In the NFL today, there is a clear correlation between starting field position, and the number of successful drives a team has. Although correlation does not always equal causation, it is safe to assume that kickoff and punt returns play a large role in determining which teams succeed on Sundays. In 2017, the Bills ranked 13th and 18th in average kickoff and punt return yards respectively. While those numbers are certainly respectable, the Bills have made an effort to improve in those areas throughout the off-season. Below are a few candidates who may emerge as the primary returner for the Buffalo Bills in 2018.
Clay's tenure with the Bills has been anything but certain. He originally came to Buffalo in a trade with Carolina that sent cornerback Kevon Seymour to the Panthers on September 2, 2017. He was then waived by the Bills on October 23rd of last year, and he subsequently re-signed with Buffalo this past March.
"It was kind of a whirlwind for me, but you just have to let the business be the business," said Clay of his transaction history.
Familiarity with head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane will undoubtedly benefit Clay as he attempts to crack the 53-man roster in 2018.
"I know what the coaches and the staff are all about, and I wanted to be a part of it," said Clay.
Like Taiwan Jones, Clay's focus will be primarily on special teams. His role as a receiver in the NFL has been limited to this point, with just six receptions thus far in his career.
Clay will look to impact both the punt return and kick return teams, as he has throughout his career. He has two career punt return touchdowns, including one such return last season in Carolina. Although he has not yet taken a kickoff back for a touchdown, Clay has a career kickoff average of 23.2. He summarized his readiness to compete for a roster spot.
"Now I'm back," he said. "And I'm excited and ready to get to work."
After emerging as a top safety in the NFL, and earning a Pro Bowl nod in his first season with the Bills; Hyde could be a candidate to fill the punt return void left by Brandon Tate's departure. Hyde has returned kickoffs in three of his first five seasons, and punts in each of those years. Although he has experience returning kickoffs, Hyde has experienced the most success as a punt returner. He has returned 78 punts at an average of 9.7 yards per return and three touchdowns in his five seasons in punt return duty. Hyde has also finished in the top 10 for punt return touchdowns twice; once in 2013, and again in 2014.
Though Hyde is an intriguing candidate to help the Bills improve in the return game, his value on defense may precede his contributions to special teams.
"We always say defense wins championships. I have been saying that since I was in pee-wee football," Hyde said.
Hyde started all 16 games at safety for the Bills in 2017; and he racked up five interceptions and 65 tackles on the season.
McDermott turned to Hyde as a punt returner last season when he needed sure hands to not lose field position more than anything else. Knowing the number of snaps he'll log on defense, Hyde figures to be a bit player in the return game barring a rash of special teams injuries.
Jones signed with the Bills last August and contributed to the return game immediately. Unfortunately, he broke his arm in a Week 9 contest against the New York Jets, and he was placed on season-ending IR in November.
"I have just been excited to get back" said Jones.
Despite only participating in three months' worth of team activities, Jones showed enough potential to earn his second contract with the Bills; a one-year deal which he signed in March.
One of the most diligent workers in the offseason, Jones hopes it helps his cause in training camp.
"For the most part, I think the biggest thing was that the coaches and the staff noticed my work-ethic," he said.
Jones has never returned a punt in his seven-year career, so his best bet to contribute on special teams is likely with the kickoff return team. He boasts a career return average of 23.4 yards, but averaged 25 yards per return in his limited time with the Bills in 2017.
For Jones, the Bills view him as a special teams contributor first, and an offensive weapon second. This is primarily due to his lack of NFL experience in the backfield. Jones has rushed for a total of just 183 yards on 44 rushes throughout his career.
McCloud was selected in the sixth round, pick number 187 in this year's draft. Although the Bills would certainly welcome success at the wide receiver position from anybody, McCloud's versatility may be his best attribute.
He plans to take an opportunistic and advantageous approach to his rookie season, saying; "When the opportunity presents itself, I am going to take advantage of it."
Wide receiver is McCloud's primary position, but he grew up playing running back and even played a bit of cornerback for Clemson in a time of need.
McCloud totaled 1,332 yards from scrimmage in three years with the Tigers. He says that his time at running back has prepared him well for the return game.
"The running back game came naturally to me and just being able to read holes and be explosive. That carried over for me in college, and I have been able to explode through creases during punt returns."
In 50 career punt return opportunities, McCloud matched Micah Hyde's average of 9.7 yards per return; whilst scoring one touchdown in the process. His theme of versatility continued at Clemson with eight kick returns for an average of 29.4 yards per carry. McCloud was named as a second-team All-American punt returner in 2017.
His versatility should positively impact his chances of making the final 53-man roster, and his ability in the return game should not go unnoticed.