller tweeted. “The Deebo comp has been overused, but Shakir can be used in a similar manner–albeit a poor man’s version of Samuel’s all-around game. Get him into a creative offense and he can be a weapon.”