Orchard Park, NY (WGR 550) -- It's certainly been an interesting season for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson. Since entering the starting lineup in 2010, Johnson has had his lowest production, has dealt with a few different injuries and has had to catch passes from five different quarterbacks that took first-team reps since OTAs started in May.
If he plays in the team's final three contests, Johnson is on pace to finish the season with 65 receptions for 754 yards and 4 touchdowns. Compare that with his least productive year as a starter up to this season, 2011, when he had 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns. It's easy to see 2013 has been a trying year at best for him.
The dip in production could be attributed to a few different factors: injuries, a rookie quarterback, a new offense or added depth and talent to the wide receiver position. The simple fact of the matter, though, is that Johnson hasn't found the success that he has in past years.
Now, with a $1.75 million roster bonus due in March, there is some thought that the 4-9 Bills may consider cutting Johnson loose to save the cash and the rest of the annual base salary he has. From a cap management perspective, there is an argument to be made for it.
The wideout currently has the third-largest contract on the Bills, he has the aforementioned bonus, and his salary cap number jumps up in 2014 by nearly $3 million. His 2013 cap number stayed at a respectable $5.65 million, but it goes up to $8.5 million in 2014, $8.85 million in 2015 and $8.95 million in the deal's final year, 2016.
In the ever-increasing salary structure that is the National Football League, it's a manageable contract. Therein lies the biggest question in the conversation, however. Will the Bills get production from Johnson that they couldn't get from a younger player that would have a lower cap number and contract? And if you want to take it a step farther, does the long-term potential of that younger player outweigh that of what Johnson presents?
In the cold, heartless business side of the NFL, often times faces, names and feelings are removed from shrewd decision making. You're a hero within the building one minute, and a castoff the next. That is the culture, for better or worse.
With all that written, how is Johnson handling this new conversation in 2013? The wide receiver isn't one that wears blinders and stays away from media altogether on his free time. He's heard the rumblings, and he said it weighs on him.
"Yeah. Because this is where home is. This is all I know. A lot of 'blah blah blahs' in there with injuries, dealing with this, doing that. But at the end of the day you've got to produce," Johnson said. "Yeah, it's upsetting. I think the fans are upset too. They've got a right to feel however they feel, but it's just on me to work to get back to the top."
Even amidst all the talk Johnson remains in the realm of the optimistic, because he believes in the talent throughout the locker room, and says he sees a bright season for Buffalo in the future. Regardless of how this year has panned out, Johnson's one desire -- and the biggest reason for him re-signing with the Bills -- is to see it through and get the franchise back on the right track.
"My goal was to turn things around in Buffalo," he said. "If something was to happen, if I was to be gone before that happened then I'd feel like I failed my goal and my mission to turn things around. I failed the fans, failed my family, failed myself, failed the team. So that's why I work all the time. That's why I stay optimistic because I know what I'm working for, and I believe in it. It's just taking more time than I thought."
Time, however, is not something too many players get in the NFL. It's not a 'what have you done for me in the past' type of culture, it's a projection-based industry and that's how the majority of decisions are made. With Johnson's oncoming roster bonus and jump in salary cap, the Bills have to make the decision if his potential production is a part of the hopeful solution.
Johnson, unlike many successful Bills players that have come through the organization, elected to buck the trend and stay on with the team that drafted him. To him, it was an easy decision.
"I could've went back home. I could've went back to the west coast. But I ain't got no ties there besides where I grew up at by default," he said. "But, when I came here to Buffalo it was down, and I wanted to make a change. I wanted to be a part of the team that changed it. I think we're close. Hopefully I am a part of it. But if not, it is what it is. People move all the time in this business."
Johnson and the Bills have three games remaining in the regular season.