What can the Bills expect with Cole Beasley back in the fold?

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Less than two months ago, Cole Beasley retired after a short stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his 11-year NFL career seemingly over.

But right after Thanksgiving, the receiver who played three seasons with the Buffalo Bills from 2019-21 reached out to general manager Brandon Beane to let him know his interest in returning to the team.

The call came despite Beasley making comments on Twitter that alluded to him not wanting to return to Buffalo.

The Bills have brought back several former players this season, including defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, defensive end Shaq Lawson and practice squad receiver John Brown.

“The band’s almost back together, I heard,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said upon Brown’s signing to the practice squad, right around the time Beasley reached out to Beane.

Beasley, however, was perhaps the player who seemed most unlikely to return, with some lingering issues between him and the organization left unresolved.

But after deciding Beasley would be a fit for the team, coaches and players -- and having some conversations with him -- the Bills made it official, signing him to the practice squad on Tuesday. Adding the veteran, who had the second-most receptions (82) for the Bills in 2021, brings depth to the receiver position for Buffalo and provides another option for an offense that has struggled at times this season.

“You look to add players that you think can help your football team, so that's the situation here,” coach Sean McDermott said. “I think Isaiah [McKenzie] has done some good things, [Jamison] Crowder before that did some nice things also, and we're seeing if we can improve some of what we're doing offensively in this case.”

Beasley’s original three-year stint with the team (2019-21) ended after he requested to be traded, but ultimately was released in March 2022. He was vocal on social media about his thoughts on the NFL/NFLPA's COVID-19 policies. The wide receiver said Wednesday there were things he wished he would have done differently, and that being away from football put some things in perspective.

“I’m happy to be back here,” Beasley said. “I feel like this is the place I belong. Being somewhere different for a little bit [in Tampa], it just didn’t feel right to me. So, I’m glad to be back here with all the guys I’m familiar with, and I missed them to death, so it’s awesome.”

Why add Beasley back into the fold from the Bills’ side at this point in his career and the season? The team signed Crowder in free agency to help fill some of the role that Beasley, 33, vacated in the slot, but Crowder broke his ankle in Week 4 against the Ravens. McKenzie has been effective at times in the slot, but he’s a speedier receiver and has a different skill set. He is second on the team with six dropped passes this season and could see a reduction in playing time if Beasley were called up from the practice squad. The Bills lead the league in drops (29); Beasley had two drops on 113 targets in 2021.

“The plan at the beginning of the year was Isaiah and Crowder were going to kind of split the role,” Beane said. “And Cole kind of fills what we've lost with Crowder from that standpoint.”

Beasley was second on the Bills in receiving first downs (124) in his three seasons and fourth in receiving touchdowns (11).

It’s not that the offense hasn't gotten production from the slot -- the team is second in receiving yards from the slot (1,346), but Beasley is instead viewed as an extension of the run game and an additional player who can find holes when teams are defending deep.

“When it comes to zone coverages, he knows where defenders should be at. He knows leverages, he knows what windows that I'm looking at,” quarterback Josh Allen said. “And he's just got such a good feel. If he's not seeing me, he's gonna find a window where he can see me. … We run different concepts with him because he can read basically two guys at one time, which not everybody can do.”

The Bills have not said if he will play in Saturday night’s game against the Miami Dolphins (8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network) with only three regular-season practice squad elevations allowed and only four games remaining, but his experience with the team will help him acclimate faster than other players might.

“I don't think it's unrealistic [that he plays Saturday],” Beane said. “… What we wouldn't want to do if we played him is have him have a setback like he's not in football shape. … That would be up for Sean, [offensive coordinator Ken] Dorsey and [wide receivers coach] Chad Hall to determine if he's ready to roll along with our medical staff to make sure there's no concern about the soft tissue stuff.”