Stevie Johnson is back with the Buffalo Bills thanks to a fancy five-year contract signed this morning, and with that settled, it's time to re-evaluate the team's still-needy passing attack heading into free agency. The biggest thing to note about today's events: Buffalo didn't get better today. They just didn't get worse.
Let's start at receiver, where with Johnson back in the fold, the team has a whopping two players with defined roles. Johnson is the go-to guy for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and is a true edge receiver that is capable of consistently beating just about any corner thrown his way. The other receiver with a defined role? David Nelson.
Nelson, a third-year former undrafted free agent out of Florida, has put together two nice seasons in Buffalo, raking in 92 passes for 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns. He has proven to be a tremendous possession asset for the team as a slot receiver - a sure-handed player capable of a high level of production in that role. Nelson has not, however, been able to ascend beyond that role, despite several opportunities in that time frame.
Argue how you will about Nelson's ceiling and abilities, but the fact of the matter is that he's spent the overwhelming majority of his playing time in the slot, and that's where the Bills want to keep him. In two-receiver sets - which the team doesn't run a lot - Nelson won't be on the field. He is a (predominantly featured) sub-package player at this point in his career, and to expect more from Nelson moving into 2012 would be to follow the same road that led to a few disappointments at this position a year ago.
Still, in Johnson and Nelson, the Bills have two good young receivers that they know how to use. That's good. From there, they need to figure out what they have in a group of projects that includes Donald Jones, Marcus Easley, Brad Smith, Naaman Roosevelt, David Clowney and Kamar Aiken. Of a trio of free agents, it's long been assumed that Derek Hagan has a better shot at being retained than either Roscoe Parrish or Ruvell Martin.
The Bills have plenty of reasons to like what that group of unknowns brings to the table, but that's just it: they're unknowns. None of those players should be considered locks for playing time moving forward, particularly since some of them (chiefly Jones) have already been afforded opportunities. Put simply, the Bills have two productive, known commodities at receiver - one of which is sequestered to slot duty - and a bunch of question marks at receiver.
Signing Johnson to a fair deal was a critically important move for the organization. There's no question about that. In re-focusing following the good news, however, it's important to remember that the team could really use an infusion of talent at this position - and if said talent can provide more depth chart clarity at the position, all the better.