The Buffalo Bills had the 28th-ranked passing attack in the NFL in 2013, averaging just 194 yards per game through the air and registering 16 passing touchdowns, the second-lowest total in the league. Their wide receivers combined for 1,924 receiving yards, the third-lowest total for the position in the league, and none of them surpassed 600 receiving yards individually.
Much of the blame for the Bills' poor passing attack lies at the feet of their revolving door of inexperienced quarterbacks. Injuries also depleted the receiving corps at times, most notably late in the season. But when something isn't working, every aspect of it should be considered - and the Bills' wide receiver group is worth evaluating closely.
That does not mean, however, that the Bills don't have a great deal of talent at the position. They most certainly do.
Talent on hand
Right now, the Bills have three receivers on hand that are talented and productive enough to potentially start for most NFL teams: Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods and the recently acquired Mike Williams.
None of those players are considered elite-level athletes or go-to guys, but there are other factors to consider. Johnson had 1,000 yards receiving in three consecutive years before injuries and the unfortunate passing of his mother derailed his 2013 season. Off-field concerns led to Williams' exodus in Tampa Bay, but he caught at least 63 passes in each of his first three seasons, developing consistency quickly as a former fourth-round pick. Woods, a second-rounder last year, showed ability downfield and a quality rapport with EJ Manuel despite fairly pedestrian statistics as a rookie.
Add in second-year speedster Marquise Goodwin, who - if he can stay healthy - could develop into a highly explosive part-time option at the position, and the Bills are not hurting for depth. That appears to be their top four heading into the 2014 season; Marcus Easley will wait in the wings and play his special teams role, and T.J. Graham and Chris Hogan are worth keeping in the conversation, as well.
Bottom line: the Bills have three No. 2-caliber receivers in town, and a spark plug in Goodwin that could make the group work next season.
Need assessment: Long View
Here's the problem with the Bills' receiving group: it's tough to figure out where they'll be after the 2014 season. Johnson's future has been repeatedly questioned since the mid portions of the 2013 campaign, and unless he sees a jump back to his typical production from 2010-12, his $8.9 million cap figure could make a casualty. So, too, could the presence of Williams, who only counts $1.8 million against the cap this season, but will see jumps to $6.8 million and then over $7 million in subsequent years of the six-year, $40 million contract the Bills inherited when they traded for him. It's tough to envision both Johnson and Williams on this roster beyond the 2014 season.
The jury also remains out on Woods and Goodwin, though both certainly showed enough promise as rookies to remain bullish on them long term.
Buffalo has depth here, but they could stand to clarify the position long-term. They need to do that, in fact, so that they know that they'll have a consistent group of targets to "grow up" alongside Manuel in the offense. Whether it be a first-round target that provides an immediate upgrade on the talent on hand, or an early-round project that will be ready to contribute in 2015, this is a position that the Bills need to address.
To that end, the Bills brought in four pre-draft visitors. Two of them look like mortal looks to be selected in the Top 10. A third is a lock for the first round, and perhaps even the top half of it. The fourth is one of the hottest names in the draft class, and could wind up being taken in the first round, as well.
Sammy Watkins of Clemson and Mike Evans of Texas A&M are the two elite-level prospects. Watkins is fairly widely considered the better prospect of the two - he's certainly the more versatile player - and there's little to no chance that he'll be available when the Bills pick at No. 9. The chances are slightly better that Evans falls that far, but those odds are also slim; there's talk that he could go as high as No. 5 overall to Oakland. In short, these are No. 1 receiver prospects that the Bills would probably need to trade up for.
Odell Beckham, Jr. of LSU is likely to be available at No. 9, but perhaps not for long beyond that. Many consider Beckham a better prospect than Evans - that speaks to the quality and depth of this year's receiver class - but he does not play with the same size that Watkins plays with, or that Evans just has.
Cody Latimer of Indiana was a little-known name when the Bills brought him in for a visit early this month, but solid college production and fantastic postseason workouts have launched him into the Round 1 discussion. Teams appear to be enamored with his upside. If he makes it to day two, he will be a name to watch with the Bills' No. 41 overall pick.
Aside from those four names, which could end up being the first four names off the board at the position, there are upwards of another dozen-plus receiver prospects that may not make it to day three. (Again: there really is a ton of receiving talent available this year.) Some of the more notable names to remember for the first couple days of the draft include Marqise Lee (USC), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Davante Adams (Fresno State), Donte Moncrief (Mississippi), Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), Jarvis Landry (LSU) and Allen Robinson (Penn State). The allure of the bigger names may be tough to pass on, but the Bills will still be able to find a high-upside prospect if they'd rather go in a different direction at the top of the draft.
Wide receiver is, correctly, not considered among the team's most pressing positional needs. But wouldn't it make a great deal of sense for the team to go find that No. 1 target for Manuel as soon as possible, thereby giving them as much time to develop together as possible?