If Cole Beasley retires, how will it affect the Buffalo Bills in 2021?

Following a somewhat underrated 2020 season, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley’s future in the NFL is now being questioned. With the potential of Beasley retiring, how would this impact the fantasy football landscape, the Buffalo Bills’ offense, and who could step up to fill the potential vacancy?

Cole Beasley was an integral part of the Buffalo Bills’ passing game in 2020

While Josh Allen’s connection with Stefon Diggs stole the show, Beasley was a pretty darn good backup dancer. Playing in 15 games, Beasley commanded a 20.1% target share on what was a surprisingly pass-heavy offense. In total, he caught 82 of 107 targets for 967 yards and 4 touchdowns. Beasley played on 66% of the Bills’ offensive snaps, ending the season as the WR27 overall and 31st in fantasy points per game (13.8).

He recorded double-digit fantasy points in nine of his 15 games (60%), including six straight from Weeks 2-7. The issue during all of this was that Beasley was simply middle of the road in weekly standings.

He was a WR3 or better in just six games (40%) and inside the top 24 five times (33%), 35th amongst WRs. While heavily targeted, Beasley’s lowly 7.0 aDOT (average depth of target) led to an even worse 1.89 fantasy points per target (34th among WRs with at least 40 targets).

But for NFL purposes, Beasley has been a success since joining the Bills. In 2019, the wideout was second on the team in targets (106), receptions (67), and yards (778), but tied for the team lead in touchdowns (6). 

Beasley has two years remaining on his four-year, $29 million contract, which would be a $14.9 million cap hit on the Bills’ salary cap figures. However, should Beasley retire as hinted at, this money would no longer be required to be paid.

Should Beasley retire, the Bills would enter 2021 with a sizeable gap in their roster

Continuity is arguably the single most crucial aspect of a successful team. Teams who can reduce yearly turnover are instantly ahead of the curve against those who have to spend extra time on installation before going all out in practice. For the most part, the Bills did a sensational job retaining the talent off their 13-3 team from last year.

The lone “significant” loss came via free agency when WR John Brown signed with the Las Vegas Raiders. Brown spent the last two seasons with the Bills, registering 1,518 yards and 9 touchdowns on 105 receptions (167 targets). After playing in 15 games in 2018 and 2019, Brown struggled to stay on the field last year, only playing in nine contests. His absence from the lineup allowed other players such as Gabriel Davis to have a significant role as a rookie. 

The Bills did sign 11-year veteran Emmanuel Sanders during the offseason on a one-year, $6 million contract. Sanders has bounced around several teams over the last two seasons, having played for the Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, and New Orleans Saints. Now 34 years old, he has not produced a 1,000-yard season since 2016. Still, Sanders has averaged 61.3 catches and 754 yards over his last three campaigns while playing on 48.5% of the snaps.

Buffalo Bills’ pass-heavy offense last season

I bring these moves up because of how crucial wide receiver depth is to the Bills’ offense. When Sean McDermott said they pass the ball to set up the run, they meant it. The Bills went from a 54.9% pass rate in 2019 (26th) to a pass-happy 61.7% in 2020 (11th). Furthermore, only the Arizona Cardinals (217 snaps) ran more plays with four-plus wide receiver sets than the Bills (198). 

Now that there are just 11 weeks until Week 1 kicks off, possibly losing your No. 2 receiver could deal a massive blow to what was an offensive juggernaut last season.

Which WRs could step up for the Bills should Cole Beasley retire?

If Beasley opts to retire, which receivers would most likely step into a larger role for the Bills?

Gabriel Davis

The first name I would look at is one of my favorite sleepers over the last two seasons in Davis. After entering his 2020 rookie campaign with little fanfare, Davis was a consistent threat to score touchdowns. He posted 35 receptions on 62 targets for 599 yards and 7 touchdowns. He was on the field more than many expected, largely aided by the injury to Brown. Davis played on 73% of the snaps, including 88% over the final six weeks. 

While he finished as the WR56, Davis was the WR44 from Weeks 9-17. This stretch also included four games as a WR22 or better. Davis was already expected to be the WR3 on the Bills depth chart following the exit of Brown and will be the deep threat on the offense (15.0 aDOT). He is currently an afterthought in drafts as the WR67 (181.3 ADP).

Isaiah McKenzie 

If you want to keep a name in your back pocket should Beasley retire, make that Isaiah McKenzie. Beasley is the definition of a slot receiver. Over his career, he played 86% of his snaps from the slot, with 74% in 2019 and 88% in 2020 for the Bills. McKenzie would be the next in line for these reps and has already succeeded in the role.

Last year, McKenzie played 68% of his snaps in the slot and was efficient when targeted. McKenzie posted career highs in 2020 with 30 receptions for 282 yards and 5 touchdowns on 34 targets. His 2.59 fantasy points per target actually led the Bills in 2020 despite his 3.8 aDOT. 

The Bills can also be creative getting him touches even in the rushing game as he has 29 carries for 128 yards and 2 scores over his career. Honestly, I don’t think that McKenzie needs Beasley to retire to find fantasy relevance in 2021. But if he does, McKenzie could be a very sneaky sleeper for those looking for a high-upside late-round flier (currently going undrafted).

Emmanuel Sanders

Sanders was always going to have a role in the offense, but the question comes down to snap share. At 34, the Bills must be cognizant of his workload as they look to make a deep run in the playoffs in a new 17-game season. Last year, Sanders played on 65% or more of the snaps just five times (35%). 

He also doesn’t project to play in the slot, where most of the Bills’ 33.2% of vacated targets would come from should Beasley retire. Only 35% of Sanders’ snaps throughout his career have come from the slot. He projects as an outside receiver in a rotation with Davis but more of an NFL asset than fantasy.

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Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read all of Tommy’s work here, listen to him on PFN’s Fantasy Football podcast, and check out his contributions in PFN’s free fantasy newsletter. Give him a follow on Twitter: @TommyGarrettPFN.