Stevie Johnson has been entrenched as a starting wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills all year. Starting in the summer, the player running alongside him in the starting lineup has been, in no particular order: Lee Evans (traded to Baltimore before the pre-season), Donald Jones (on Injured Reserve) and various other injury fill-ins.
With the Bills so depleted at receiver - we mention the Evans trade and Jones being on IR, where he's joined by Roscoe Parrish and Marcus Easley - the team debuted a new No. 2 receiver in Sunday's 28-24 loss to the New York Jets. That player was No. 3 quarterback Brad Smith.
Smith was signed to a four-year, $15 million contract after this summer's lockout to run the Wildcat and bring value to the team's 46th active roster spot. He's spent the year playing receiver, running the Wildcat, and returning and covering kicks. Until Sunday's four-catch, 77-yard performance - in which he hauled in passes of 17, 16, 36 and 8 yards - he had been relatively quiet. Now, he's entrenched as a focal point in Buffalo's offense.
"He did an excellent job," said head coach Chan Gailey of Smith's Week 12 effort on Monday. "I'm glad you brought that up, because I wanted to talk about that. He did a good job. He made some plays, he was a factor in the game, and he's a big target out there. I'm anxious to see how he can continue to improve."
When asked if Smith had done enough to stick in the lineup as a receiver, Gailey responded as follows: "Yes. No question."
Throughout this season, David Nelson has been Ryan Fitzpatrick's go-to No. 2 target behind Johnson at receiver. Johnson leads the team with 54 receptions and 622 yards, but Nelson is right behind him with 45 receptions and 480 yards. Both players have caught five touchdown passes. Nelson, however, has found his niche as a slot receiver in Gailey's offense - and though his production has stayed relatively consistent regardless of where he's lined up, it could not be clearer that Gailey prefers the matchup problems Nelson presents when he's lined up inside.
That makes Smith a key figure as the Bills finish out the remaining five games on their schedule this season. Buffalo's offense was effective moving the ball for the first time in weeks on Sunday because of the threat that Smith provided on the edge; the team really hadn't had much of that since Week 3, when Jones caught five passes for 101 yards against New England.
Offensively, Smith has spent most of his time playing receiver this season - which isn't surprising, given that the Bills spread the field with multiple wideouts so frequently. The Bills, however, may be tinkering with their receiver depth chart this off-season, now that they've got another full year of experience with their young players out of the way. Smith remains arguably the biggest unknown of this receiver group - and if he can close the year strong and continue to open up the field for Johnson and Nelson to make plays, his role could expand beyond Wildcat quarterback and sub-package receiver heading into the 2012 season.