'The little muscle hamster' Isaiah McKenzie is poised to win the Bills slot receiver job

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Sean McDermott kept a straight face the other day when a question was being asked regarding whether Isaiah McKenzie is showing more confidence this year in his fight to win the starting slot receiver position.

And then before he began to answer, a smile crept across the coach’s face because, as everyone with any connection to the Buffalo Bills knows, “Confidence wise, I don’t I think that’s ever been a problem for him,” McDermott said as reporters in front of him knowingly laughed. “Jokes, I don’t think he runs short of jokes ever, and he likes to talk as you guys know.”

McKenzie is certainly one of the most fun-loving Bills in recent memory, a player who never stops running, never stops competing, never stops joking and never, ever, ever, stops talking. As Josh Allen said Thursday, he’s a “little muscle hamster.”

Isaiah McKenzie is having a nice training camp and right now, he's the frontrunner to win the starting slot receiver job.
Isaiah McKenzie is having a nice training camp and right now, he's the frontrunner to win the starting slot receiver job.

But it’s not all fun and games with McKenzie. He may be the life of the party, and he may have appeared on America’s Got Talent last spring, but when it comes to football, he’s as serious as anyone when he’s running routes and trying to be available for Allen on every play.

“Jobs are up for grabs,” McKenzie said. “I know I've got to go out there and play my best football and put my best foot forward to win the job. And that's what I plan on doing. You know, Jamison Crowder came in, he's had a great career and he came in to compete with me, and I came back to compete with him.

“I knew it wasn't going to be easy and I know it's not easy now. I still got to continue to stack days and that's what I feel like I'm doing. I feel like I'm doing a great job at it. I just got to keep be consistent and just come out here every day and make plays.”

McKenzie may have been slightly underused by previous offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, even though Daboll regularly gushed about the player who joined the team in 2018, Daboll’s first year with the Bills.

Daboll liked to call him a gadget guy because he could deploy McKenzie all around the formation and even used him on occasional jet sweeps, plus he has returned kicks and punts, too, because he’s such a quick and twitchy athlete at 5-foot-8 and 173 pounds.

But McKenzie wants to prove he’s more than a gadget guy. He wants to prove he’s the best option in the slot come opening night in Los Angeles and beyond.

“My teammates call me it all the time, and they’re my biggest critics; they still call me that. ‘You’re just a gadget guy’ or whatever,” he said. “But I go out there and I do my thing at wide receiver. I’m playing out there, I’m running good routes, getting open, catching the ball, and eventually … I don’t mind keeping the name. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just another name I can add to my contract.”

Given what I have seen at camp so far, it would be a shock to me if McKenzie isn’t the primary slot receiver at the start of the season. But to keep the job, the big transition McKenzie has to make is finding ways to build and refine week to week because the additional playing time he’ll be getting means opposing defenses will have more film to study as they seek ways to slow him down.

For instance, when Beasley missed the second New England game last year, McKenzie played that entire day and had the game of his career with 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown as Bill Belichick and his staff were helpless to defend him.

However, McKenzie had only nine catches for 53 yards in all the other games, so the element of surprise was critical that day, and he won’t have that moving forward.

“I think the biggest adjustment is going to be the potential of stepping into a full-time role now, where there’s teams game planning for you,” McDermott said. “You have more film out there and so it’s an adjustment.

“There’s a toughness piece that comes with that where there’s more of a chance for good plays, yes, but there’s more of a chance for some plays you want back as well. Through the course of the game, adjusting to that is a little bit different as a full-time player than a part-time player.”

McKenzie had a chance to go elsewhere as a free agent after 2021, but he wanted to come back to Buffalo, a place he has come to love. Allen, for one, is glad he made that choice.

“He's working his tail off and that's kind of what Isaiah's known for,” Allen said. “He's going to work hard, he's going to find a way. Learning the nuances of the slot position and taking the coaching and the leadership and the knowledge that he's had over the past years of guys in that position, namely Cole (Beasley), trying to take what he was doing on the field and apply it to his game. There's no denying his physical attributes, his speed, and he's extremely tough for a little guy. He's determined to help this team win football games.”

What they’re saying at camp

▶ WR Isaiah McKenzie on the progress rookie WR Khalil Shakir is making: “He’s doing a great job. He’s smart, he knows the plays, he’s learned each and every position, not just the slot position but the outside position as well. I feel like he asks me some questions about coverages or how did I do a certain move to get open, things like that and I tell him. He’s a great rookie – he buys us snacks. The other day, we made him buy a microwave so we could have Hot Pockets, Toaster Strudels. You know, he’ll warm up the foods, noodles, stuff like that. And then you’ve got all the other snacks: Zebra Cakes, Honey Buns, Doritos, whatever you can ask for to eat, we try to put it on his plate so he can get it for us.”

O.J. Howard is loving the opportunity to catch passes from Josh Allen.
O.J. Howard is loving the opportunity to catch passes from Josh Allen.

▶ TE O.J. Howard on if he sees the ‘it’ factor with Josh Allen, similar to Tom Brady: “For sure. I saw it last year when they came to Tampa and he got banged up and he came down and finished the game. That’s all I needed to see. He had an ankle injury it looked like, I was like, ‘I think we got it.’ But that guy pushed through and I was like, ‘Josh Allen’s a dog.’ Then I came here and met him personally and it’s nothing different. When you step on the field with him he’ll do whatever it takes. It’s probably different from Tom, but they’re both fiery quarterbacks. When you see that in your quarterback, how can you not go hard for them?”

