By Sal Capaccio
Of course how rookie QB EJ Manuel performs this season and in the immediate future will be the biggest factor in judging how good or bad the Bills 2013 offseason was.
But another position could very well have the same "boom or bust" effect on the way the 2013 season plays out on the field for the Bills and, ultimately, how the front office is judged, as well.
The Bills made a calculated gamble and conscious decision this offseason to overhaul the unit and sacrifice experience in favor of more speed and play-making ability. They elected to let both Donald Jones and David Nelson leave by not tendering them offers as restricted free agents. Most fans are fine with those decisions given both Jones and Nelson were set to make far more than the value each brought to the team. Let's face it. Neither was going to be a difference-maker for the Bills in the win/loss column this season, anyway. But those moves also come with the risk of going with a severely inexperienced group heading into 2013. In most cases, when a team has a rookie quarterback competing for the starting job and especially one that was drafted in the first round and expected to be the "franchise QB" sooner rather than later, they try to surround him with experienced wideouts. Those guys can often cover up some of the rookie mistakes the QB will make. Jones and Nelson would have made the transition for Manuel easier and more comfortable.
Young receivers make more mistakes. They're also far too wrapped up in their own learning-curve to be worried about bringing the new QB along and helping him with his reads and adjustments. That's a lot to put on a rookie's plate. And it shouldn't be expected.
We saw a critical example of all this last year when the Bills lost at New England after rookie TJ Graham didn't run his route right and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a game-ending interception in the end zone. Couple that with a rookie QB reading the defense and pulling the trigger - and dropping back to pass can become less predictable than the next Amanda Bynes story we read.
The Bills essentially traded Jones and Nelson for Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Da'Rick Rogers. I approve. I'm sure most reading this do, as well. Not because any of us knows for sure those three are going to make the team better immediately, but because Jones and Nelson weren't going to do that. What we saw was what we got. And what it would continue to be. They hit their ceilings as NFL wide receivers. Maybe Jones puts up better numbers now that he's in New England with Tom Brady throwing him passes (in fact, he probably will), but neither he nor Nelson would have been a major part of the rebuilding of the Bills new offense, nor its progression.
The Bills may - MAY - get just as much production as they would have from Jones and Nelson immediately from their new trio. But the difference is there is also a lot of room to grow on top of that from one, two, or even all three of them. Their potential is far greater. If the young receivers "get it" early on and EJ Manuel is the QB they believe he is, suddenly this group will go from "young and inexperienced" to "young and dynamic!" Has a much better ring to it, doesn't it?
The Bills are obviously banking on this young group to not only get acclimated to the NFL and Nathaniel Hackett's offense very quickly, but to make immediate contributions. They'll have to. There's no other option.
Here's how some numbers and information breaks down:
- Of the thirteen WRs currently listed on the team's roster (counting Dorin Dickerson who seems to have his position changed each week and Kevin Norrell who is on the Reserve/Injured list) nine of them are either rookies or have only one or two seasons of NFL experience.
- Stevie Johnson has by far the most experience as a wide receiver and largest body of work of anyone at the position. Yet, he's only 26 years old and despite three 1,000-yard seasons doesn't even yet rank in the top-50 in career yards or career receptions amongst active players. He's still fairly young by position standards.
- Brad Smith is the "Old Man" of the receiving corps. He's an ancient 29! But, he's not even a true wide receiver. He's a kick returner and gadget player who hasn't had a true position on offense his two years in Buffalo. In fact, for his career, Smith has averaged only one catch per game. He's played 106 games with the Bills and Jets and has only 101 receptions. That's less than CJ Spiller has had in only three seasons. And he's a running back.
- Johnson and Smith have combined for 350 career receptions. After that, the entire roster is made up of eleven players who have a total of 53 catches.
Here are the total career receptions for current Bills wide receivers:
Stevie Johnson 249
Brad Smith 101
TJ Graham 31
Kevin Elliott 10
Dorin Dickerson 9
DeMarco Sampson 3
Robert Woods 0
Da'Rick Rogers 0
Brandon Kaufman 0
Chris Hogan 0
Marquise Goodwin 0
Marcus Easley 0
Kevin Norrell 0
That's seven players who have yet to catch a pass at the NFL level. That's ten players who have caught ten passes or less at the NFL level.
Of course, running backs Fred Jackson (209 career receptions), CJ Spiller (106), and even Tashard Choice (76) give the Bills more options in the passing game with both skill and experience, but with Spiller now the number-one back and expected workhorse, and Jackson's age (31) and recent injuries, neither of them should be expected to be lining up opposite Johnson on a regular basis.
Several tight ends will also be part of the passing game. But how Hackett decides to use them and how well Scott Chandler - who's caught 81 passes over the last two seasons - comes back from a late-season knee injury all still remains to be seen. But even with Chandler, Lee Smith, Mike Caussin, newly signed Mickey Shuler, and rookie Chris Gragg all fighting for spots and time, the receivers are the ones who will have to be the focal point of the passing game. After all, that's a big part of the reason why the Bills drafted the strong-armed Manuel and let go of Ryan Fitzpatrick. It's why they drafted and signed all this speed. To use it.
It will be up to these young guys. The question is will we continue to be talking about how inexperienced they are? Or soon be talking about how dynamic they are?
Follow me on Twitter: @SalSports