Bills training camp questions: What are reasonable expectations for Keon Coleman?


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This is the third in a 10-part series of questions previewing Buffalo Bills training camp. Today: What are reasonable expectations for Keon Coleman?

Buffalo Bills quarterback Mitch Trubisky has played with many rookie wide receivers in his seven-year tenure in the NFL.
He has some basic advice for Keon Coleman, the Bills’ top draft pick.

Bills receiver Keon Coleman catches a pass during the team's minicamp in Orchard Park. Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News

“I would say don’t put too much pressure on yourself,” Trubisky said after the Bills’ final minicamp practice. “Just go out there and do your job for the team. It will come to you.”

Trubisky believes it will come to Coleman for this reason:

“We’ve got a ton of weapons,” he said. “The ball’s going to be spread around this year. If everyone does their job, everybody will eat.

If there’s one optimistic way to view expectations for Coleman this season, it’s this: They should not need him to “carry” the passing attack in any sense of the word.

The Bills have the No. 4 yards-from-scrimmage running back in the league in James Cook. They have one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL in Dalton Kincaid. They have a player who should be a high-volume target in the slot in Khalil Shakir. They have a weapon in Curtis Samuel, who caught 77 passes in the Joe Brady offense in Carolina in 2020.

Yes, Coleman is an important piece of the Bills’ formula for success. They need a receiver with size who they can count on to win outside the numbers and downfield. But with Josh Allen at the helm, the Buffalo offense should be good even if Coleman underachieves.

So the question looms as the Bills look toward training camp: What are reasonable expectations for Coleman, who was drafted 33rd overall, the top pick of the second round?

“We were sold on the type of person he is,” Brady said. “His work ethic, his play style, and he has a skill set we feel we didn’t have in the room and will continue to evolve. He has traits that you look for and skills that you think you can develop and with a great mindset.”

Coleman, 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, is stepping into a role similar to the one Gabe Davis had with Buffalo the past four years.

Davis had 35 catches for 599 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie in 2020. Coleman is more highly regarded than Davis was coming out of college as a fourth-round pick. He has better athleticism, explosiveness and leaping ability. The Bills expect him to be better at contested catches.

Davis caught 45 passes for 746 yards and seven TDs as a fourth-year player last season. Davis was third on the Bills in targets last season with 78 but his reception percentage (catches vs. targets) was fourth worst in the league (57%) of any of the 58 wide receivers with at least 45 catches.

If Coleman duplicated Davis’ numbers of last season (45-746) with better efficiency, meaning fewer targets, that probably would be good news for the Bills’ offense.
Allen completed 385 passes last season and 381 in 2022 (pro-rating for 17 games).

Last year’s catch totals:
Stefon Diggs107
Dalton Kincaid73
Gabe Davis45
James Cook44
Khalil Shakir39
Dawson Knox22

It’s reasonable to project some upticks. Shakir’s production over the last 13 games last season, counting playoffs, would have given him 58 catches for a full season. His catch rate over the last five would have given him 78. Cook’s catch rate after Brady took over would have given him 53. It’s also reasonable to think Marquez Valdes-Scantling will do more than last year’s No. 4 WR, Trent Sherfield, who had 11 catches.

Here are projected increases that seem reasonable:
Dalton Kincaid85
Khalil Shakir60
James Cook55
Dawson Knox32

What can Samuel produce? He had 62 catches on 91 targets in Washington last season as the No. 2 WR. He may not reach that many targets in Buffalo.

Let’s say Samuel gets 50 catches. Add up all the increases, and it means that Allen can match the same number of completions he had last year with 48 catches by Coleman. That’s no sure thing. But it’s arguably a reasonable expectation. The more Coleman outperforms Davis, the more dynamic the outlook for the entire offense.

It’s clear the Bills’ plan is to make up for Diggs 107 catches by spreading it around. Everybody eats.

What is the norm for rookie NFL receivers of late?

Simply averaging out the numbers is misleading. Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle were picked fifth and sixth overall, respectively in 2021. They both stepped into quality offenses, immediately were the clear-cut No. 1 targets and caught 81 and 104 passes as rookies, respectively. That’s not Coleman’s situation.

Keon Coleman, stretching during a Bills minicamp practice, will be counted on to assume a big role in the offense. Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News

Other first-round rookies who struggled – like the Giants’ Kadarius Toney in 2021 and the Titans’ Treylon Burks in 2022 – stepped into bad offenses with poor quarterbacking. That’s not Coleman’s situation.

Over the past 10 years, 39 receivers have been drafted in the first 35 picks and have played most of their rookie season (at least 10 games). Of those, 28 (72%) caught at least 40 passes and 29 (74%) had at least 500 yards as a rookie.

If Coleman can’t hit 40 catches for 500, the Bills will need somebody else to outperform expectations by a lot.

Here are how some big receivers drafted in Coleman’s range in recent years and inserted into decent-to-good offenses have fared:
  • Green Bay’s Christian Watson (34th in 2022) 41-611-7 TD.
  • Indianapolis’ Michael Pittman (34th in 2020) 40-503-1 TD.
  • Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins (33rd in 2020) 67-908-6 TD.
  • Pittsburgh’s Chase Claypool (49th in 2020) 62-873-9 TD.
Claypool, obviously is an interesting comparison because he has a good chance to be Coleman’s backup this season. Claypool was the No. 3 receiver in a pass-heavy offense in 2020 and had 109 targets that year, more than Coleman is likely to get.

Coleman had an encouraging spring. He showed excellent hands and made a bunch of above-the-rim catches.

“I mean, he's an animal,” said Shakir. “Just his mentality. It starts with his mentality. Every time he touches the field, like, he's on go mode, like he's ready to go. He's made some crazy catches, run some really good routes. Great, great dude. Like I said, it brings energy every single day. Love the dude.”

“He’s competitive at the catch point and can make plays,” said Trubisky. “He’s got natural hands. He’s going to be a great young player, he’s just got to keep working on it.”

A lot will depend on Coleman’s ability to grasp the Bills’ offense quickly.

“I think Keon’s worked hard,” said general manager Brandon Beane. “College playbook vs. an NFL playbook, big difference. The verbiage, where he’s lining up, the sight adjustments, all the variances he’s got to do. Even just what we ask in the run game for our guys. I don’t know specifically what he was asked there. But some schools it’s very little. It’s like if it’s not a pass play, take the play off. That’s not here. He’s got to be involved in all phases of our offense. I see a guy who’s working hard, he’s competitive.”

Beane is careful not to pump up expectations too much.

“Like anything he’s going to have bumps in the road,” he said. “He’s a rookie, and I think we all need to understand that. I think him and Josh are working on that rapport that’s going to be necessary between quarterback and receiver.”

Said Trubisky: “You’re going to be seeing a lot more defenses and a lot more talented guys at defensive back. It’s all about him learning the playbook, diving in, getting on the same page with Josh. Then when he gets the opportunity, using his natural ability to make plays.”
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