Stevie Johnson tops Buffalo Bills receivers group with talent, youth

Rick Stewart

Remember when Stevie Johnson was the young up-and-comer three whole years ago? Now he's the grizzled vet when it comes to Bills receivers.

The Buffalo Bills entered the off-season with a lack of clarity at the wide receiver position. Now that the bulk of the off-season player acquisition process is completed, the team once again has clarity here - and they also have significantly more talent than when the 2012 season concluded. Now, the big question about the Bills' group of receivers is this: how productive can a quartet of big-talent youngsters be behind top dog Stevie Johnson? And can Johnson not only elevate his game, but become a leader by example for one of the team's youngest positional groups?

Our State of the Bills Roster series continues today with a look at the wide receiver position.

Stevie Johnson

  • Age: 26 (27 in July)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2016 season. Will make $2.55 million in base salary in 2013, and will also be paid a $275,000 workout bonus and a $4.5 million option bonus.

Despite the questionable media commentary and Twitter behavior, Johnson has been a model of consistency on the field for the Bills over the last three seasons, hauling in 237 passes for 3,123 yards and 23 touchdowns in that time frame. The question with Johnson now becomes this: is that 70-80 catch, 1,000-yard, 7-8 touchdowns per year plateau he's been operating at his official pro "ceiling," or can he elevate his game to a higher level as he enters his prime? There's no question that the team needs him to drop (some of) the antics and become a bona fide leader, since he's now the only proven wideout on the roster and the clear go-to target for whichever quarterback is under center.

Robert Woods

  • Age: 21
  • Contract: Unsigned rookie. Will ink a deal close to the four-year, $4.865 million deal (with $2.92 million guaranteed) that Cordy Glenn signed as the No. 41 overall pick a year ago.

Remember when rookie wide receivers weren't expected to walk into a lineup and produce right away? Those days are long gone, and the Bills are expecting their ultra-productive rookie out of USC to step into the starting lineup and produce across the field from Johnson from day one. The Bills don't necessarily need Woods to take coverage away from Johnson; they just need a player that can make catches and pick up yards when defenses do send multiple guys Johnson's way, and Woods is more than capable of that. One of Buffalo's youngest players on the roster, the pro-ready Woods will face lofty expectations as a rookie.

T.J. Graham

  • Age: 23 (24 in July)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

Only Johnson logged more playing time at receiver last season than Graham (695 snaps), but the raw rookie out of North Carolina State dropped his fair share of passes and only managed to produce 31 receptions, 322 yards and one touchdown on a measly 58 targets. His speed is something that you can't teach, but Graham must be taught to become a better route-runner if he's going to evolve beyond what he was last season: a receiver that only threatens the field on go routes and bubble screens. There is talent to work with, but it's tough to expect a big leap given what's gone on at the position in front of him.

Marquise Goodwin

  • Age: 22 (23 in November)
  • Contract: Unsigned rookie. Will ink a deal close to the four-year, $2.776 million deal (with a $589,000 signing bonus) that No. 78 overall pick Michael Egnew signed a year ago in Miami.

It's not often that one of your football team's wide receivers participated in a track and field event at the Olympics. Yet if you were watching the men's long jumping finals in the summer of 2012, you saw Goodwin competing long before he became a professional football player. Splitting time between football and track did his development on the gridiron no favors, and that's what the Bills are banking on: that, in an all football all the time atmosphere, the team can harness his world-class athleticism and turn him into a dynamic threat as a receiver and runner. It may take time.

Da'Rick Rogers

  • Age: 21 (22 in June)
  • Contract: Parameters undisclosed.

We may never again encounter a Bills undrafted free agent that generates as much buzz as Rogers already has, and will continue to generate this summer. After all: how often does the GM admit that his scouts had first- and second-round grades on an undrafted free agent, and how often does one of those scouts compare said player, in any way, to Eric Moulds? Character concerns caused Rogers to slide out of the draft, but Buddy Nix said it perfectly: the ball is in his court. If he keeps his head on straight, he should walk onto this roster with ease - and there are reasonable arguments to be made that the 6'2", 216-pound rookie is Buffalo's most talented receiver prospect.

Brad Smith

  • Age: 29 (30 in December)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $2.75 million in base salary in 2013, and has already been paid a $500,000 roster bonus.

Thanks to injuries, Smith played a lot more on offense (313 snaps) than he likely would have if the IR list hadn't grown as the season wore on. Only three players logged more special teams work than Smith last season; one of those (fullback Corey McIntyre) is no longer on the team, while another (linebacker Nigel Bradham) is staring a starting job in the face. Fans will persistently complain about his contract - which is justifiable - but Smith does everything asked of him at a high level, and with turnover occurring on special teams and in the return game, and with the receiver position getting very young, Smith's experience and versatility may be necessary next season.

Marcus Easley

  • Age: 25 (26 in November)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

Easley has faced unrealistic expectations for years, and now that he's finally spent a year in the NFL at 100 percent health, the expectations are becoming much more realistic. Easley spent most of 2012 on the practice squad before being signed to the active roster late in the season; he played four snaps on offense and 25 on special teams. The 2010 fourth-round pick is still a promising athlete, but he's now surrounded by promising athletes at a deep position. His ability as a kick returner could help his chances - and don't forget that he was a stand-out special teams player at Connecticut, either.

Kevin Elliott

  • Age: 24 (25 in December)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

The Bills added Elliott to the active roster late in the 2012 season after the injury bug bit. Elliott, an undrafted rookie that had appeared in 13 games with Jacksonville (making 10 receptions), did not get onto the field for the Bills. The 6'2", 200-pound Elliott has enough speed and athleticism to play on the outside, and should be considered a sleeper to make the roster heading into the summer months. Don't be surprised if he makes some big plays and becomes buzz-worthy during training camp.

Brandon Kaufman

  • Age: 22 (23 in October)
  • Contract: Parameters undisclosed.

The Bills lost a lot of length when they let David Nelson walk as a free agent, but they recouped that when they signed the 6'5" Kaufman as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Washington. Depending on how good his hands are, it's reasonable to expect a similar game from Kaufman as we're used to with Nelson - neither is quick or fast enough to play on the outside, but Nelson was a tough cover from the slot, and Kaufman brings that potential as well.

Chris Hogan

  • Age: 24 (25 in October)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $405,000 in base salary.

Hogan caught on with the team late in the 2012 season as injuries depleted receiver depth, but he never got onto the field. A former college fullback, Hogan is similar athletically to Dorin Dickerson - he's a touch smaller - but is clearly a longshot to make the team.

Kevin Norrell

  • Age: 22 (23 in October)
  • Contract: Parameters undisclosed.

Viewed as a slot receiver with good quickness, this undrafted free agent out of Stony Brook is making a big jump in terms of competition level, and will need to have a very strong camp and pre-season to have a reasonable shot at sticking with the team in some capacity.

Outlook

Johnson remains the team's unquestioned top receiver, but don't be surprised if Woods is nipping at his heels for that honor by the end of his rookie season. It seems the only way Rogers won't be on the field this season is if he screws up off of it; it wouldn't even be shocking if he locked down a significant role. Graham and Goodwin are locks to make the roster, as well, though with somewhat similar strengths it's tough to figure how much playing time either will get.

At a minimum, four receivers are locks to make the final roster - and Rogers will likely be the fifth if he can keep a low profile off the field. If Rogers makes that happen, that leaves six talented athletes - headlined by Smith - battling for perhaps just one receiver spot on the final roster.

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