Entering Buffalo Bills training camp, many believed that Isaiah McKenzie would have an uphill climb to secure one of the final spots on the team’s wide receiver depth chart. Fans pointed to Isaiah Hodgins’ return to action after missing his rookie season with a shoulder injury, and the addition of the speedy Marquez Stevenson, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL draft seemed to indicate that McKenzie was on the way out. But through the first several practices in Orchard Park, the self-proclaimed ‘Face of the Franchise’ has ingratiated himself in the offense while taking a sizeable lead in the battle for the lead return job on special teams.
McKenzie, who is the longest-tenured receiver on Buffalo’s roster, emerged as one of the team’s most exciting role players in 2020. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll masterfully dialed up plays that took advantage of McKenzie’s short-area quickness, explosiveness and speed as a change-of-pace player that he could get in space near the line of scrimmage. McKenzie finished the season with 30 catches for 282 yards and five touchdowns. 19 of his 40 offensive touches resulted in first downs, and 203 of his yards came after the catch.
But when he became an unrestricted free agent following the season, the interest around the league – for whatever reason – simply wasn’t there. Likely viewed as a byproduct of Daboll’s scheme and the beneficiary of one of the league’s most explosive pass attacks, McKenzie’s limited role resulted in teams shying away.
Despite a dominant outing against the Miami Dolphins in his lone chance to be featured on offense where he caught six passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns while adding an 84-yard punt return touchdown, it wasn’t enough to secure a multi-year deal in free agency. Ultimately, McKenzie returned to the Bills on a one-year, $1.15 million contract and is hungry to prove that he can be more than just a gadget player on offense and that he can be a lethal weapon in the return game.
Special teams coordinator Heath Farwell spoke to the media prior to Thursday’s practice and essentially said that the primary return jobs are McKenzie’s to lose, thanks to his newfound confidence and belief in himself.
“Isaiah is in that number one spot right now,” Farwell said of the return battle. “He had a great return last season and he’s done it in the past. There’s nothing that shows anything different now. He’s a guy that I have to drag off the field every day after practice with Jugs. He works his butt off. He cares. His mindset is there. He’s in the driver’s seat and he did a great job for us last year. He has the talent, the elite speed, the quickness.
“I think it was more of a mindset thing for him. I told him, I believe in you, now do you believe in yourself? And as soon as he felt that the coaches, from Coach McDermott on down, believed in him, he’s just been taking full control of it and you can just see the positive energy and the positive vibe, and he feels confident in himself. He’s got to be comfortable back there just fielding it clean. Because when the ball’s in his hands, just like on offense, he’s as talented as there is.”
Raw talent was never an issue for McKenzie, who excelled in the return game for the Georgia Bulldogs, averaging 11.7 yards per punt return and 23.3 yards per kick return with six total return touchdowns. But after being selected with the No. 172 overall pick by the Denver Broncos in the 2017 NFL draft, fumbles and mental errors eventually led to his release. With Buffalo, Andre Roberts held down the return duties at an All-Pro level, and following his departure in free agency, McKenzie is out to prove that those issues are in the past.
“Coming from college, I was a good returner in college, but I made some risky plays,” McKenzie told reporters Thursday. “Then in Denver, everyone knows how that went. But I know I have the ability. I just have to know when to do certain things and when not to do certain things. Now I’m up to speed, I know the game, I know every situation. Coaches are teaching me, so I’m still learning but I feel way more confident in myself than I did a few years ago.”
McKenzie isn’t supplanting Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley, or even Gabe Davis on the depth chart, and he knows that. But he hopes to show that he’s put in the work to be more than just a gadget player that needs a niche role with manufactured touches. It’s taken time to get to this point and McKenzie has spent the last few seasons soaking in everything he can from his veteran teammates.
“It took a couple of years (to get to this point),” McKenzie said of his development. “Coming here in 2018 with Beasley and John Brown, they taught me a lot about route running and things like that. Just knowing defenses, stuff like that. Then Dre came around and taught me a lot about being a returner because he’s a great returner. So just showing me ways to get better at my game. So I took heed to whatever they said to me every day and applied it to my game. Now I’m going into year five, I feel like I’m pretty confident in my route running, my return ability. Now that Dre’s not here I have to take full control and be consistent each and every day.”
Those that watched McKenzie closely last year know that he can be a real threat out of the slot if given the chance. Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire went as far as to rank McKenzie as the NFL’s seventh-best slot receiver – ahead of his teammate and All-Pro Cole Beasley. While that seems like a bit of a stretch, it’s the skillset McKenzie possesses that make him such an intriguing player.
Despite an average depth of target (aDOT) of just four yards beyond the line of scrimmage, with 15 of his receptions coming behind the line of scrimmage, he was efficient from everywhere on the field on a variety of routes. According to Pro Football Focus, McKenzie caught three of the four passes of 20-plus yards for 62 yards and three touchdowns, a sign that he’s capable of more than just trick plays.
“I just have to take advantage of the opportunities (Daboll) is giving me. I’ve done good so far,” McKenzie said about his role on offense. “I feel like he’s going to put me in the best situations possible and try to the ball in my hands. Now we have a lot of guys on the team that need the ball. I understand that, I understand my role on the team.”
McKenzie is confident and that’s translating to the field in practice. He’s absorbing information from his teammates and he’s consistently working to get better each and every day to be the impact player he knows he can be on Sundays.
“I’m running better routes, I’m reading coverages, getting open,” says McKenzie. “Camp has been good to me so far. I’m still learning a lot from Bease and Diggs, but I have a hold of the slot receiver position. The gadget guy label comes with it because I get like four snaps a game, but I’m cool with that. I just want to show them I can do (the receiver stuff) as well.”