Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie sat out of the Buffalo Bills’ Wild Card round win last Sunday with a hamstring injury. Fifth-round rookie Khalil Shakir stepped in for the veteran slot receiver, just as he did when McKenzie missed the team’s Week 5 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Across those two games, Shakir racked up 126 yards on six catches and was an overturned catch away from having over 150 yards in his two games as the primary slot option. With McKenzie being a full participant in practice this week, the question is, has Shakir shown enough to justify taking over McKenzie’s role? Can he be a difference-maker for the Bills in what is hopefully a deep playoff run?
Let’s start with McKenzie, as he has a bigger sample size to pick through. Isaiah McKenzie lined up in the slot 80.2% of the time. He racked up five drops resulting in a drop rate of 10.6%, which is eighth worst among qualifying receivers in the entire NFL. McKenzie was targeted within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage 64.5% of the time, which was by far his most efficient area of the field, with a 103 passer rating when targeted. He also averaged 3.1 yards-after-catch per reception, good for about average among NFL wide receivers.
Khalil Shakir’s numbers require more context. He lined up in the slot for 60.6% of his snaps, but when McKenzie was out, he lined up in the slot for 89% and 79% of his snaps. Including the postseason, he dropped two passes on 21 targets, one being an overturned catch in Sunday’s Wild Cardgame. The depth of Shakir’s receptions was more diverse than McKenzie’s; 38% of Shakir’s targets were 20 yards or more downfield, followed by 33% coming with 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He averaged 5.8 YAC per reception which, if sustained over a qualifying amount of targets, would be among the best in the NFL.
Bengals Match Up
Mike Hilton has been one of the NFL’s best slot corners in 2022. Hilton ranks 14th among corners with at least 20 slot targets in completion percentage allowed and 13th in passer rating allowed. As a team, the Bengals were eighth in completion percentage allowed out of the slot with 57.3% per SIS and had the sixth-best EPA per pass attempt against slot corners (tied with the Bills coincidentally). The Bengals have a strong pass defense at 10th EPA allowed per pass.
Before I interject my opinion, I want to make an argument for both. I’ll start with the veteran McKenzie, and therein lies his first advantage. He has years of experience with Josh Allen, in the offense, in high-leverage moments. “Trust” is not a quantifiable trait but in an offense that can rely on improvisation, having someone with years of experience in those moments is invaluable. Additionally, though it’s not often used, McKenzie is the only player on the roster the Bills have used in a “gadget” capacity.
For Shakir, to start, there is no drop off in physical ability from McKenzie. They share nearly identical 40 times, while Shakir is four inches taller and ~20 pounds heavier. Shakir has shown an ability to play inside or outside as needed. He has shown (in a limited sample size) to be a vertical downfield threat out of the slot, something the team has not seen regularly from McKenzie. And if you believe a “lack of tape” on a player can be an advantage, there certainly wouldn’t be much for defensive coordinators to pull from to try to gameplan against him.
So this brings us back to our original questions, should Khalil Shakir keep his starter spot? Can he continue to be a difference-maker? It comes down to trust. Despite the traits and the numbers, there has to be a reason why Shakir had only seen significant integration into the offense twice this season. But in those two games, Shakir contributed significantly. If he has earned the trust of Josh Allen and the coaching staff, Shakir appears ready to take control of a starting spot on this offense.