Welcome to the off-season, Bills fans. The NFL playoffs have reached the divisional round (go Jaguars!) (and we'll discuss those games briefly later on this week); for Bills purposes, however, we're continuing our roster breakdowns, which started yesterday.
This, folks, is the second posting of what will likely be at least 13 such posts in a series we're calling "State of the Bills Roster". We started with quarterbacks; today, we're skipping to wide receivers. Keep in mind the following: this exercise isn't entirely about talents and strengths/weaknesses as much as it is about status, usage and growth potential. This is a tool to help us predict/determine what the best plan of attack is for the Bills this off-season as they attempt to build a playoff roster for 2008.
Here's a breakdown of Buffalo's wide receiving corps:
Evans had a disappointing 2007 season as the Bills flip-flopped quarterbacks, seeing his reception total drop from 82 to 55 and his big plays become few and far between as well. The Bills generally ran Evans on two types of plays - fly patterns and deep digs. However, with defenses keyed in on Evans - he was Buffalo's only viable receiving threat - double and triple coverage often left him covered. He dropped a fair share of throws as well. There's no question that Evans has elite deep threat tools, but it's also clear that he can't carry a receiving corps without help.
Will Improve in '08 if - a new offense finds better ways to get him the ball :: the Bills find stability at QB :: he gets some help in the red zone
If there was a wide receiver that could be counted on week-to-week, it was Josh Reed. The young veteran had one of his best seasons to date, finishing second on the team in receptions (51) and developing into the Bills' top possession threat. When he was forced into starting action, he was not as effective - explaining why the Bills would often split Roscoe Parrish wide and let Reed continue to operate from the slot. Reed is at his best when he's not a focal point of the offense, as defenses can overlook him. He's certainly got a niche in the offense, and that niche will be better utilized if more talent is brought in.
Will Improve in '08 if - he doesn't have to start :: he no longer is a focal point of the offense
At one point, Parrish was complaining to the media that he was not being used properly in the offense. That may be true, but he still finished third on the team with 35 receptions and 352 yards. One of the NFL's elite punt return men, Parrish likely doesn't - and probably shouldn't - have much of a future role in the offense. He's simply too valuable elsewhere. Sure, he'll run the occasional reverse and he'll be on the field - at a minimum, he's a very scary slot threat, no matter how he's producing - but he'll probably never put up better numbers consistently than he did this season.
Will Improve in '08 if - the new O-Coordinator is creative in getting him the ball :: he doesn't have extended playing time, diluting his big-play potential :: he stays healthy for another full season
Surprisingly, Buffalo's offense struggled when Price was placed on Injured Reserve after four games. Not because Price was productive - let's face it, his 7 catches in four games weren't making much of an impact - but because his loss forced Reed and Parrish to play out of their distinctive niches. With the popular opinion that the Bills will be looking to bolster their receiving corps prevalent, Price may not have a roster spot awaiting him in '08 - despite having two years left on his deal.
Will Improve in '08 if: he's used out of the slot more :: he can stay healthy :: he's on the roster
Aiken - one of Buffalo's top special teams performers over the past few seasons - is a free agent. Whether the Bills re-sign him or not depends solely on his special teams abilities, because in four seasons, he hasn't been able to see much playing time at wideout despite having a size advantage over his teammates.
Will Improve in '08 if - he stays healthy :: he focuses on special teams - let's face it, Sam, your career as an NFL receiver is essentially over
Jenkins started the 2007 season on the Bills' practice squad, and was called up to the active roster after the season-ending neck injury to Price. In terms of wideout, Jenkins actually jumped the veteran Aiken rather quickly on the depth chart - in four-wide sets, it was Jenkins lining up with Evans, Reed and Parrish. The youngster even played well on special teams as a punt gunner; if special teams coordinator Bobby April feels comfortable having Jenkins fill the role that Aiken has the past few seasons, Jenkins may allow the Bills to let Aiken walk.
Will Improve in '08 if - he can stick on the roster again :: he develops his punt gunner skills :: he develops a rapport with Buffalo's backup quarterbacks
Other wideouts: Scott Mayle, Felton Huggins. These two were afterthoughts this season; Mayle spent 16 weeks on the practice squad, and Huggins was signed to the squad only after Mayle was promoted to the active roster for the season finale. These two will probably be around for training camp, but their chances of making the roster - or for that matter, the practice squad - are minimal.
Let's make this perfectly clear: the Bills don't have a bad receiving corps. Each player, specifically the top three guys, have distinctive roles within the offense. That's the inherent problem, however - all of Buffalo's current wideouts are role players. There is not one athlete among this group that has transcendent skills and can hurt defenses in more than one way. Until that player is added, Buffalo will continue to struggle in the passing game.
Possible additions: big, physical veteran; big, physical rookie; tall deep threat
Possible subtractions: Price, Aiken