A year ago, Buffalo Bills fans were talking about the wide receiver expectation with a mix of unbridled excitement and anticipation. The team had just recently shown unexpected chutzpah by signing free agent to a one-year, $6.5 million deal. Owens joined veterans Lee Evans and to give the Bills their deepest and most talented receiving corps in years. Owens and Evans would line up outside as one of the league's elite deep threat combinations, and the wily Reed would move the chains as a possession slot receiver.
That all sounded great on paper. But Owens cautioned during the pre-season blitz of expectation and media maelstrom that the Bills' offense would go as far as the quarterback and line could take them. He was right; although the three receivers combined for 13 receiving touchdowns (12 from Owens and Evans combined), the Bills were once again stagnant offensively en route to a 6-10 finish.
Now that GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have taken over the reigns of the franchise, Buffalo's receiving position has once again undergone massive transformation. Owens and Reed are gone. Evans once again faces the prospect of double coverage on a consistent basis. This is now one of the youngest positions on Buffalo's roster, as the team has taken a youth movement this off-season, with a side helping of size.
Unlike other positions, this one's pretty simple. Know the offense. Run crisp routes. Get open and catch footballs. At the very least, give good effort while run blocking for the Bills' deep stable of running backs. Spend a little extra time after practice developing a rapport with... well, whoever ends up being the team's quarterback. The job responsibilities of receivers are simple in theory, but not simple in execution.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
83 - Lee Evans. I can't help but feel badly for Lee. Ultra-talented, Evans has toiled in mediocrity throughout his entire career thanks to his team's inability to get their [stuff] together across the rest of the offensive lineup, particularly at quarterback. Then again, Evans chose to sign a long-term extension with Buffalo; while admirable, I was a little shocked at that decision. He is Buffalo's lone established threat at receiver, and will retain that title for the foreseeable future.
11 - Roscoe Parrish. After falling out of favor with Dick Jauron, Parrish has one last shot in Buffalo to prove himself as a receiving threat. He's gone on record repeatedly stating his preference to get more playing time at receiver, and if Buffalo's younger depth flounders this pre-season, Roscoe may just get his shot. Gailey likes athletic players with quickness and explosiveness - hence - and if anyone can find ways to use Roscoe, it's his new head coach.
17 - Chad Jackson. Yes, Jackson and his 18 career in-game appearances make him the third-most experienced receiver on Buffalo's roster. A second-round pick of New England in 2006, Jackson (25) possesses elite-level physical tools, but has never been able to put it all together. I view him as a long shot to make the roster, but he's on the right roster to make some noise.
13 - Steve Johnson. A 2008 seventh-round pick, Johnson has something of a cult following in Buffalo's fan base despite minimal opportunity and production in his first two seasons. Not tremendously physically gifted, Johnson has that "it" factor - he's just a baller, and gets open on intelligence and instincts. I consider him the early favorite to nab the starting spot opposite Evans, but even at his best, I think he'll have a hard time rolling coverage away from Evans. Johnson is much more possession receiver than home run threat, but he has a chance to stick around for a while.
84 - James Hardy. Hardy is in precisely the same situation as Johnson, save for the fact that he's had a serious knee injury early in his career. Where Johnson has had lack of opportunity, Hardy has had that plus surgery and recovery. A second-round pick two years ago, Hardy's early-career impact has been minimal. He and Johnson appear to be the main competitors for a starting slot, but it's tough to gauge exactly how many fans expect Hardy to win that competition.
15 - Felton Huggins. He's been able to stick around Buffalo the last couple of seasons thanks to strong training camps and practice squad eligibility. As far as I can tell, that eligibility is now up, so it'll be roster or bust for Huggins. Don't count him out - he's a pretty talented guy, and plays hard - but he, too, has an uphill climb, thanks mostly to the rookie listed directly below him.
81 - Marcus Easley. Possessing more natural talent than almost all of the names on this list, the ultra-raw Easley is a lock to make the final roster, but not much more than that. Easley, who was a non-factor in college until his senior season, has a lot to learn, and is in need of a lot of coaching. There's a shot he sees playing time this season, which speaks more to the Bills' overall lack of experience at this position than Easley's readiness for the pro game.
19 - Donald Jones. What I know about Jones is minimal; he's a big, tough, physical player that isn't explosive, but profiles well into a Gailey offense thanks to that physicality.
86 - David Nelson. He didn't see much work at Florida thanks to Urban Meyer's quirky offensive system, but Nelson is long, fast and smooth, and has a shot to develop. He's pretty similar to Hardy (a little thinner, though).
18 - Naaman Roosevelt. Was a go-to receiver in college and made plenty of big plays. He's got average size and even more average speed, but like Johnson, he's got a little bit of that "it" factor. He had a strong mini-camp, and it wouldn't surprise me if he continued to produce throughout the pre-season.
Naturally, Evans is tied up the longest, with three years and $16.45 million left to earn. Once Easley inks his inevitable four-year deal, however, he'll have the longest-term contract of the group. All three undrafted free agents will have deals of three years or possibly less. Huggins is currently playing on an RFA tender, meaning he's under contract for one year at an undisclosed salary. Johnson and Hardy both have two years and roughly $1 million remaining on their rookie deals; Hardy obviously has a few more incentives to earn as well. Parrish has two years remaining on his deal at just over a combined $3 million. I have no clue how long Jackson is under contract for, but I'll assume he signed either a one- or two-year street free agent deal.
Buffalo hasn't started a regular season with less than five receivers on its roster since 2007, but there's a very strong possibility that happens this year. Given the youth at the position, the necessity to stockpile extra bodies along the offensive line, and the type of talent at running back, it's entirely conceivable that the Bills could go thin in numbers at this position to start the regular season, with two or even three of the younger guys stashed on the practice squad if needed.
It's going to be a rough year for this group. Evans will face constant double-teams as opponents force the likes of Spiller, Nelson and Jackson to beat them in the passing game. The young guys - a group that still includes Johnson and Hardy - will need to develop quickly. If I'm picking one break-out star, it's Johnson; his skill set complements Evans' well, and he should be able to do some damage on short and intermediate routes.
Evans is a lock. Easley is a lock. Parrish is hovering on the verge of being a lock, at least in my mind; Gailey will find ways to use him. (Hopefully.) That leaves Johnson and Hardy to round out the depth chart, and then two of Jones, Nelson and Roosevelt are stashed on the practice squad; if I'm choosing two, I'm going with Jones and Roosevelt.
That mix gives Buffalo a nice blend of size (Hardy - 6'5"; Johnson - 6'2"; Easley - 6'2") - which both Nix and Gailey prefer in receivers - and speed (Evans and Parrish), with two more six-plus footers in Jones (who would be an excellent blocker and specialist in the event of injury) and Roosevelt on the practice squad.