Isaiah McKenzie ahead of Jamison Crowder early in Bills camp

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Isaiah McKenzie of the Buffalo Bills
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When the Buffalo Bills signed former Jets wide receiver Jamison Crowder to a one-year contract this offseason, many expected him to replace Cole Beasley as the starting slot receiver in Buffalo. However, if the first few practices are any indication, he’ll also have to beat out Isaiah McKenzie as well. 

Reports from the Bills opening practices of training camp are that McKenzie is getting all of the snaps with the first team at the slot receiver spot. 

McKenzie has been with Buffalo since the team signed him as a free agent in the middle of the 2018 season. The Georgia Bulldogs wide receiver/running back had been drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 5th round of the 2017 draft but was released in the middle of the next season after seeing just 13 total targets in his 12 games in Denver. Buffalo quickly pounced. 

Over his three full seasons in Buffalo, Isaiah McKenzie caught 77 passes on 99 targets for 714 yards and seven touchdowns. He also added 105 rushing yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. 

While that production may not jump off of the page, when McKenzie was a free agent this offseason, the Bills signed him to a two-year deal worth up to $8 million. For those keeping track at home, that’s one year longer than the deal they signed Jamison Crowder to. 

That should have been the first sign that the Bills were just as invested in McKenzie, if not more so. 

In the past, McKenzie has rewarded that trust in him. With Cole Beasley injured in Week 15 last year, McKenzie stepped into the starting lineup and destroyed a talented New England Patriots defense. He caught 11 of 12 targets for 125 yards and one touchdown. He was also used down the field, showcasing a more diverse route tree than the one the Bills had given him as a part-time player. 

Considering that game was the only game last season where McKenzie played more than 32% of the team’s snaps, it was fair to wonder just what his upside would be if he was given a full-time role. He showcased his ability to beat man coverage in that game against the Patriots but the prevailing wisdom was that he lacked the ability to get free against a zone. At least, when compared to Beasley.  

Now that he’s getting the first crack at the starting job, if Isaiah McKenzie is able to show that he can read zone coverages better and find those passing lanes for Josh Allen, he could cement himself as a key piece of this offense and really see a big uptick in snaps for 2022. 

However, he is going to have to earn it all offseason. Jamison Crowder is a proven veteran with 409 NFL catches over seven seasons – an average of 58 a year. Crowder has thrived during his career as “kind of like the security blanket. [He] understand[s] [his] role – work the middle of the field and the option routes, move the sticks and make sure the offense is on schedule.”

Crowder is obviously behind McKenzie in terms of understanding the playbook and establishing chemistry with Allen, which has led to his spot behind the younger receiver on the current depth chart. But with camp just a few days old, there is ample time for the veteran to push himself into the starting conversation. 

Whoever emerges at the end of training camp will be occupying a role that saw Beasley finish with 112 targets last year, an 18% target share that was second on the team. It was the third year that Beasley saw over 100 targets as the team’s slot receiver, so it’s a crucial role that could help to determine whether or not the Bills can get over the hump and capture the team’s first Super Bowl. 

Sometimes the smallest players fight the biggest battles. 

For more Bills coverage like this Isaiah McKenzie story, visit amNY Sports

Jamison Crowder is battling Isaiah McKenzie for the slot receiver job
New York Jets’ Jamison Crowder in action during an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)