What is your favorite position in football?
I'm not talking about who's the most popular or who looks the coolest on the field. When everything is in motion and the play is being executed to perfection, what do you enjoy seeing the most? Do you enjoy when the QB fires a bullet down the field, one that only 20 guys on this planet could make? Is it a running back who shakes his hips or hits the hole like he's a missile? Maybe it is a pass rusher who stiff arms an OT or does a spin move that gets him to the QB in less than 2 seconds? Football is such a beautiful game when all is right, and you can pick so many players that make it look magnificent, but for me, I like seeing a WR set the gold standard for his position.
It can be done in so many ways. It could be something like Randy Moss running down the field like a track star, outrunning the CBs for a 60-yard bomb. But naah. That looks too easy and you can see it coming once the ball is in the air and there is separation.
I like it when a WR catches a slant pattern and all he sees is a traffic jam. His obstacles are the grass, LBs, safeties, and corners, and trust me, these guys aren't going to stand still while he's weaving his way through traffic. The beauty that comes next is the WR using a stiff arm or a spin move or just stopping and dodging the guys who want to take his head off. It is one of those plays that makes breaking tackles looks like an art form. You can't predict what will happen because the playing field looks to be even...until the WR makes his move. Then the collective ooooohs pour out. Oooooh. OOOOOOOOOOOOhhhh..and when you get to a 3rd oooooooh..You know you are watching a Sportscenter Top 10 play.
I'm not sure we will see a lot of those plays from the Bills WR corps. They are a young and likable bunch, but when you go through the depth chart, it doesn't exactly read like the 32nd Airborne. Truth be told, the biggest worry for me this year is the passing game. I'm lukewarm on Fitz and the WRs are pretty much the same. Someone whose name is not Stevie Johnson is going to need to step it up on the receiving end. When you look at Super Bowl teams in the past (Pats, Giants, Steelers, Packers, Rams, Cowboys, Broncos, and the 49ers), a number of them had two go-to receivers. I'm not sold on any of these guys besides #13. The only thing working for them in changing my mind is that all of them are young.
Year 3 is supposed to be the magic year in which you know what you have with a WR. It happened that way for Lee Evans, Eric Moulds, and Stevie Johnson. All blew up during their 3rd years. I'm not sure we will get the same result with the likes of 3rd year guys Marcus Easley, Donald Jones and David Nelson, but one thing for sure is that #13 can't do it alone. The Bills need some WRs who can make those top 10 plays.
Mel Kiper doesn't know these guys
TJ Graham is the highest draft pick of the unit while everyone else was lucky to hear the deputy commissioner say their name on draft day. Donald Jones and David Nelson are undrafted. Stevie Johnson is a former 7th round pick. Marcus Easley is a former 4th rounder. Is there a WR corps in the league that can claim Mel Kiper probably didn't know anything about them? The Bills and the New Orleans Saints are the only teams in the league that doesn't have a 1st or 2nd round TE or WR on its roster. Obviously, we know why the Saints can do that - Drew Brees can make my dog look like he's running perfect routes. I can't say that about Fitzpatrick. I think with someone like #14, you need weapons around him to make him better. We all know Gailey feels he can get the most out of anyone. Accentuate the positives and hide the negatives. I still don't know what he sees in some of these guys, but he obviously sees something.
Battle for #2
I have to say, I haven't given much thought to this battle. It mainly has to do with the Bills being a team that runs 3 to 4 WR sets constantly. They also like to spread the ball around and your number #2 guy will probably have about as many catches as the #4 guy. Look at two years ago: Nelson had almost as many catches (31) as Lee Evans (37). Roscoe Parrish played half the year and he had 33 grabs. Tell me again who was the #2 guy that season? Look at Michael Irvin/Gailey's days in Dallas. In 1998, he lead the team with 73 catches. After that, the lead in catches went as follows: 39, 28, and 27. How about in 1999? After Rocket Ismail's 80 catches, the rest of the catches are distributed as follows: 35, 34, 30, and 23.
Again, Gailey spreads the ball around out of the spread so it doesn't really matter if you are the #2 or #4 wideout. You will be getting the ball.
If it wasn't for Donald Jones or Scott Chandler going down with injuries, I think Nelson's numbers would have gone down and you'd have a log jam of wideouts with 45-50 grabs. But, because we need to be experts and try to predict the future, I'm going with Donald Jones. I think he'll be the bridge gap to TJ Graham, who probably isn't ready. (More on that later.) To be clear, the #2 WR is on the outside, not in the slot like David Nelson will be. Anyway, you want your outside guy to have speed and I believe Jones has that. The Bills have been high on Jones since last year. He was one of the reasons they got rid of Evans. They thought he could stretch the defenses enough. He did have the 2nd longest reception last year (48) of the WRs. But again, don't get wrapped up in thinking that #2 WR will have the 2nd most catches on the team.
Keep doing what you do
Kind of crazy that at the age of 26, #13 is the veteran of the receiving corps. #13 is the only wide receiver in Bills history to have back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. His 158 grabs and 17 touchdowns over the last two years represents the third and second most during a two year span in club history. Those numbers also fall in the top 15 over the last 2 years in the NFL. He hasn't exactly had a stellar cast of WRs to take the pressure off of him either. He made the immortal Darrelle Revis look like just another corner. Against the Jets and Pats last year, Johnson had 23 catches for 293 yards and 3 touchdowns. Keep in mind that he was benched in the 1st quarter in the season finale against the Pats. Since he's still so young, you can only hope that he'll get better as the years go by. Johnson is exactly what the Bills want in their WR. He runs the slant and curl routes with such precision. 53 of his 76 catches went from 1-10 yds out. He was targeted 135 times last year, ranking 9th in the NFL and accounting for 25% of Fitzpatrick's throws. The next target for the Bills was David Nelson who was tied for 44th in the league. If anything were to happen to Johnson - injuries or bad celebrations which lead to suspensions - the Bills pass offense would be in serious trouble.
