One of the most intriguing positional battles we've been watching since the start of 2010 Buffalo Bills training camp has been the free-for-all for reps and targets at the wide receiver position. Aside from veterans Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish - known commodities and virtual locks to make the final roster - the team has a large pool (eight deep) of highly unproven talent that they're trying to develop. Here are some observations about each of those players to date in training camp:
Steve Johnson has been getting the bulk of the reps as the starter opposite Evans. The third-year player out of Kentucky has been the most consistent young receiver at camp, displaying a degree of polish to his game that several others don't possess yet. He has been targeted frequently on short and intermediate routes, and could develop a reputation as Buffalo's go-to possession receiver in time. He has good hands and is capable of making the tough catch; he just needs to continue to work on his consistency and become more of a presence on the football field.
Felton Huggins hasn't been given much of a chance to make the final roster, but he's been impressive. He's seen occasional reps with the first unit in spread formations, and has been a mainstay with the twos. He has perhaps the most inconsistent set of hands in the group, as he's just as capable of dropping a routine throw as he is of making a highlight-reel play, but it's clear he has the confidence of Buffalo's quarterbacks. Strong pre-season play could make him very difficult to cut.
Marcus Easley has missed several practices recently with a knee injury, but he made a good impression in spring workouts and early in training camp. Blessed with excellent physical tools, Easley is toughest to defend on fly routes, as he has long arms, good hands and adjusts to the ball well. He needs a lot of work on his route-running and his abilities in the short and intermediate areas, but he's a virtual lock for the final roster based solely on potential. Don't expect much in 2010, but it's fair to expect a lot down the line.
Chad Jackson has been getting a lot of positive press after some glowing remarks made by Chan Gailey, and he's making a good impression on the field as well. I'd say that Jackson has the worst set of hands on the team - the sound the ball makes when it hits his hands is something to behold - but he, too, is capable of making the tough catch. His elite athleticism is very apparent, as well, as he looks very natural running routes, if unpolished. Again, strong pre-season performances could cement his place on the final roster.
James Hardy was supposed to challenge Johnson for the starting role opposite Evans, but thus far has not come close to achieving that goal. More than any other receiver, he struggles to get open, as he still looks flat-footed and stiff when running routes. He's made a few nice plays on short and intermediate routes, and has displayed a nice ability to shield defenders and make tough catches look routine in the middle of the field. Still, while he's been average, most every other receiver on the roster has made a much bigger impression, which doesn't bode well for Hardy's future as a Bill.
Donald Jones has been getting more work on the practice field lately thanks to a few injuries, and has made the most of the opportunity. Perhaps the most physical receiver on the roster, Jones is a strong, tough player that can make plays all over the field. He still has yet to put the whole package together, as he can get sloppy running routes and can drop easy passes due to a lack of concentration. He has turned several deep throws into easy receptions thanks to an excellent ability to adjust to deep routes. Jones looks like a promising practice squad addition with special teams upside, but he's a longshot to make the final roster.
David Nelson is also dealing with a minor hamstring tweak, but should be back in time for the Bills' first pre-season game next Friday. He's very thin, which makes him look smaller than his 6'5" frame really is. An excellent athlete, Nelson is a smooth route-runner that, with a little polish, could hurt defenses at all levels of the field. He's got good hands and has looked good on intermediate throws to date, and saw a lot of action out of the slot, where his length could make him a matchup nightmare in time.
Naaman Roosevelt has been, frankly, the least noticeable receiver at camp. He looks sharp and quick in positional drills, but has been a non-factor in full-team activities. He looks like a better fit in the slot than on the outside, but I'll reserve judgment on him until I see more of him in the pre-season. Either way, he's definitively a longshot at this point in time.