It's pretty safe to say that Lee Evans will be starting at wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills this year. As the only returning Bills wide receiver that had 35 or more receiving yards during the 2009 season, that'd be a foregone conclusion even if Evans wasn't as good as he is.
The real question at wide receiver is which of the team's incredibly unproven players steps up and claims the starting role opposite Evans. Roscoe Parrish (3 receptions, 34 yards in 2009) is the most veteran of the group, but GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have publicly stated their preference for "big" receivers on the outside, which would seem to eliminate the 5'9", 178-pound Parrish from contention.
Three players - third-year pros James Hardy and Steve Johnson, as well as rookie fourth-round pick Marcus Easley - are considered the front-runners for the job. Hardy and Johnson, drafted in the second and seventh rounds, respectively, in 2008, each have two career touchdowns, with Johnson's 12 catches "trumping" Hardy's 10. Easley was the extreme definition of "late bloomer" at Connecticut, putting up 48 catches, 893 yards and 8 touchdowns as a senior after catching just five passes in his first three years of eligibility.
It seems unlikely at this point that a wide receiver will lead the team in receptions, let alone claim the top two spots. Still, one of these three young receivers is likely to get a long look opposite Evans, which does count for something.
Meet The Contenders
Hardy represents the most significant investment as a former second-round pick, but to this point, the 6'5", 220-pound Indiana product has been a disappointment. After catching a game-winning touchdown pass in just his second pro game in 2008, Hardy has been ineffective on the field, dealt with a serious knee injury off it, and hasn't yet risen back to the top of the young receiving corps as most hoped he would. Hardy's length should make him a red zone target regardless of whether or not he wins the starting job, but it would be considered another disappointment if he can't beat out Johnson or Easley for the starting job.
Johnson, meanwhile, seems to be the fan favorite, as he's a personable guy that has shown brighter glimpses in his very brief opportunities than his 2008 draft classmate. Where Johnson lacks in physical skills (speed, quickness), he makes up for it with a knack for getting open. He seems to have something of an "it" factor, which is why he was able to crack the final roster two years in a row as a seventh-round pick, despite rarely seeing the field. If there's one player of these three that is most likely to develop a rapport with Buffalo's quarterbacks, it's Johnson, as he has logged the most practice time with this organization by a considerable margin.
Easley ripped through the Big East last year as a complete unknown, and that production, plus his raw physical skills, were good enough to make him a fourth-round pick. "Raw," however, is the best word to describe Easley, as he barely played the position at UConn, and will need a lot of time to work on the finer points of the game in order to reach his full potential. Still, Easley made a few big plays during spring workouts, routinely beating defenders deep for long gainers - and with the inexperience of this group, it's not completely out of reach to claim that Easley has a legitimate chance of locking down a starting gig.
Who Gets The Gig?
I firmly believe that this job is Johnson's to lose. The only tangible reason I can offer for that opinion is the fact that Buffalo's quarterbacks will almost assuredly be most comfortable with him, simply because he's been on the field with them for longer than the other two candidates. Intangibly, Johnson feels like the guy who can contribute most on the field of play right out of the gate, and will have the easiest job of getting open on occasion.
But over the long haul, the opportunity is biggest for Easley - and if receivers coach Stan Hixon can bring him along quickly enough, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if the rookie leapfrogged Johnson by the end of the season. As for Hardy, I think he needs to worry about making the team before he tries to win a starting job; he's got the most to prove, by far, of these three receivers in 2010.