ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) - With NFL cut-down day approaching, Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie confronts his uncertain future each time he takes a seat at his locker.
Gathered before him is a large plastic tub of belongings, two plastic bags of clothes stacked in a laundry bin, and an oversized stereo boom box, accounting for essentially all the worldly possessions McKenzie brought to Buffalo. Though the Bills put McKenzie up in a perfectly good hotel, the third-year player prefers to have his items close at hand.
To McKenzie, everything he has stashed amid a couple of red chairs in the middle of the floor represents a physical reminder of the challenges of keeping his job after Buffalo retooled its receivers by adding Cole Beasley, John Brown and Andre Roberts in free agency.
And it’s also a sight that drives him in knowing how hard he must work to secure his spot once the final cuts are made Saturday.
“It’s motivating in some ways because I don’t know what my future holds,” McKenzie said. “Sometimes I look at (the belongings) like I’ve got to make plays to stay here to keep myself here, or I’ve just got to be ready to go.”
He doesn’t want to leave. But should that happen, he prefers the convenience of having his belongings in one place in the event he needs to hurry off and look for work elsewhere.
“Either I’m staying here or I’m already packed to leave,” he said.
Claimed off waivers by Buffalo in November after being released following a season and a half in Denver, McKenzie’s made a case to stay entering the Bills’ preseason finale against Minnesota on Thursday.
He leads Buffalo this preseason with 99 yards receiving. He also showed his versatility by returning five punts for 34 yards and scoring on a 6-yard end-around in a 24-20 win at Detroit on Friday.
Also going for him is the splash McKenzie made last season. Nicknamed the “Human Joystick” for his speed and shiftiness during his college days at Georgia, he finished with 179 yards receiving, 66 yards rushing with two touchdowns in seven games with the Bills. He also averaged nearly 20 yards in returning 12 kickoffs.
The question is where the 5-foot-8, 173-pound player fits on a depth chart in which Beasley, Brown, Roberts and returning starter Zay Jones appear to have locked up the top four receiver spots. That leaves McKenzie competing with two returning players, Ray-Ray McCloud and Robert Foster, as well as offseason addition Duke Williams for one or two open positions.
Competition isn’t foreign to McKenzie, given his experience in Denver, where he was used sporadically, bounced between the active roster and practice squad before getting cut.
“I’m just used to it, being blinded, you know what I’m saying, not knowing what’s going to happen,” McKenzie said. “So now, I don’t even think about it. I just go out there and play, put something on film and whatever happens, happens.”
His teammates joke about the stockpile of belongings, referring to it as McKenzie’s “house.”
What impresses them is upon learning of McKenzie’s motivations.
“That’s a good way to do it, man. There’s not enough guys that do stuff like that,” said Beasley, who has carved out a successful eight-year NFL career after going undrafted out of college.
“For the game we’re in, so much of it is so mental. For him to kind of create that environment for himself is very interesting,” he added. “It’s awesome to see how much he cares, and how much he wants to do, and how willing he is to work to stay here.”
McKenzie is staying focused, and knows better than not to go on social media and read the near-daily series of projections of who’s in, who’s out and who’s on the bubble.
“I’m not going to try to find out what’s going on upstairs because you can’t find out what’s going on upstairs,” McKenzie said, referring to the Bills’ decision-makers. “And at the end of the day, what’s going on upstairs is not going to be on social media.”
He began storing his belongings at his locker upon arriving for spring practices. And even if McKenzie makes it past the final cuts, he’s not taking anything for granted.
The pile will likely stay put for a few more weeks, with McKenzie understanding anything can still happen.
“I’ll just stay in a hotel and keep my clothes here. They allow it, so I’m just going to keep it here,” McKenzie said. “Yeah, people around here call this my house. And hopefully, it is my house.”
Maybe even home.
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