Every year, I like to wrap up our summer here at Buffalo Rumblings not by incessantly reminding everyone that there's an NFL lockout in effect, but by producing a list of the ten Buffalo Bills players that I believe are the most critical to success in the upcoming season. Lockout or not, I'm starting that series today, because very little is likely to change once the lockout is lifted.
This list is not ranked based on what a player has accomplished, nor on what his true potential is. The ranking is based on the effect that I believe a player reaching his potential will have on the Bills' overall success in 2011. Stated simply: if these ten guys, in order, reach their full potential - which is asking a lot in many cases, by the way - the Bills could be pretty damn good next season.
We're starting the list with one of the more accomplished young stars on the team, which may catch many of you by surprise. I believe that Stevie Johnson is the tenth-most important Bill heading into the 2011 season.
There's little question that in terms of production, youth and marketability, no one is bigger in Buffalo than Stevie. He'll reach the ripe age of 25 in eight days (happy early birthday, Stevie). He's coming off of a break-out season in which he hauled in 82 passes for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns - the latter of which nearly equaled a Bills franchise record. He's a promoter of Buffalo, a great teammate, and potentially a dominant NFL receiver.
Most Bills fans will agree that entering his fourth season, and his first as a full-time starter (remember Stevie losing starts to Roscoe Parrish last year?), his biggest remaining hurdles are consistency and focus. As productive as Johnson was in 2010, he had bouts of the drops - including one very memorable bobble in overtime - and disappeared from games on occasion. Johnson has excellent route-running ability and a very unique playing style that will make him a difficult cover for any opponent. Right now, only he (and potentially the play of his quarterback) stand in his way of becoming a legitimate NFL star.
Why is a player with Johnson's CV ranked so low on this list, then? It's simple: as important as Johnson is to the offense, he's still a wide receiver. Johnson can help elevate Buffalo's offense to a new level this year by becoming the type of attention-drawing threat that his counterpart, Lee Evans, already is. But there's only so much more production that Johnson can put up, and only so much more he can open up for his teammates, than he did last season. Offense doesn't start at receiver, so as good as Johnson is - and as important as he is to this team's future - he doesn't rank quite as high on my list as I imagine he would on many of yours.
This series is typically popular every year for two reasons: people like to guess who's up next on the list, and they like to opine on where the featured player of the day would rank on their own lists. We'd love to hear both from everyone - and if you're looking for a clue for No. 9, keep thinking along the lines of accomplishment.