When the Buffalo Bills selected LSU WR Josh Reed in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft, Reed came into the league - and into a city rich in tradition at his position - with lofty expectations. Reed was coming off of a record-setting career at LSU in which he set conference records for reception yardage in a game (293) and in a season (1,740 in 2001) that stand to this day. When a player is that productive in a conference like the SEC, expectations will be high - whether the talent is there to meet the expectations or not.
Based on those expectations, it's easy to say that the 5'10", 208-pound Reed has been a career underachiever. His career high in receptions is 58; he's never broken 600 receiving yards in an NFL season, and the next time he catches three touchdowns in a season will be the first time he's done it. Limited in the speed and athleticism departments, Reed has been asked to be Buffalo's No. 2 receiver far too often in his career - to the team's detriment, and to Reed's own detriment as well.
Even so, former Bills GM Marv Levy re-signed Reed to a four year deal as one of his first acts upon re-joining the team; when he did so, he likened Reed's skill set to that of Ricky Proehl's. Proehl is remembered as one of the most reliable and productive slot receivers in the past two decades of NFL football. Reed won't be remembered as such, but with Terrell Owens lining up next to Lee Evans on the outside in 2009, Reed could be in line for a career, Proehl-like season in Buffalo.
Being asked to do too much
Reed was lucky early in his Bills career. His rookie season, 2002, was QB Drew Bledsoe's first (and most productive) in Buffalo, and the starting WR duo of Eric Moulds and Peerless Price combined for 194 receptions that season. Reed contributed 37 receptions - not a large number by any means, but he carved a niche for himself immediately and showed the type of player that he has ultimately turned out to be. Unfortunately, Buffalo - by no fault of their own, given the circumstances - thought he might be more.
They were wrong. In 2003, Price was traded, Reed became the team's No. 2 receiver, and while he had arguably his most productive NFL season to date (58 receptions, 588 yards, 2 TD), it was clear then that he was not a starting-caliber NFL receiver. That's why Lee Evans was drafted in the first round the following year; Evans had a highly productive rookie season (including nine touchdowns), but Reed, who missed four games entirely and dealt with injuries throughout the season, caught just 16 passes. That number doubled in 2005, but with an entirely new regime led by Dick Jauron coming in, many thought Reed's Bills career was finished.
Yet Reed was re-signed. In each of the three seasons that Reed has played with Jauron's Bills, he has improved, registering 34, 51 and 56 receptions over the last three seasons. 2006, however, is really the only year that Reed wasn't asked to be the team's No. 2 receiving threat - and that season, the return of Peerless Price did little for the offense, even if it had its moments. Price was expected to improve in 2007, yet he ended the season on IR. In 2008, rookie James Hardy was supposed to complement Evans, but he, too, landed on IR, leaving Reed to pick up the pieces once again.
That's going to change this year. For the first time since his rookie season in 2002, Reed enters a year completely healthy and with two more-than-legitimate receiving threats alongside him. He'll also be playing with a quarterback in Trent Edwards that trusts him and likes to attack the soft underbellies of defenses.
The Proehl Comparison
Ricky Proehl was never a Pro Bowl receiver. He certainly wasn't the type of prominent athlete that would make defensive coordinator lose sleep at night. What Proehl did do, however, was play for 17 years in this league and finish his career with 669 receptions, 8,878 yards and 54 touchdowns. He caught 40 passes in a season nine times, and, as mentioned at top, is still considered one of the best slot/possession receivers of the past two decades.
Reed is cut from the same cloth. He's nowhere near an overwhelming athlete, but has grown to be a reliable target with possession-like qualities. Case in point: 90 of Reed's 141 receptions over the past three seasons (64%) have gone for first down yardage. He's the type of player that defenses forget about, simply because names like Owens and Evans deservedly command more of their attention.
What Proehl did that Reed has not is score touchdowns. That may or may not change; it'd certainly be nice if it did, but to expect it might leave one waiting a while. The lack of touchdowns, however, doesn't mean that Reed can't play an essential role, and do it in a highly productive manner. As long as he, Owens and Evans remain healthy, 60 receptions seems like a minimum goal for Reed this season. Proehl did that three times; Reed nearly did it last year with very little help outside. His numbers likely won't blow anyone away next season, but defenses would do well to keep number 82 in their minds throughout the week. If you forget about this guy, he'll hurt you. That's the value that Reed brings to this offense, and he's got a chance to finally play the role he was meant to play all along in this league.