As the NFL off-season chugs along toward the NFL Draft, it is becoming abundantly clear that as far as the Buffalo Bills go, wide receiver is the team's biggest need. The team is coming off of one of its worst passing offense performances in team history, it cut incumbent starter Peerless Price, and missed out on signing free agent (and current 49er) Bryant Johnson to be a starter. The result of this off-season to date? A position that was poor to begin with has actually gotten worse.
Just how bad was Buffalo's receiving corps last season? Clearly, the fact that Buffalo only scored 20 offensive touchdowns - and 8 of them directly involved Marshawn Lynch - is a leading indicator of just how poorly this unit performed last season. But, as always, statistical comparisons show the real horror.
Bottom Five Comparison
In terms of receiving numbers, Buffalo's unit ranked #31 in the NFL last season, "outdone" only by the San Francisco 49ers. Here are the top four receivers from each of the bottom five receiving units in the NFL (in order from worst to fifth-worst):
San Francisco: RB Frank Gore (53-436-1); TE Vernon Davis (52-509-4); WR Arnaz Battle (50-600-5); WR Darrell Jackson (46-497-3).
Buffalo: WR Lee Evans (59-849-5); WR Josh Reed (51-578-0); WR Roscoe Parrish (35-352-1); TE Robert Royal (25-248-3).
Oakland: WR Ronald Curry (55-717-4); WR Jerry Porter (44-705-6); TE Zach Miller (44-444-3); RB LaMont Jordan (28-247-0).
Minnesota: WR Bobby Wade (54-647-3); WR Robert Ferguson (32-391-1); WR Sidney Rice (31-396-4); RB Chester Taylor (29-281-0).
Carolina: WR Steve Smith (87-1002-7); TE Jeff King (46-406-2); WR Drew Carter (38-517-4); WR Keary Colbert (32-332-0).
All four teams found a way to one-up Buffalo as well. Carolina, despite having no threat opposite Steve Smith, was still able to get Smith 87 catches (something the Bills could not do with Evans). Even Minnesota (who by far had the worst numbers), Oakland and especially San Francisco found ways to get their running backs involved in the passing game - something the Bills neglected to do with Lynch, easily their best offensive weapon. In addition, the Bills finished 29th in receiving touchdowns (12), 26th in plays over 20 yards (33), 29th in first downs (141) and 30th in total receptions (263).
How Far is the Climb?
Clearly, the Bills have a lot of work to do in their receiving department. Two of the major issues - getting Evans and Lynch more touches in the passing game - can be resolved with better play-calling. That responsibility will fall on the shoulders of new offensive coordinator Turk Schonert (or "Sherner-it", if you're Marshall Faulk). But once (if?) that happens, how far do the Bills still need to go to become even an average passing offense?
We won't even discuss the elite passing offenses, because those offenses feature either elite receivers, elite quarterbacks, or both (I dislike the Patriots). If the Bills want to field a playoff-caliber offense in 2008, they merely need to become a middle-of-the-pack passing offense next season. Those teams last year, ranking 15 through 19, were Washington, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, St. Louis and Kansas City.
Let me repeat that. Washington, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, St. Louis and Kansas City. Elite receiving corps those were not, folks. Sure, the last three teams there tried to pass their way back into games often throughout their season, likely padding their stats - but did the Bills not have to try that same tactic? At least the Falcons, Rams and Chiefs did it well. Tampa Bay and Washington both made the playoffs. There are some solid receivers in this group (Joey Galloway, Santana Moss, Torry Holt, Dwayne Bowe, heck, even Roddy White), but there aren't any receivers perhaps outside of Holt that can take over a game.
It Really Depends on Play-Calling
Unlike many Bills fans, I've been semi-confident in the receivers we currently have. I believe that Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish could, ultimately, form an elite slot-receiving duo, and I believe that Lee Evans, with better play-calling and a little help on the outside, can return to his near-Pro Bowl form of 2006. In no way am I advocating that we're fine leaving this position alone, because we're clearly not - I'm just saying that if we add players and improve play-calling, it won't take a lot for us to reach the middle of the pack.
And that's all we really need to do, folks. If we can reach the passing numbers of the Kansas City Chiefs - not an overly difficult task to place upon the shoulders of our favorite team - and add a nice play-making rookie to the arsenal, this offense will be light years better than it was in 2007. Not elite, mind you - that's a generous expectation, considering we'd have second-year players at quarterback and running back as well as a rookie starting at wideout. But the team merely needs to get to the middle of the pack to make things much easier for its nice one-two running punch of Lynch and Fred Jackson. Doing that would give the team enough offense to conceivably make a serious push for a playoff spot.
There is hope, Bills fans. Turning a mediocre offense into an average one, coupled with the defensive improvements made in early March, will allow this team to compete with the NFL's best. Better play-calling and one more significant player at wide receiver could make those hopes reality this coming fall.