Undrafted free agent wide receiver Brandon Reilly is in a familiar situation coming into Buffalo Bills training camp. That is, once again, Reilly has to prove himself. He primarily played hockey in high school and started football late, but he was still able to earn an all-state honorable mention his senior year. Reilly had offers from several small schools to play football, but he chose to walk on at Nebraska.
He chose to redshirt his first season at Nebraska (2012) and put in the work to hone his skills, which earned him a scholarship prior to his sophomore season.
His mental toughness and willingness to compete to earn every rep was his path to the NFL. It’s not the most common path, but he is the type of guy that obviously caught the eyes of some of the Bills’ scouts, so lets take a look at some of the things that the Nebraska native will be bringing to Buffalo. In order to do that, we have to give some context to how he was utilized at Nebraska. Here is his ‘heat map’, thanks to Krossover:
What stood out to me were his targets (volume) in the short area and deep quadrants. In the short game, Reilly was targeted 21 times. This is an area in which he could help Buffalo. His decent size, 6’1 1/2″ and 212 lbs, is average, but he does play bigger than his frame.
Reilly runs a drag route across the middle on third down. The defender lines him up for the big hit. Reilly absorbs the blow and converts the first down.
In 2016, according to Pro Football Focus, Reilly averaged 1.9 yards per route run, which isn’t necessarily impressive. However, it was better than Jehu Chesson (Michigan), Noah Brown (Ohio State), and even Speedy Noil (Texas A&M). He isn’t creative with the ball in his hands, but he knows how to utilize his body to shield defenders. Just because he is matched up against more athletic players doesn’t mean he can’t win.
On this play, he runs a nice route on third down. The corner breaks hard on the comeback route, but Reilly is able to frame the pass while shielding the defender — another 3rd down conversion by the senior. Having a receiver that can be counted upon to body a defender in critical situations could do wonders for Tyrod Taylor.
I watched every target by Reilly from his senior season, and he was consistently converting first downs, and typically doing so in traffic. He is an intelligent player who always knows where the chains are and how he needs to adjust his route in order to convert. On this play, the defense plays cover 4 as Reilly runs a deep in-breaking route. The safety and corner are reading the release of the #2 receiver. If the #2 receiver doesn’t get vertical, then the safety is taught to help over the top of #1. As a result, Reilly is bracketed, but he still manages to find a soft spot in between the two defensive backs. He does a great job of adjusting to the ball, as it is thrown a little off target and on a rope.
On film, Reilly won’t wow you with his straight line speed or burst to make splash plays down the field, especially if you are trying to translate those traits to the NFL. However, if put in the proper situations, then he can make plays deep. On this play versus Wyoming, he does a great job of gaining inside leverage versus the defensive back and laying out to make the catch.
The ability to adjust to inaccurate throws while the ball is in the air is one of his strengths, and one that could also help the oft inaccurate Tyrod Taylor. Reilly makes it look natural. On this play, Reilly is in the slot on 3rd and 9. He easily beats the slot defender deep, but the ball is severely under-thrown. Reilly displays his ability to track the ball and adjust to throw, all while using his frame to reel in the pass with a defender draped on him.
The traits displayed by Reilly on the previous play are really what the Bills saw on film. He continuously shows the ability to track, adjust, and bring in passes. He was often utilized in the slot, responsible for running seam and vertical routes, very similar to former Bill Chris Hogan.
He is able to keep his eye on the prize and bring in passes with soft hands, even in situations in which a QB may be leading him into a big hit.
Tyrod Taylor didn’t have quite the success on deep passes in 2016 that he did in 2015, but most of that had to do with WR Sammy Watkins being out of the lineup for half the season. Taylor had to rely on WR Marquise Goodwin, who is not a multi-dimensional receiver. Goodwin only ran 2-3 routes in a route tree, and his number one trait was his speed. So, if he didn’t separate with his speed, then he was nonexistent down the field.
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Reilly brings a different sort of down-the-field weapon arsenal. As mentioned earlier, he won’t lift the top off a coverage; he is going to win down the field with his ability to track and adjust his body to the throw. This is an element the offense has been lacking with Taylor at the helm. Besides Watkins, Taylor has not trusted his receivers enough to just throw back shoulder passes or jump balls. The only WR Taylor trusted to do so last season was the one pass to Justin Hunter versus the Jaguars.
Reilly doesn’t have the height or overall athleticism of Hunter, but he does show an aptitude for making plays while covered. Taylor can trust in Reilly to compete for the ball all the way through the process, even when he is not open. This is a trait that often falls by the wayside when discussing receivers.
Brandon Reilly may be a long shot to make the roster, but he is going to put up a fight. That’s just who he is. In fact, decided to join the Bills due to the competition at the position:
“Definitely the roster. They don’t have too many veteran guys. They lost a couple guys that played last year. They drafted one receiver in the second, but they said it’s open competition and that’s exactly what I wanted to hear. That’s what I did at Nebraska is earn a spot, and I hope to do that again.”
Not only will it be an open competition, but the skills that he is bringing to the Bills line up perfectly with what they want to do schematically, and they can help third year starter Tyrod Taylor. He will have to flash those skills as often as possible in his reps once training camp begins.