▶ DC Leslie Frazier on the vivid personalities on the defensive line: “Well, those D-linemen have their own personality for sure, they are a different group and Eric Washington and Marcus (West) do a great job of handling that room. They are, for us, the straw that stirs the drink … they have their own personalities and they do come out and you get a chance to see that. But our defensive line, that’s the group that leads our defense and we count on them being able to be disruptors, within reason, at times. They’re going to show their personalities and you want that to be; you don’t want guys to be tight or worried about how I’m going to be viewed. Just be a good teammate, be yourself, and they’re good at doing that.”

Getting to know … QB Case Keenum

Case Keenum, a 34-year-old veteran, is the Bills new backup quarterback.
Case Keenum, a 34-year-old veteran, is the Bills new backup quarterback.

Fortunately for the Bills, they never had to dip into the deductible on the insurance policy that was backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky in 2021. Allen stayed healthy all year and Trubisky only played in mop-up situations.

It was thought, however, that if Trubisky would have been called on, he would have been able to keep the Bills offense at least heading in the right direction given that he had started 50 games for the Bears from 2017-20 and had a won-loss record of 29-21 during a tenure that wasn’t as horrible as many Bears fans would lead you to believe.

Trubisky signed with the Steelers in the offseason and will probably be their Week 1 starter. To replace him, the Bills acquired Keenum in a trade from Cleveland, and Keenum could be an even better insurance policy should Allen suffer an injury.

“He’s a great dude, he’s been around the league a long time, he knows a lot of different things, been in multiple offenses,” Allen said of Keenum who, despite being 34 years old has actually started the exact same number of NFL games as the 26-year-old Allen, 66 counting playoffs.

“He knows how to deal with guys, so I can lean on him heavily about things that I see, things that he sees. And he comes up to me, and I’ve got great respect and trust in him, so that’s something that developed really quickly and I’m sure is only gonna get better with time.”

Keenum has started games for the Texans, Browns, Rams, Broncos, Vikings and Commanders, and in Minnesota in 2017 and Denver in 2018 he was QB1. In that 2017 season, during which he was 11-3 as a starter, he guided the Vikings into the playoffs and he threw one of the most famous passes in franchise history, the Minnesota Miracle.

With the Vikings trailing 24-23 and down to their final play at U.S. Bank Stadium in their wild-card playoff game against New Orleans, Keenum found Stefon Diggs for a game-winning 61-yard touchdown to stun the Saints 29-24.

“I just threw it to the sideline; I remember I lost vision of him a little bit behind my right guard and I couldn’t really see,” Keenum recalled. “I knew the ball came out of my hand really, really well. Sometimes it comes out good but this one came out great. I knew it was right where I wanted to put it but I couldn’t see where Stefon was. And all of a sudden I see Stefon’s hands, his white gloves, just coming out of nowhere and I’m like, ‘He’s gonna catch this ball.’ And he catches it.”

Here are a few things to know about Keenum:

  • He wrote a book about his journey in football and his faith entitled Playing For More: Trust Beyond What You Can See.” Tony Dungy wrote the foreword.

  • The Bills sent a 2022 seventh-round pick to Cleveland to obtain him, and the Browns used that pick on Texas Tech offensive lineman Dawson Deaton.

  • He has put up some crazy career stats. In high school in Texas, he passed for 6,783 yards and rushed for 2,200 yards with 89 total touchdowns and won one state championship. Then in college at Houston, he finished as the all-time NCAA leader in total passing yards (19,217), completions (1,546), and touchdown passes (155).

  • He met his wife Kimberly when they were children and they started dating in high school after each attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. They were married in 2011 and have one son.

  • His mother and father were both collegiate athletes at McMurry University, A Division II school in Abilene, Texas. Steve Keenum was an offensive lineman who went on to become the team’s head coach and athletic trainer, quite a dual responsibility. He later coached at Sul Ross State, Tarleton State and Hardin-Simmons. Susan Keenum was a three-sport athlete at McMurry where she met her future husband.

Buffalo Bills birthday bio: C.J. Spiller

I remember sitting in the media room at One Bills Drive during the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and when Roger Goodell announced that with the No. 9 overall pick, the Bills selected C.J. Spiller, I just about fell out of my chair.

Spiller, who turns 35 years old Friday, was undoubtedly a dynamic running back who was a human highlight reel during his spectacular career at Clemson. But for the life of me - and I think everyone else in the media and most in the fan base - I could not understand why he was Buddy Nix’s first draft pick as general manager of the team.

“I really think we’ve been devoid of big-playmakers,” Nix said. “He’s a playmaker, a guy that creates field position and scores points and he’s exciting. We need some excitement, somebody that can make a big play and create some things on their own.”

Yeah, that’s great, Buddy. But at that time, the Bills already had a fine 1-2 punch at running back with Marshawn Lynch, their first-round pick in 2007 who had topped 1,000 yards in two of his first three NFL seasons, and always reliable Fred Jackson. There was no need to add to the running back room, not for a team that had so many holes to fill, particularly on both lines.

To make matters worse, Spiller couldn’t get on the field as a rookie, even after the Bills made the ill-fated trade that sent Lynch to Seattle where he went on to rush for more than 1,200 yards in four straight seasons, twice led the NFL in rushing TDs, won a Super Bowl, and would have won a second if the Seahawks had given him the ball on the goal line against the Patriots.

As a rookie, Spiller rushed for only 283 yards and caught 24 passes for 157 yards as his biggest contributions came as the primary return man. After a mundane 2011 season, in 2012 and 2013 he finally rewarded Nix’s faith with two very good years topped by his 1,703 yards from scrimmage in 2012. But after an injury-shortened 2014, he was done in Buffalo.

He signed a four-year free agent deal with New Orleans, bombed out in one season, then jumped to the Jets, Seahawks and Chiefs before retiring after 2017.

It’s not his fault, but Spiller was one of those poorly thought out first-round picks that helped play a role in Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought.

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This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: 'The little muscle hamster' Isaiah McKenzie is poised to win the Bills slot receiver job