Evans should benefit from new rookie running mate (Photo Source)
During the 2007 NFL season, when the Buffalo Bills had plenty of trouble scoring through the air, we knew it. We knew it early in the off-season when the Bills released veteran wideout Peerless Price. We even probably knew it before the '07 season started: the Bills really needed an upgrade at wide receiver.
Heading into the free agent signing period, pundits everywhere knew that the Bills could and would be targeting a wide receiver. Instead, the team focused on beefing up its defensive front seven, acquiring three big men - tackles Marcus Stroud and Spencer Johnson, as well as linebacker Kawika Mitchell - in the first two days of free agency. Good, logical strategy - still bad receivers.
By that point in free agency, the wide receiver pool had thinned. Probably the best fit for the team in terms of their size wishes, Ernest Wilford, had already been gobbled up by the talent-starved Dolphins. Ditto for Vikings WR Bernard Berrian, who would not have been a good fit as a Bill at any rate. Even veteran guys like Marty Booker, who signed with the Bears, were nearly off the market. That left one "big" name, and the Bills went after him hard - Bryant "Panda" Johnson.
We can't fault the Bills for playing their cards the way they did. Johnson was their top free agent target at the position, and it's become clear that before Johnson signed with the 49ers, he had one multi-year offer on his table - it was from the Buffalo Bills. This team could not afford to sign Johnson to a one-year deal and risk losing him and Lee Evans the following off-season. When Johnson chose the one-year route with a lesser team, it was disappointing - but there was still the draft to consider.
Enter the 6'5+" Rookie, James Hardy
After missing out on their top free agent target, as well as several others, it was clear that the Bills would be looking to draft a starting receiver early. The only question was how early. Once again, the Bills played their cards correctly (and proved experts, and myself, wrong) by passing on a receiver in the first round, instead selecting CB Leodis McKelvin. That gamble would pay off, as the team was able to land their favorite "big" receiver in the draft, Indiana's James Hardy.
I admit - I fell to the logic that the team needed to bring in a veteran receiver to start next to Evans. That argument, in my mind, still holds some water. However, looking back on the entire wideout situation in retrospect, the Bills did the right thing. They clearly felt similarly to what I (and most of you) felt in that a veteran receiver would help most; hence their courting of Johnson. It's a shame that fell through, but the team recovered nicely.
Ironically, adding Hardy as opposed to Johnson may ultimately be a better situation for Buffalo's offense. It's still unclear whether either of these players are starting-caliber at the NFL level (Johnson has never been more than a slot receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona). Johnson clearly holds the edge in game experience at the NFL level, but Hardy and his red zone prowess may ultimately be a better fit for Buffalo's offense this year. Yes, this year. Johnson would have given the Bills predominantly a between-the-twenties presence with some red zone potential; Hardy's specialty is scoring. The Bills, in reality, need the latter more.
Well played, Buffalo. You may have lost out on your top target (Johnson), but in a mediocre off season of wide receiver talent, you may have just acquired the guy who'll make the biggest impact right away.