Bills enter training camp with question marks at wide receiver

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Several minutes after the second mandatory minicamp practice ended for the Buffalo Bills, Josh Allen and the rest of the team’s quarterbacks — Mitch Trubisky and Shane Buechele — were still out on the practice field, talking and working with some of the team’s receivers and running backs, along with other small groups of players getting in more practice. They spent the extra time on route timing, and general communication and comfort.

The following day, coach Sean McDermott did something he hasn’t done in several years by holding a practice on the third day of minicamp, albeit a more relaxed version with several starters not taking part in team drills.

“Well, not necessarily [any specific changes from previous years] other than, obviously, a high percentage of new players, new faces,” McDermott said. “So, the more reps we can get the better, and listen … I would add, I appreciate the players’ willingness and their attitude when they went out there. Not all teams are practicing on the third day of minicamp, and I appreciate their attitude.”

Perhaps no position group on the roster demonstrates the new faces better than the Bills receiver room, which has undergone an almost complete makeover since the end of the 2023 season. It also remains one of the biggest question marks heading into training camp — with practices commencing on July 24 at St. John Fisher University — and the regular season.

How will Allen perform with a new set of receivers that does not include Stefon Diggs, the receiver he has targeted most in his career by far? The tight ends and running backs will play roles in the receiving game, as well, but with so many changes at receiver, what will this Bills offense look like and how will it come together?

“Every team’s a new team, but this is truly a lot of new faces,” general manager Brandon Beane said at the conclusion of minicamp. “Some players coming from other teams that have had success or maybe things didn’t work out as well, and we’ve got a fresh opportunity for them to reestablish themselves.”

Mack Hollins was one of the voices that echoed the loudest during offseason practices. Chase Claypool showed signs he can be a downfield target to watch and potentially make the roster. Curtis Samuel and Marquez Valdes-Scantling built up their comfort with quarterback Josh Allen, while rookie Keon Coleman spent one-on-one time with wide receiver coach Adam Henry during rookie minicamp.

With Diggs traded to the Houston Texans and Gabe Davis signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency, the team’s top two wide receivers from the last two seasons are gone. The only wide receiver on the roster that Allen has targeted in his career is Khalil Shakir — he suffered an injury during mandatory minicamp, though Beane said that he thinks Shakir will be OK — who is coming off a promising second season, but accounts for 2% of Allen’s career pass attempts. Diggs is responsible for 21% of Allen’s career targets, 11 percentage points higher than the next-highest player (Cole Beasley, 10%).

To replace that, the room was rebuilt in the offseason through the draft and free agency by taking chances on a variety of veterans that have shown potential in a variety of offenses.

Offensive coordinator Joe Brady, who was promoted from his interim title this offseason, made it abundantly clear that the Bills offense will continue to revolve around Allen when speaking with the media for the first time in his new role in May.

“Only time will tell. Look, at the end of the day, this is Josh Allen’s offense, right?” Brady said. “You’re gonna put together the offense around the guys that you’ve got.”

The rest of the starting offensive personnel has stayed largely the same outside of Connor McGovern moving from left guard to center with Mitch Morse’s departure. The mentality that they are taking into this year, as taught by Brady, is that “everybody eats.” The philosophy, with the season months away, can also in a way represent the contrast to the over 150 targets Diggs had each of his four seasons in Buffalo.

“That’s the mentality [Brady will] tell us all the time, ‘Everybody eats,'” Shakir said. “And that’s whether you’re running a certain route, you got to go and you got to clear for your buddy who’s coming running an out route or whatever it is. But like I said before, what goes around comes around. If you got to sit there and run a go [route] 50 times, do it full speed 50 times, then that 51st time it might be you running that out and somebody else is clearing the ball for you.”

The first step in answering some of those question marks will come when training camp begins with the competition to make the 53-man roster. There are some players that are locks, notably Samuel, Shakir and Coleman. Hollins has quickly established himself, with Shakir and others noting the presence he brings on and off the field.

“The vibe is really good [in the receiver room], because the way I see it, receivers, they all play a certain part, and they’re all not the same, and so that’s what makes it great,” wide receivers coach Adam Henry said. “And so, there’s a lot of experience in there just to pull ’em to the side. … The room is really coming together and just creating a culture.”

A variety of players in the receiver room are in prove-it situations, taking one-year contracts with one of the league’s top quarterbacks to show what they can do. Claypool is a prime example of a player who had success early in his career ­– back-to-back seasons with over 100 targets and 850 receiving yards in each — but has since struggled since then to find his place, playing on three different teams since 2022.

“If it’s frustrating to the outside world [not living up to his potential], it’s even more frustrating for me,” Claypool said. “I understand where I should be. And I understand that I haven’t met those expectations. And that’s why I work harder and harder and harder and harder every year. So, I can meet and exceed those expectations.”

Claypool has been among the players to be working late after offseason practices and made some notable plays throughout OTAs, but landing one of the 53 roster spots is not a guarantee. Going into camp, one appears likely to go to Valdes-Scantling, who flashed during his time with the Kansas City Chiefs, especially in the postseason, but was inconsistent at times (5.5% drop percentage in 2022 and 9.1% in 2023).

“Obviously I’ve been one of the better deep threats in the league for the majority of my career. And so, I’m gonna attract a lot of attention anytime I’m on the field,” Valdes-Scantling said. “And so, just being able to go out there and do whatever needs to help the team win, I’m all for it, man. I’ve had to do it before, and sometimes those balls get thrown at you.”

A clear theme for some of the Bills’ additions this year was size to help Allen — six receivers on the current roster are 6-foot-4. Two of those players, Claypool and Hollins, can contribute on special teams, which will help both in finalizing roster spots, and will be a must for whoever takes that final receiver spot with the new kickoff rules adding a wrinkle as well

The room also includes another receiver looking for another chance in KJ Hamler, a 2020 second-round pick by the Denver Broncos. He’s only played in 10 games over the last two seasons due to injury. Justin Shorter, Andy Isabella, Tyrell Shavers, Bryan Thompson and undrafted free agents Xavier Johnson and Lawrence Keys round out the room.

The continued rise of second-year tight end Dalton Kincaid will also be an emphasis for the offense, as well as if running back James Cook can improve his receiving skills, and what rookie back Ray Davis can bring as a pass-catcher.

Continuing to add to the group isn’t out of the question, however, with the limited resources, the Bills came into the offseason with, these receivers are being given chances to prove what they can do.

“The guys are really in the learning phase, too, and we’re still competing,” Henry said. “But for us right now, it’s, you compete against yourself and be the best version of yourself.”

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