During the 2014 regular season, two of the five youngest players on the Buffalo Bills' entire roster were their starting wide receivers. Sammy Watkins won't turn 22 until about a month before his second NFL training camp begins, and Robert Woods will hit the ripe old age of 23 a few weeks before the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Bills have spent significant resources in bringing both youth and talent to their receiving corps over the last few years, with last year's trade up to pick Watkins the pièce de résistance of those efforts. Despite an offensive line that was in shambles and an unexpected shift at quarterback, Watkins and Woods were able to combine for 130 receptions, 1,681 yards, and 11 touchdowns in their first year together.
Expectations, however, will rise as youth gives way to experience. Woods has been a starter in the NFL for two years now, and expectations were always going to be ridiculously high for Watkins. For now, youth, talent, inconsistency, and upside define the Bills' wide receiver position, spearheaded by their two young guns, but that is going to need to change sooner rather than later.
- Age: 21 (22 on June 14)
- 2015 cap #: $4.53M
- 2014 snaps: 1,027 (96.7% of total)
In fits and bursts, Watkins was exactly the game-breaking talent that the Bills said they'd drafted after flipping first- and fourth-round picks in this year's draft for the opportunity to take him. Huge outings against Miami (8-117-1), Minnesota (9-122-2), and New York (3-157-1) give us a clear indication of exactly what Buffalo's second-youngest player on the roster is capable of. He is an All-Pro talent. There are some minor durability concerns to keep an eye on (a rib injury lingered throughout his rookie season), and consistency is his next big hurdle. Watkins is the type of receiver that elevates his quarterback; in a league that is utterly dependent on quality quarterback play, that is a rarity.
- Age: 22 (23 on April 10)
- 2015 cap #: $1.33M
- 2014 snaps: 899 (84.7% of total)
After shaking off a weird preseason stretch in which he was moved all over the field and in and out of the starting offensive lineup by the previous coaching staff, Woods settled into the No. 2 receiver role and had himself a nice sophomore season, catching 65 passes for 699 yards and five touchdowns. There is still plenty of room for the third-year receiver out of USC to improve, however, and expectations will elevate heading into 2015. For now, the highly physical Woods projects well into the Greg Roman offense despite his relatively small stature (6'0", 190 pounds).
- Age: 26 (27 on October 24)
- 2015 cap #: exclusive rights free agent
- 2014 snaps: 461 (43.4% of total)
Over the past two seasons, Hogan has established himself first as a quality special teams player, and then as a reliable depth receiver after emerging as the top slot option in 2014. The retirement of Kyle Orton and the departure of the previous coaching staff hurt his chances of remaining the No. 3 receiver after a 41-catch, 426-yard, four-touchdown campaign, but given his ability to contribute on special teams, there's little question that he'll be a fixture on the team's receiver depth chart in some capacity moving forward.
- Age: 24 (25 on November 19)
- 2015 cap #: $765K ($465K savings if released)
- 2014 snaps: 89 (8.4% of total)
Goodwin flashed serious potential in his rookie season in 2013, scoring three touchdowns and exhibiting elite deep speed, but 2014 was a massively disappointing campaign for the former third-round pick out of Texas. Dinged by the previous coaching staff for his persistent string of minor injuries, Goodwin all but disappeared from the team's weekly game plans, settling into a very small, specialized role (and even spending several weeks as a healthy scratch). Goodwin is too talented for a new coaching staff to simply ignore - the coaching turnover bodes well for his chances of re-emerging in the offense - but the team could stand for a little more durability out of him, as well.
Two pending free agents that are listed as wide receivers played big roles on special teams in 2014: kick returner Marcus Thigpen (a restricted free agent) and, much more significantly, Marcus Easley (unrestricted), who over the last two seasons has emerged as one of the NFL's best punt gunners. Both players seem like they'll be no-brainer retainers for special teams coordinator Danny Crossman.
The team also has two intriguing project players in Deonte Thompson and Justin Brown; the former was added to the roster late in the 2014 regular season, while Brown was added off of waivers from Pittsburgh in early February. They'll add interesting competition to the mix this summer. Buffalo also retained two young receivers on reserve/future deals in late December: Caleb Holley and Tobais Palmer.
Let's start with Easley, actually; he is not really relevant to the wide receiver position, but it is imperative that the Bills re-sign him. He's an excellent football player. That's a drum I'll bang at every opportunity for the next month.
Now, for the guys that catch balls in the offense: Watkins and Woods are entrenched as the starters, and while more is needed from them individually and in tandem, there's a lot to be excited about in terms of their upside and the way their respective play styles complement the other's. In a run-first offense, there probably isn't going to be much room for a huge third receiver role, so the snap counts for Hogan (or any other No. 3 receiver that emerges) aren't likely to increase dramatically, and a fourth receiver role may not exist at all. For now, then, the Bills appear to be relatively set at receiver - and given the amount that they've invested in this position, that's expected.