When was the last time an NFL player with ten career receptions generated such buzz amongst a fan base?
That, folks, is a rhetorical question meant to outline the unexpected rise to popularity of Buffalo Bills second-year wide receiver Steve Johnson. As a rookie seventh-round selection out of Kentucky in 2008, Johnson earned a spot on the roster as the sixth receiver and slowly worked his way into the rotation from there. His first NFL reception came in a Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals; he would go on to register receptions in six more games, with his most productive game (3 catches, 41 yards) coming in a Monday Night Football loss to Cleveland. Johnson got fans excited about his potential with touchdown receptions in back-to-back games at the end of the season.
Still, we're only ten receptions into the young man's career. Despite the promise Johnson showed in flashes last season, it's unlikely that he'll see significant playing time this coming year with Terrell Owens, Lee Evans and Josh Reed clogging up the depth chart. Johnson needs to be on the field if he's going to improve. There may be ways to get him some reps without sacrificing field time - or even many touches - from the established vets on the roster.
Perhaps the biggest reason that fans are excited about Johnson's prospects are the clutch nature of his receptions. Clearly, ten catches is a very small sample size to be working with, but nine of those catches went for first downs. Two were scores - and they were key scores in close games (a 31-27 loss to the Jets, and a 30-23 win over the Broncos). When Johnson has been asked to make plays in important situations, he has delivered.
As BuffaloBills.com's Chris Brown notes in this Johnson video segment, the Bills are asking him to be more than just the fourth receiver next season. Before we get into that, note the significance of that statement. Johnson is likely to be on the field before draft class mate James Hardy - who, admittedly, is still recovering from an ACL tear - and ace punt returner Roscoe Parrish. That shows the type of confidence that this coaching staff has in Johnson's abilities. Brown notes that the coaches are asking Johnson to learn all four of the receiving positions on the team, as well, so it's safe to expect Johnson to be the first receiver off the bench in pretty much any situation.
Just as the Bills have used special packages to get Parrish on the field in past seasons, similar packages could be thrown together for Johnson's benefit as well. That's likely low on the priority list, however, and with Parrish still on the roster, those packages would likely be used so sparingly that they would not provide any experience benefit to Johnson.
But there's an easy way to get Johnson on the field quite frequently (and we're not talking about special teams - you'll see plenty of him there, though). At 6'2" and 202 pounds, Johnson has already shown a knack for red zone work that slot receiver Reed (5'10", 210) has lacked, for all of his stellar between-the-twenties qualities. Reed has played eight seasons in this league, and has just nine touchdowns to show for it. If the Bills want to use three receivers in the red zone, it'd be a good idea to use Johnson in the slot in place of Reed. (This is something that Bills coaches failed to do with Hardy last season, despite the fact that Hardy showed his skills in that area in a Week 2 win over Jacksonville.)
(And we humbly suggest that if a four-receiver set is required in the red zone, the other slot position go to either Fred Jackson, Shawn Nelson or Hardy. Owens, Evans, Johnson and Jackson - that would be quite difficult to stop.)
Adding red zone responsibilities to chief backup and special teams duties is quite enough to be getting on with for the second-year receiver. That's a lot on anyone's plate. Johnson can handle it, and it's the best way to ensure that the Bills are actually using one of their more promising offensive weapons and letting him grow as a player (not to mention likely increasing their red zone proficiency). It's a win-win. Cross your fingers so it happens.