When it comes to discussing the wide receiver position in these parts - particularly of late - we're often focusing the discourse on who the "No. 2 receiver" will be for the Buffalo Bills next season.
The problem with that, as many astute readers have pointed out, is that we already know who the Bills' No. 2 receiver is. It's David Nelson, who finished a clear second on the team in catches (61) and yards (658) last year while operating almost exclusively out of the slot.
"No. 2 receiver" is now a misnomer in the NFL, where spread sets and a focus on matchups dominate offensive game planning. I'm therefore often asked to more accurately portray the Bills' receiving corps; let's do that today, shall we? It's time to trash the number system in favor of letters (X, Y and Z) and position-specific terms.
Split End (X): The most unique receiver in today's NFL is the split end, or X receiver. Because the NFL requires seven players on the line of scrimmage by rule (five linemen plus the two tackles covered), a split end is a receiver "split" from the formation (as opposed to "tight" to the formation) that's lined up on the line of scrimmage. It's not too often these days that a split end on a given play is going to be the primary target, as the split end is the receiver most susceptible to jamming and press coverage. It's not a fun spot to be in for a receiver, which is why the game's top targets - as well as players that don't have all-encompassing skill sets - play either flanker or in the slot. (More on that momentarily.)
As such, split ends need to possess traits that allow them to effectively run routes despite the disadvantages inherent to the position. Strength, size and route-running ability come chiefly into play here, and by my count, the Bills have four receivers with the athletic gifts to produce as split ends: Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, Marcus Easley and Kamar Aiken. (That, of course, is just my opinion.)
Naturally, all of Jones, Easley and Aiken are project-type players, but they all have the traits to succeed in this role: Jones is very strong and has great leaping ability; Easley has an excellent size/speed ratio; and Aiken falls somewhere between the two athletically. Johnson, however, is the only player that has been able to produce in this role, where his unique route-running style allows him to consistently separate against press coverage.
Flanker (Z): When we've talk about the "No. 2 receiver" position here, we've been talking about the other outside receiving position opposite Johnson. That's true whether or not Johnson is playing split end or flanker - and just like any good receiver, Johnson's at his best when he's playing flanker.
The flanker plays on the tight end side of the formation. Because the tight end and the split end have the tackles covered, a flanker can play off of the line of scrimmage, giving that player more room to maneuver before encountering a defensive back at the snap. Throughout the history of the league, the game's elite receivers have been lined up at flanker to maximize their play-making ability; that's doubly true in today's league, where spread concepts are more prominent in passing attacks.
Johnson is the team's best flanker, as well, and clearly, any receiver athletically gifted enough to play split end can also play flanker. Knowing that we also have an inside slot position to cover in this breakdown, I'll call three current Bills receivers best-fits for the flanker spot: T.J. Graham, Derek Hagan and David Clowney.
Slot (Y): The slot receiver is easiest to define, because they line up in the slot between the outside receivers and the line of scrimmage. A Y receiver can be an actual wide receiver, or it can be a tight end or back split out into the formation. (In a four-receiver set, a split end can line up in the slot, as well.)
Y receivers can often be a team's go-to target, with Wes Welker of New England and Marques Colston of New Orleans the primary examples. It's at this position where the Bills have found a productive diamond in the rough in Nelson. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll also call Brad Smith (when he's playing receiver), Ruvell Martin and Naaman Roosevelt best-fits at Y receiver, as well.
Chan Gailey's approach: Gailey runs a spread passing attack aimed at stretching the field horizontally (and now that the team has more speed at receiver, they may be able to do so vertically, as well). As such, his offense operates at peak efficiency when receivers are able to play two or more of these three specific receiving roles. That versatility allows Gailey to use personnel packages, formations, alignments and motions to get his players into positions where their skills will best allow them to make plays. Therefore, the lines are blurring: Johnson can be considered an option at all three of these positions, and has been used as such - that makes him difficult to game plan for, knowing that he won't be playing one specific role.
Every receiver should want to play off of the line. Gailey's most productive receivers will be playing off of the line, and the idea of his offense is largely to get those off-the-line receivers the football. He likes receivers that can play multiple roles - it makes his offense more difficult to game plan for - and he likes receivers with unique traits that he can work with (like Nelson's length and Johnson's quirky route-running style, for example).