The Buffalo Bills have a lot of question marks heading into the season, but one place where they have a lot of potential amidst a lot of uncertainty is at the wide receiver position. With the offensive minded Doug Marrone the new head coach of the Bills, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve put a lot of emphasis this offseason on stockpiling offensive skill players, especially during the draft and immediately after. The result has been and young and talented contingent of wide receivers who are low in experience but high in talent.
The lone veteran of the group is Steve Johnson, who has been Buffalo’s leading receiver each of the last three seasons. Even without reliable receiving targets around him to take the pressure off, Johnson was able to amass over 1,000 yards receiving three years in a row. The Bills should be able to rely on Johnson to give them about 75 catches and 1,000 yards again this season, but if Buffalo expects to finish better than 25th in the NFL in passing offense the way they did last year, they’ll need to give Johnson some support.
The Bills took steps to give Johnson some support in this year’s draft, using two of their first four picks on wide receivers, with the hope that they’ll be able to make an immediate impact. Second round pick Robert Woods is a good bet to be the starter alongside Johnson. Woods doesn’t have the type of size and speed often associated with top-flight NFL receivers, but he has good hands, polished route-running skills, and the quickness to make plays in open space. Even if he doesn’t become a difference maker right away, Woods should at least become a viable target for whomever the quarterback of the Bills ends up being, and that should draw some attention away from Johnson.
Third round pick Marquise Goodwin is less polished than Woods, but he is an Olympic athlete with blazing speed, which is a dimension Buffalo will welcome to its offense. It may take a while for Goodwin to make an impact, but he has a high ceiling, and Marrone will find ways to utilize his speed, as he’ll try to slowly increase Goodwin’s role in the offense as the season progresses.
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After the draft, the Bills added three more rookie wide receivers with nearly as much talent and potential as the wide outs they added during the draft. Da’Rick Rogers, who started his college career at Tennessee, could have been one of the first receivers taken in this year’s draft, but after he got kicked off the team at Tennessee prior to his junior season, he ended up going undrafted because of character issues. Marrone is the kind of coach that believes in discipline, and he will challenge Rogers to get his act together and focus on football. If Rogers can do that he has the talent to be an impact receiver for the Bills, who have nothing to lose by giving him a chance as a free agent. Brandon Kaufman was an overlooked player out of Eastern Washington, but at 6’5’’ he has the size that NFL teams look for in receivers, as well as the speed and hands to become a receiving threat vertically and in the red zone. Buffalo also added Kevin Norrell of Stony Brook, who has a reliable set of hands and should be able to make some catches for the Bills this season out of the slot.
In addition to the talented group of rookies, Buffalo has a few more young wide receivers that have only been in the league for a year or two and a still looking to establish themselves. T.J. Graham caught 31 passes as a rookie last season and could challenge for a starting spot after a strong performance in offseason workouts. Kevin Elliot had 10 catches for the Jaguars last year, coming on late in the season. Also, the Bills are still holding out hope for Marcus Easley, who has yet to see much of the field after being drafted in the fourth round in 2010. All three have a chance to join Buffalo’s rotation at receiver.
Outside of Johnson there are no guarantees in this group, especially with the uncertainty as to who the starting quarterback will be. But the Bills have collected a lot of young talent at the wide receiver position with the hope that some of it will be ready to contribute and make them less reliant on Johnson in the passing game. We won’t know until the season starts which of Buffalo’s receivers will be able step up and become play makers in the passing game, if any, but this young and talented group of receivers offers a lot of promise and should be exciting to watch this year.