While the Buffalo Bills have one of the most talented rosters that they’ve had in nearly two decades, some difficult decisions are going to emerge in order to cut the roster down to size. In years past, the use of a return specialist would cause no debate at all. If the player simply improved the return unit, then why would there be any consideration of cutting him? However, walking into 2020 the Bills have a crowded room of wide receivers that will be competing to make the team. There’s a trio of locks in Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and John Brown, and then a likely lock in Gabriel Davis being the team’s fourth-round draft pick. After that, there’s going to be an intense competition between Isaiah McKenzie, Andre Roberts, Duke Williams, Isaiah Hodgins, Robert Foster, and others to make the final 53. As of right now, it seems that there’s an assumption that Andre Roberts has a leg up on the rest of the room because he’s the Bills’ return specialist. With that being said, I find that there’s a pressing question of whether he’s worth the extra roster spot and how the Bills compare to the rest of the league here.
I gathered data and crunched some numbers on return specialists around the league to see what they should be expected to contribute to their respective teams outside of the return game, and the results weren’t in Roberts’ favor. Pro Football Reference has an “AV” statistic, or Approximate Value. With the AV stat, PFR attempts to attach a value to every player’s season based on their statistical contributions to their team. A zero would deem the player essentially useless, while a low-level depth contributor finds himself around a two or three, and a Pro Bowl season is generally around eight. There aren’t specific rules to these numbers, and the numbers provided are just general benchmarks.
Of all kick and punt returners with more than ten combined returns, the Bills are one of only six teams to roster a player with a zero AV for more than half the season. Essentially, this means that the Bills are one of only six teams in the NFL to carry a true return specialist. A zero AV says that statistically, these players contribute nearly nothing outside of their returns. For example, Roberts only gave the Bills four touches for 27 yards, T.J. Logan only gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers five touches for 23 yards, etc. Of the six teams to carry a true return specialist — the Bills, Buccaneers, Broncos, Chargers, Rams, and Panthers — the Bills were the only team to make the playoffs.
This makes sense, as the other five teams were carrying returners that were largely ineffective. According to the Football Outsiders VOA (value over average) statistics, Logan of the Buccaneers gave the team the 32nd-ranked punt return unit and the 29th-ranked kick return unit, Diontae Spencer of the Broncos offered the 17th-ranked punt return unit and the 8th-ranked kick return unit, Troymaine Pope of the Chargers (solely a kick returner) gave the team the 28th-ranked kick return unit, Jojo Natson of the Rams provided the 16th-ranked punt return unit and the 18th-ranked kick return unit, and DeAndrew White of the Carolina Panthers (solely a kick returner) gave the team the 26th-ranked kick return unit.
The AV becomes a little flawed in detecting return specialists in that a few specialists have an AV higher than zero due to how effectively they returned kicks for their team. Outside of the six teams with specialists above, there were three more teams who carried players on their active roster whose sole responsibility was to return kicks. Deonte Harris of the New Orleans Saints and Jamal Agnew of the Detroit Lions both returned punts and kicks at an average return higher than that of Roberts, and Kenjon Barner of the Atlanta Falcons had more return touchdowns than Roberts — Roberts didn’t have any. According to the Football Outsiders VOA statistics, Agnew helped the Lions to the the fifth-best punt return unit and the fourth-best kick return unit, while Harris helped the Saints to the second-best punt return unit and the ninth-best kick return unit.
Between these two groupings of players it appears that there’s value in having a roster spot dedicated to a return specialist if they offer elite, game-changing production. But whether Roberts offers elite production as a returner is up to interpretation and will result in a different answer depending on the person you ask. According to the VOA statistics, Roberts helped the Bills to the 12th-best punt return unit and the sixth-best kick return unit. However, while the VOA helps Roberts out, his punt return average (among returners with eight or more punt returns) was all the way down at 18th in the league and his kick return average was at seventh in the league. Most importantly, of the 11 returners with 35+ total returns, Roberts is one of only five without a touchdown.
From there, it becomes a personal opinion on what declares elite and game-changing production. Is the sixth-best kick return unit per VOA and seventh-best kick return average considered elite, or just good? And if you do declare it as elite, do the below average punt return statistics take him out of the elite returners category? Just how game-changing can a return specialist be without producing a single touchdown on the season?
Further than questioning whether Roberts offers elite return production, you have to take into account the players that might lose a roster spot in place of him. Do you want Roberts as a return specialist, or would you rather see what the potential of Christian Wade, Trey Adams, or Duke Williams is? Or the speed and gadget work of Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie? Or the old-school style fullback to open holes for Zack Moss in the power game with Pat DiMarco? The extra depth in the secondary that E.J. Gaines will offer if Taron Johnson or Josh Norman get hurt down the line? It’s hard to believe that our Buffalo Bills have come this far, but these are all talented names that are facing a realistic chance of being cut this offseason.
The way I see it, the Bills have three options this year with Roberts in their return specialist spot. With his production last year, Roberts simply isn’t worth the roster spot. The Bills have too much talent to dedicate a roster spot to a player that doesn’t contribute to the offense and is all the way down at 18th in punt return average without having any return touchdowns.
Option one is a more complacent route. The Bills keep Roberts on the roster and hope that he reforms to the once elite, game-changing returner that he was earlier in his career with the New York Jets and Detroit Lions. With the Jets, Roberts posted a stunning 14.1-yard punt return average and a 29.4-yard kick return average with both a punt and kick return touchdown. With the Lions, Roberts had a 12.3-yard punt return average and two punt return touchdowns.
Option two is a little more ideal to get more value out of the roster spot. As Brian Daboll, instead of leaving Roberts as just a return specialist, you incorporate him into more of an Isaiah McKenzie gadget role. Roberts flashes the speed and acceleration as well as carrying vision on his returns to show potential as a fourth receiving and gadget option for the offense. Earlier in his career, Roberts had posted four seasons with 30+ catches and 450+ yards. The issue with this is whether the coaching staff deems Roberts to have the skills to do this, and if he’d take playing time away from the new rookie Gabe Davis. This would also likely signal the end of Isaiah McKenzie’s Buffalo career.
The third option, and my personal favorite option, is to find a player already on the roster that can contribute both as a returner and in one of the other two phases of the game. Of the returners that had 25 or more returns on the season, their average AV was a 2.6. Jakeem Grant is an example of an AV of 2, having 19 receptions for 164 yards. Pharoh Cooper is another example of a 2 in Arizona with 25 receptions, 243 yards, and 1 touchdown. The Bills’ very own McKenzie produced an AV of 2 in his gadget role with 27 catches, 254 yards, and a touchdown. Along with the other two options, there’s a flaw in this option, as well. As McKenzie’s 2019 offensive production would provide good value along with a returning role, the Bills had him return a few kicks in 2019 and he had troubles actually fielding the ball. The other player to return kicks for Buffalo in 2019, Micah Hyde, is now getting older and may be too valuable of a piece to add extra injury risk to.
At the end of the day, the Bills have too talented of a roster heading into 2020 to be complacent with the production of Roberts. Whether he improves his return game, becomes more incorporated in the offense, or the Bills simply find another returner that can contribute somewhere else as well, the bottom line is that Roberts’ 2019 production would be a waste of a valuable roster spot on the 2020 Buffalo Bills.