CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 02: Stevie Johnson #13 of the Buffalo Bills watches the action during the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
"As far as the extra antics with over-celebrating, I feel like I did that to try to get on in the league and make a name for myself, and let people know about Stevie Johnson. I feel like I have the attention now, so now it's time to take the next step... things are changing, and now I'm the veteran receiver among the first-year and second-year guys, and my whole mentality has to change." - Johnson in January 2012
Every year here at Buffalo Rumblings, we run a summer series in which we talk about the ten most important Buffalo Bills players entering a given season. Where in past seasons we've focused the series on guys that needed to perform if the team was going to succeed, this year's focus will just be on the team's ten players most likely to directly influence the team's successes or failures in 2012.
We start with wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who signed a five-year, $36.25 million contract (with $18.05 million guaranteed) in March.
We know that Johnson is a productive receiver. He became the first receiver in franchise history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2011. His 158 catches over the last two seasons is the most in a two-year stretch since Eric Moulds caught a combined 169 in 2004 and 2005, and is tied for ninth in the league in that same time frame. He's also scored 17 touchdowns in the last two seasons, the highest two-year total for a non-quarterback since Willis McGahee posted 18 in - you guessed it - 2004 and 2005.
What we don't yet know about Johnson is what he can become. Is he the statistically consistent go-to receiver with occasional lapses in concentration and judgment that we've come to know and (mostly) love over the last two seasons? Or can he become a receiver that's not just respected, but feared by opponents, and become a leader for a very young receiving corps at the tender age of (almost) 26?
Johnson is a very good wide receiver, and deserved every penny of the lucrative contract he signed in March, which prevented one of the Bills' best and most marketable players from hitting unrestricted free agency. But despite all of his production, there's an element of frustration with Johnson, because we know that he's left plays on the field. Johnson's been borderline great, but greatness has been within his grasp, and he's not yet achieved it. Add in the penalty-drawing post-touchdown celebratory antics he's become known for, and we have a player that's generally loved by Bills fans, but could be universally adored.
Buffalo is not long on proven receiving talent; there's Johnson and slot/possession receiver David Nelson, and then a bunch of talented and (mostly) unproven players. Johnson is the only receiver on the team that's proven himself capable of hurting defenses at all levels of the field, as well as beating the game's best corners with consistency. It would help immensely if the team could find another receiver to keep Johnson in favorable situations more often, but regardless of whether that happens or not, Johnson's still the guy. He's still the receiver that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be looking to first in the vast majority of situations, critical and non-critical.
Johnson's been very good in that role for two years. Now he's paid as if he's going to become great. That's what the Bills need from Stevie this coming season. It's time for Johnson to elevate from respected to feared. He's capable of making that leap.