On Thursday, the Buffalo Bills announced that starting wide receiver Donald Jones, an impending restricted free agent, would not be back with the team in 2013. The Bills needed a starting-caliber receiver even before Jones was out of the picture, but his departure clarifies a few things about the notable receivers on the roster.
First thing's first: the only starting-caliber receiver on the roster, Stevie Johnson, is a guy that GM Buddy Nix has openly said could be elite playing from the slot. You're likely to see him in both spots next season. The only other notable receiver capable of playing on the outside is second-year pro T.J. Graham, who dropped 12 percent of his targets last season and caught only 31 passes. Expecting reliable production out of him in 2013 is asking for trouble; at this point, Graham is a project.
David Nelson, who like Jones is an impending restricted free agent, may be more likely to get a tender offer now that Jones is gone. Purely a slot receiver, Nelson lacks the natural athletic ability to separate from corners consistently, but has great height (6'5") and solid quicks to separate from linebackers and safeties inside. He's as reliable a possession receiver as you can find, but his upside is limited.
Missing from the equation is a legitimate outside receiver, which Nix acknowledged as he was talking up Stevie in the slot late in the 2012 season (see the link above): "(We) still need to get another, bigger guy that can line up out there and catch the ball when he's covered," Nix said at the time.
As it happens, there are three proven, high-quality and very productive receiving threats scheduled to hit the open market on March 12. Two of them - Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers - do not fit the "bigger guy" prerequisite that Nix outlined, but they'd both obviously be huge upgrades for the team at the position.
Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs, however, appears to be exactly what Nix is looking for. He's big (6'2", 221 pounds), experienced, and has produced without great quarterback play, catching 15 touchdown passes and making the Pro Bowl in 2010. With Andy Reid now coaching the Chiefs, however, it's no lock at all that Bowe will leave Kansas City - and even if it does, it would likely take a massive financial commitment on Buffalo's part to sign him.
Consider: last off-season, Vincent Jackson - then age 29 - signed a five-year, $55 million ($26 million guaranteed) free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bowe is younger and has been more productive throughout his career; signing him will require a contract similar to (if not in excess of) that level of investment. Plus, Bowe has spent the first six years of his career playing for a quarterback-starved franchise; would he really want to sign with another one, even for big money?
Jennings will be 30 when the 2013 season starts, and while he's easily the most accomplished receiver on the market, he also doesn't fit the profile Nix outlined; in fact, he's not dissimilar to Johnson in that he's a better fit in the slot. Jennings would be an upgrade, but at minimum could be looking at a deal near the level of the five-year, $42.5 million ($20.5 million guaranteed) deal that Pierre Garcon signed with the Washington Redskins last year. The same is true for Wallace, an outstanding deep threat, but who is significantly less impactful in other areas of the field.
Keep in mind, also, that the Bills were in the market for a receiver last off-season - they targeted Robert Meachem at the same time they were wooing Mario Williams - but backed out when Meachem got a four-year, $26 million ($14 million guaranteed) deal from the San Diego Chargers. How willing are the Bills, then, to spend on a starting-caliber receiver? It's a fair question to ponder.
In my opinion, however, the Bills should pick one of those receivers - my preference would be Bowe - and make him their top free agency target (once, you know, they've taken care of their own). They have no business trying to fill this receiver void with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, given the talent likely to be available at more pressing need areas. Nor can they try to skate by with subpar receiver play for another season of Johnson's prime; he needs help. Plus, if they're adding two or three quarterbacks this off-season, they'll have an easier go of getting production out of those quarterbacks with higher-quality weapons at their disposal. (Imagine an offense featuring Johnson, Bowe and C.J. Spiller for a moment; why wouldn't an Alex Smith jump at the chance to line up with that trio? Why wouldn't that talent accelerate the learning curve for a rookie?)
I'm on record, then, with the opinion that receiver should be the Bills' top priority entering free agency - but I'm open to counter-arguments. I'm also not optimistic that the Bills will be able to attract any of that trio of receivers, given their quarterback situation; it's nice to dream though, right? Let's chat about this, Bills fans.