Of course, besides his numbers, fans love Stevie's swagger. He's probably the most popular guy on the team. He reminds me a little of every kid's role model growing up, a guy who is adored by the kiddies and feared by parents who are worried he's going to contaminate their precious loved ones' minds. But really, Stevie is a nice guy and as long as he doesn't drop key passes or get 15-yard penalties for shaking his ass the wrong way, all will be fine.
Stats to like about the WRs:
- All of their WRs are 26 and younger.
- Besides Stevie Johnson, all of their WRs numbers got better last year in comparison to 2010.
- The WRs bring something different to the table. Nelson=size, Graham=speed, Johnson=route running, and Jones=run blocking.
- Nelson and Johnson combined for 137 catches last year. That's the most a WR duo for the Bills have had since 2002 with Price/Moulds. It is also more catches than what James Lofton or Andre Reed had combined during a year.
- The Bills ranked 10th in receptions in the NFL with 356.
Stats to hate about the WRs:
- The Bills were 28th in yards per a reception (10.8).
- Stevie Johnson was tied for 35th in catches of 20+ yards or more with 13.
- The Bills' WRs went over the 100-yard mark last year only 2 times.
- The Bills only had 4 receptions of 50 yards or more last year.
- When Ryan Fitzpatrick threw the ball more than 30-yards in the air, he was 1-12 for 48 yards and 1 INT.
My depth chart:
- Stevie Johnson
- Donald Jones
- David Nelson
- TJ Graham
- Ruuvel Martin (Special teams)
- Derek Hagan (Does it matter at this point?)
- Marcus Easley (Pat Moran is crying)
My x-factor for the WRs
I'm going with David Nelson. To me, he's proven the most besides #13. He almost doubled his catches total from his rookie year to his 2nd year (31 to 61). He gives the Bills a nice possession/safety valve type of receiver. He runs routes well and he's Fitz's biggest target. He had four catches or more 9 times last year. Truth be told, who else is there? You gonna rely on TJ Graham? Look, I know he's been the rave of camp, but since 2007, 30 wide receivers have been selected in the 3rd round and their average numbers during their rookie year are 14 catches for 182 yards and 0.6 touchdowns. Only two players of the group, Jordan Shipley and Mike Wallace, contributed right away. I'm pretty much counting on Graham to make about 25 grabs and hopefully, a few of them will be able to stretch the defense. As for Donald Jones and Marcus Easley, well, one guy hasn't played a down and the other guy has a handful of starts for his career. Again, I'm going with Nelson because he's showed the most promise and the Bills like to work between the hashmarks with their WRs, which Nelson does well.
The Scott Chandler portion of this piece
I don't know what to think of Scott Chandler. I think he's a by-product of a position we never see anything out of. All of a sudden, "Oh, look. The tight end position. It exists. Hooray! Let's overrate." His 38 catches for 389 yards and six touchdowns ranked 23rd, 27th and a 5-way tie for 7th in the NFL for tight ends. Eh. Those numbers in comparison to his peers sound somewhat pedestrian. Dare I say below average. Now, could he surprise me? Sure. Hell, he made a nice catch in the preseason opener and as much as Gailey likes going 4 wide sets, he does have a history of getting the tight end involved during his days in KC. However, he had Gonzo and Chandler isn't that guy. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets something like 45-50 catches because the Bills don't exactly have much depth in the pass catching department, but I just want a better tight end. The NFL is a tight end driven league. 11 TEs had over 60 catches last year. In 2002, the number was at two. The only times in team history a tight end caight over 50 balls was Jay Riemersma in 2001 and Pete Metzelaars in 1992.
Could a running back be the 2nd leading reciever?
If Fred Jackson didn't get hurt during week 11's game against Miami, he would have been on pace for 64 catches for 704 yards. That would have been 2nd best on the team in both categories. It also would have been 3rd best in the NFL for running backs. Between Jackson and Spiller, both backs combined for 77 catches for 811 yards. The Bills used their running backs the 3rd most in the NFL (Behind Saints and Ravens) when it came to the passing the game (90 catches). That's a pretty decent pull, right? Of note, 30 of Fred Jackson's 39 grabs were thrown behind the line of scrimmage while half of Spiller's grabs went beyond. Does that mean the Bills like having Jackson run screens more, and have Spiller run actual passing routes? Maybe. Anyway you slice it, look for the passing game to run through the RBs a lot this year.
I'm not sure how much you can go to the well when it comes to getting so much out of undrafted or 7th round players. The Bills struck gold with Stevie in the 7th round, but can you do it twice with a bunch of other guys? I don't think you can. As I've said since I started these pieces, I think it would be smart for the Bills to run the football more. I don't care what base defense the Redskins were playing Thursday night, but the whole sequence of throwing on your first 14 plays better have been because you wanted to see how the passing game looked and not because you are thinking about opening a regular season game with 14 straight throws. Hell, I don't even want to hear about a no-huddle offense. I want the Bills to be a team that has a 50/50 ratio when it comes to throwing and running. You just don't have the offensive weapons to be a pass happy offense. Stevie was the only Bills WR ranked in the top 60 in yards last year. You know how many Pats made that list? Four.
Could some of the 3rd year guys get better? Sure. But I can't get past the fact that all of the WRs are undrafted guys or guys who haven't played a down. I just can't. Again, only one other NFL team doesn't have a 1st or 2nd round WR or TE on its roster. It is just a lot to ask.
Of course, that's why a majority of fans have liked this team, because they are the ultimate underdog stories. However, you need some talent and I don't think the passing offense did enough this past offseason in that regard.