Bills training camp questions: Who punts and who returns?


Staff member

The Buffalo Bills’ salary cap purge created a great deal of uncertainty for the team’s special teams.

General Manager Brandon Beane released Deonte Harty and Siran Neal as part of the moves necessary to get under the salary cap, but in so doing created two big questions that remain unanswered heading into training camp.

Who will replace Harty as the primary punt returner? Who will replace Neal as gunner? Those aren’t the only questions that special teams coordinator Matthew Smiley needs to find answers for, either.

The Bills will also hold a competition at punter, with incumbent veteran Sam Martin looking to hold off rookie undrafted free agent Jack Browning. Smiley must also find a replacement for Tyler Matakevich, who was a special teams captain last season.

Punt returner​

Wide open properly describes this competition heading to camp.

“But you’re always hoping for competition at every position,” Smiley said. “We have some exciting guys back there who will be competing to see who gets the job.”

Bills rookie cornerback Daequan Hardy will get a chance during training camp to win the team's punt returner job. Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News

The possibility of a Harty-for-Hardy swap exists after the Bills selected Penn State cornerback Daequan Hardy in the sixth round of the NFL draft in April. Last season, Hardy returned 17 punts, gaining 248 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns for the Nittany Lions.

“I thought he was aggressive, he was tough, he did a great job tracking the ball and he’s got speed,” Smiley said of watching Hardy’s college game tape. “Getting to know him more, I didn’t know realize it, but at Penn State, they usually favor an offensive guy at punt returner and he really talked the coaches into, ‘Hey, let me get back there.’ He was productive. I love working with him.”

As a sixth-round pick, Hardy might need to win the punt return job to make the 53-man roster. At least one national analyst believes he’ll do just that. Last month,’s Chad Reuter named Hardy to his preseason all-rookie team as a return specialist.

If Hardy doesn’t make the roster, the Bills’ other options are likely to include wide receivers Khalil Shakir and Andy Isabella. Shakir is expected to be one of the team’s top three receivers and, as such, will play a lot more snaps on offense than he has in his first two professional seasons. Because of that, Smiley and head coach Sean McDermott may determine they don’t want to use him as a returner. Shakir has eight punt returns and six kick returns with the Bills over two seasons.

“It’s different every year,” Smiley said of having such a wide open competition. “You could run through the years I’ve been here and the returners we’ve had and when Andre Roberts was coming back off Pro Bowl years (entering 2020-21), he was our guy as a dual returner. But every year, you’re trying to figure it out.”

Kick returner​

In addition to Shakir, running back Ty Johnson is expected to compete for the job. Johnson returned a eight kicks for 161 yards last season, both team highs. Smiley, however, made it clear that kick returner, like punt returner, is wide open, too.

“A bunch of guys,” he said when asked who will be a part of the competition during training camp. “This year, with the new rule, kick return is a little more like punt return with the body type. Those guys are potentially dual guys quicker than they would have been in the past with the old rule.”

That could open the door for Hardy to handle both jobs.

Isabella has nine career kick returns over his five NFL seasons.

The Bills' Sam Martin launches a punt against the Steelers on Jan. 15 at Highmark Stadium. Derek Gee, Buffalo News


Martin had a down year in 2023, ranking 29th in net punting average, at 39.8 yards. That number is a bit misleading, however, because Martin placed 24 of his 51 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. His 47.1% of punts inside the opponent’s 20 ranked fourth in the NFL.

Nevertheless, the Bills have shown a determination to add competition this year, even carrying three punters on their active roster for a stretch – a rarity in the NFL.

Matt Haack was released before the end of spring practices, meaning the competition comes down to Martin and Browning, who played at San Diego State. Browning left the Aztecs as the program’s all-time leader in punt average, at 45.8 yards. He was a second-team All-Mountain West selection and was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award, which is given to the country’s top punter.

Matakevich’s role​

In addition to his 343 snaps on special teams, which was 80% of the team total last season, the Bills also lost the leadership that comes with being a team captain when they chose not to re-sign Matakevich.

The team does have some returning players who could stop into that role, though. Fullback Reggie Gilliam played a team-leading 365 snaps on special teams in 2023. Defensive back Cam Lewis and tight end Quintin Morris also played more than 310 snaps on special teams, as well.