The Buffalo Bills are on a quest, a quest to acquire the one ring that rules all others, a Superbowl Ring. On that journey, they will surely encounter challenging situations and hordes of opposing forces. As far as their fellowship is concerned it is powerful, possibly the most powerful in franchise history. All powerful entities have a weakness though and this season’s edition of the Buffalo Bills is no different. No, it’s not their leader or even a defector within their rank, instead, it’s a vulnerability they have done little to cover up, in the form of the punt return. But in the words of Galadriel, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” and that’s just the group of individuals the Bills will look to here.
Fans tend to forget just how electric Isaiah McKenzie was returning the ball early in 2021. Through the first nine weeks of the season, McKenzie was averaging 8.7 Y/PR and 27.3 Y/KR. Those averages don’t include four returns for 51 Yards and one kick return for 101 yards called back on penalties. This explosiveness and these numbers pushed McKenzie towards the top of the All-Pro conversation but didn’t come without issue.
A misplayed kick return against the Chiefs, a muffed punt return against the Jets, and an unforced fumble against the Colts resulted in concerns regarding McKenzie’s ball security. Under the McDermott regime, this often results in players being benched and very well may keep McKenzie from earning return duties in 2022. Still, McKenzie is coming off a season where he earned an All-Pro vote at KR and is the likely front-runner as the primary returner for 2022.
A holding call wipes out Isaiah McKenzie’s 101-yard kick return touchdown 😬
— Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) October 19, 2021
Outside of Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham, it’s possible Marquez Stevenson was the Bills’ most hyped rookie entering the 2021 Season. The sixth round draft pick used his above-average speed and elite acceleration to produce kick return touchdowns in his final two seasons at Houston but remained largely inexperienced as a punt returner (four since 2016). Stevenson would dash those punt return concerns quickly with a 79-Yard PR TD in the second week of Buffalo’s preseason.
An injury prior to opening day would delay his debut for the Bills until Thanksgiving Day against the Saints. In that game, Stevenson would fumble his fourth punt return, and that was indicative of how his season would play out. His rookie campaign saw him finish with 14 punt returns and seven kick returns – two of which he muffled, with one providing the Atlanta Falcons with an early 2-0 lead late in the season. Now fighting for a roster spot, Stevenson’s only path to the Bills’ 53-Man roster seems to be through Special Teams. Will ball security concerns and a severe lack of wiggle prove too much to overcome for the second-year player?
The new (old) kid on the block may be the most talented returner on the Bills roster. Austin is already an offseason darling, following in the footsteps of Brandon Reilly and Duke Williams. Nearly a decade ago, Austin was an elite returner racking up three Special Teams Player of the Week awards and a Special Teams Player of the Month award in his first three seasons. A one-time terror when returning Punts, Austin has a career 7.8 Y/PR, and still at 32 years old, the West Virginia product possesses an innate ability to make defenders miss.
Like the previous players mentioned Austin too has ball security issues with 11 muffed punts and five fumbles during his nine-year NFL career. If Austin can recapture the form that made him the 2013 No. 8 overall pick, it’s possible he could play a pivotal role for the Bills this season.
In his career Tavon Austin has
◾️ 190 Punt Returns
◾️ 11 Muffed Punts
◾️ 5 Fumbled Punts
— Hansel (@UberHansen) June 3, 2022
There is more than enough chatter about Buffalo Bills rookie wide receiver Khalil Shakir to put him on this list. Shakir is a sneaky pick for this season’s return duties, as he had a decent level of experience doing so in college. During his four seasons at Boise State, Shakir produced 24 punt returns and seven kick returns respective longs of 40 and 35.
The hope for Shakir is that his high top-end speed and unique acceleration can produce even better results in the professional return game. The Bills had a fourth-round grade on Shakir heading into the draft – indicating they will look for ways to get him on the field. A borderline darkhorse for this role, don’t be surprised if you see Shakir taking reps returning the ball as Camp opens this week.
While McKenzie, Stevenson, Austin, and Shakir are the most likely candidates for the return gig there are a few others who could make noise. Jamison Crowder had 84 punt returns in his first three pro seasons, 7.8 Y/PR and accounting for 1 Touchdown. Raheem Blackshear had 37 KR and 5 PR in college and likely needs to win this role to stick on the Bills’ 53-Man Roster. James Cook had minimal return experience in college (5 KR) but his athleticism, and hands, make him an interesting candidate for this role. Lastly, the Bills could look outside the roster to fill this role either via Trade or Free Agent. An interesting name to watch…Dede Westbrook.
Any of the names mentioned above could realistically take over return duties this season but one path seems more likely than most. There is an argument to be made that WHEN, and that’s a big WHEN, Isaiah McKenzie possesses the ball he is the most dangerous return man in the NFL. Don’t let the recency bias of his ball security issues shroud the fact that when he actually doesn’t fumble he is always a threat to take the ball deep downfield. That being said, Sean McDermott and Co. hate lost opportunities for the Offense. Best Prediction, expect McKenzie to begin the season as the primary return man with Micah Hyde stepping in at some point midway through the season.