The Buffalo Bills had a position battle heating up throughout training camp and the preseason as speedy rookie Marquez Stevenson and veteran Isaiah McKenzie vied to take over kick-returning duties for the Bills.
The job ended up going to McKenzie as Stevenson was forced to start the season on IR, but his impending return could leave the Bills without another tough decision. McKenzie has been solid returning punts and kickoffs for the Bills, but a miscue on an unusual kick last week handed possession to the Washington Football Team. He now could face a challenge from the rookie once he returns to the team.
The latest Bills news straight to your inbox! Join the Heavy on Bills newsletter here!
Stevenson Could Return Soon
Just before the start of the season, the Bills announced that Stevenson was headed to IR as he dealt with a lingering ankle/foot injury along with a head injury. The rookie is now eligible to return, but Bills head coach Sean McDermott said that he would not be activated for the Oct. 3 matchup against the Houston Texans.
“We’ll take it one game at a time,” McDermott said.
There are signs that Stevenson could be ready to return fairly soon. As The Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia reported, the speedy wide receiver has been seen doing running drills on the sidelines during the last two weeks of practice. As USA Today’s Nick Wojton noted, when the Bills do choose to activate Stevenson, the team will have 21 days to add him to the active roster or else he will go back on IR for the rest of the season.
Being activated would not necessarily mean Stevenson will see playing time, Wojton added.
“Last season, the Bills kept wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins around in their IR all season and then he was activated late in the year. However, he was reverted back,” Wojton wrote.
Stevenson Could Offer Competition
When he does return, Stevenson could mount a challenge to McKenzie’s position as the team’s designated kick and punt returner. Stevenson excelled at returning kicks during the preseason, returning a punt 79 yards for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears. He also made one of the biggest plays in the preseason win over the Detroit Lions, making a 42-yard catch on 4th-and-10 on what ended up being the game-winning drive.
“Impressed with what he did. Obviously, the big play with the return game and he did some good things again at receiver,” McDermott said, via ESPN. “Two games and he’s done some things that catch your eye.”
McKenzie has excelled in his role as returner during the season — leading the NFL in kick return average and third in punt return average — but has made some key mistakes. In Sunday’s win over Washington, he misplayed a short kick, allowing it to bounce and be recovered by Washington.
McKenzie has a history of struggles in the return game. After being taken by the Denver Broncos in the fifth round of the 2017 draft, he was cut just before the start of the next season after fumbling six times and losing his job as punt returner. McKenzie seems to have put those struggles in the past, with no fumbles in any of the last three seasons with the Bills.