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Buffalo Bills Position Battle Spotlight: Slot Receiver

This competition is shaping up to be the most interesting of training camp, with at least 3 qualified players.

Cole Beasley for three seasons filled a crucial role with expert precision and total reliability. When the Buffalo Bills needed a first down, quarterback Josh Allen could almost always count on his 5-foot-8 slot receiver to be in an open position at or past the marker and to haul the football in when it was delivered.

It's why Beasley was targeted more than 100 times each season in Buffalo, finishing with 231 receptions for 2,438 yards and a 71.1 catch percentage.

But Beasley, who turned 33 in April, asked for and was granted his release this offseason, ahead of what might have might turned into a contract dispute.

Enter Isaiah McKenzie, Jamison Crowder and Tavon Austin, stage right.

All three, along with second-year man Marquez Stevenson and rookie Khalil Shakir, will be doing battle for that spot, and all bring exciting skill sets and accomplishments.

In the one game Beasley was forced to miss last season (because of a positive COVID-19 test), McKenzie stepped in and delivered career highs of 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets in a 33-21 romp over New England.

When the Bills had to face the Patriots again in the playoffs, McKenzie started over Beasley, played more snaps and finished with three catches for 45 yards.

None of that was good enough for Brandon Beane, however. The general manager not only signed accomplished free agent Jamison Crowder, but drafted Khalil Shakir in the fifth round and earlier this month signed Tavon Austin to create a logjam that the coaches hope will bring out the best in each player in training camp this summer.

Crowder, who has played for Washington and the New York Jets, has a solid track record in the NFL: 409 catches for 4,607 yards and 28 TD receptions in 96 games over seven seasons.

Austin was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2013. Although he may never have delivered as expected of someone drafted No. 8 overall, he has accumulated 244 career receptions for 2,239 yards and 16 TDs as a receiver and has averaged 6.8 yards on 199 career rushing attempts.

One of the most exciting players in college football history, the former West Virginia star comes to the Bills on a one-year, prove-it deal and knows the stakes. He has to prove he has something left at age 32, following a series of injuries that have limited him to 38 games over the previous four seasons.

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To that end, he's already endeared himself to Allen.

""That's a true pro right there," Allen said at mandatory minicamp. "You know he's only been here a couple of weeks, but even in walkthroughs, how attentive he is — he's right behind me basically, listening to play calls, jogging out and standing behind somebody in front of him and going through the play. You guys saw him in warmups, you know he's behind the guys catching punts, he's right there behind them and doing all the other drills and making it game-like reps and he's trying to get those reps without actually getting them. His attention to detail has been awesome.

"... You have some of these young guys in here, they know Tavon Austin from his highlights on YouTube," Allen said. "I know that I watched those as a kid. You know, as a kid growing up, his college highlights were unbelievable. So I know some of those receivers have so much respect for him already. So when he talks, they listen."

Shakir was widely considered a steal in the fifth round.

At Boise State, he caught 208 passes for 2,878 yards and 20 TDs in 43 career games.

No frontrunner has emerged, which means this group is going to be fun to watch.

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Nick Fierro is the publisher of Bills Central. Check out the latest Bills news at www.si.com/nfl/bills and follow Fierro on Twitter at @NickFierro. Email to Nicky300@aol.com.