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Buffalo Bills Roster: Wide Receiver Position Lacks Clarity

As the Buffalo Bills transition out of Chan Gailey's offense and into one put together by Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett, getting a read on the receiver position will prove quite difficult.

Matt Sullivan

Former Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey believed that he could build an offense without making significant investments at the wide receiver position. At the outset of his final season on the job, his top four receivers were a former seventh-round pick that had emerged as a bona fide starter, two former undrafted free agents that had been productive in spots and an unheralded rookie third-round pick that began the year on the inactive list.

With a new coaching staff coming in with their own offense, no position on offense is more difficult to read at the moment than the receiver position. When we boil everything down, it's really only safe to assume that one player has a role locked up; the rest of the team's (not untalented) group may have a lot on the line this summer at training camp, particularly if the team can't find the No. 1 target it desperately needs.

Stevie Johnson

  • Age: 26 (27 in July 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2016 season. Owed a $4.25 million option bonus and a $275,000 workout bonus this off-season, and is scheduled to make $2.55 million in base salary in 2013.

A player entering the prime of his career, Johnson still has bouts of inconsistency - some of which can absolutely be attributed to the former head coach and, especially, the play of the quarterback - but it's tough to argue against his production. Johnson has recorded three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons (he's the first player in team history to do so), has caught between 76 and 82 passes in each of those seasons, and has 23 touchdowns - more than any other Bills skill player in that time frame.

Johnson is consistent within an inconsistent offense, which speaks volume about his maturity as a player. He is widely regarded as one of the best and most creative route-runners in the league, and has taken some of the league's best corners (Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, for starters) to task. Johnson is not an elite target - he lacks top-end vertical speed and isn't a home run hitter - but he's pretty much everything else you want in a receiver.

Bills GM Buddy Nix talked up Johnson as a potentially elite slot receiver towards the end of the 2012 season. If the new coaching staff has any sense whatsoever, they'll agree - and they'll use Johnson much like Indianapolis now uses Reggie Wayne. With more consistent quarterback play, Johnson is absolutely capable of putting up Wayne-esque numbers.

T.J. Graham

  • Age: 23 (24 in July 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

Thanks to injuries, Graham - the out-of-nowhere third-round pick last April - played more than any Bills receiver not nicknamed Stevie last season. Gailey was super conservative in how much Graham was utilized; he ended his rookie season with just 31 receptions for 322 yards and a touchdown. Athletically, there's a lot to like about Graham - starting with his 4.3 speed - but he struggled with bouts of the drops as a rookie, and didn't appear at all ready to assume the starting role that the front office has in mind for him over the long haul. In short: Graham is very talented, but still very raw.

Donald Jones

  • Age: 25 (26 in December 2013)
  • Contract: Restricted Free Agent

Jones had a career season in 2012 (41 receptions, 444 yards and four scores) before landing on Injured Reserve yet again. Durability remains a concern for the third-year pro, who also had a medical issue with his kidneys arise last season; it's the same issue that prevented him from getting drafted out of Youngstown State in 2010. It's time to give up on the idea of Jones as a starting-caliber receiver, but he's been productive in spots - particularly out of the slot - and it's also important to remember that he was one of the team's best specialists in his rookie season, so he has value as a reserve and spot starter.

David Nelson

  • Age: 26 (27 in November 2013)
  • Contract: Restricted Free Agent

Going into last season, Nelson was going to be a major part of Buffalo's offense, with Gailey installing plans to use he and Scott Chandler as interchangeable, incredibly difficult to defend slot targets with great height and length. As it turned out, Nelson tore his ACL in the season opener and missed the remaining 15 games, derailing the momentum he'd built over his first two seasons (92 catches, 1,011 yards and eight touchdowns). A tall, soft-handed possession target in the mold of Brian Finneran, Nelson's upside isn't huge, but as a situational player, he's proven he can be a valuable addition to any offense.

Brad Smith

  • Age: 29 (30 in December 2013)
  • Contract: Under contract through the 2014 season. Owed a $500,000 roster bonus on the first day of the new league year. Scheduled to make a $2.75 million base salary in 2013.

Signed to a fairly lucrative free agent deal after the 2011 lockout, Smith never did settle into the Kordell Stewart-esque role Gailey envisioned for him; the emergency quarterback/receiver/Wildcat quarterback/return man has recorded 71 offensive touches (with five touchdowns) in two seasons, thrown two interceptions, and added a sixth touchdown on 33 kick returns. Fans that can't see past Smith's (totally unreasonable, to be fair) contract undervalue the breadth of contribution Smith brings to the table, but he almost certainly won't be a major factor at receiver moving forward.

Ruvell Martin

  • Age: 30 (31 in August 2013)
  • Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent

Martin - a special teams ace - only played receiver under Gailey when injuries forced him to. The unrestricted free agent seems very unlikely to return, despite his prowess covering kicks and punts.

Marcus Easley

  • Age: 25 (26 in November 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

The replacement for Stevie Johnson as the buzz-worthy receiver that's done nothing but fans nonetheless obsess over, Easley has accomplished very little through three NFL seasons. He finally stayed healthy in 2012, but that may have had something to do with the fact that he was on the inactive list most of the season. Easley is a project player that's been surpassed by another project player (Graham) in the eyes of the front office.

Chris Hogan

  • Age: 24 (25 in October 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2013 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

Added to the active roster late in the season when injury struck, Hogan didn't see any time on offense and was used solely on special teams. He's a camp body at best.

Kevin Elliott

  • Age: 24 (25 in December 2013)
  • Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make $480,000 in base salary in 2013.

The Bills added Elliott to the roster late in the season after the undrafted rookie free agent first made waves with, and then was cut by, the Jacksonville Jaguars. He's an excellent athlete that will undoubtedly get a look next summer, but expecting much beyond that seems unwise.

Free agency outlook: The two restricted free agents, Jones and Nelson, have been productive enough through three seasons that it's very safe to assume that they'll be tendered and retained. Martin, despite his abilities on special teams, seems unlikely to return. It would not be at all surprising if the Bills pursued a starting-caliber wide receiver the way they did with Robert Meachem last March. Whether or not they're willing to pony up for some of the big names potentially on the market (Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace, for starters) remains to be seen.

2013 NFL Draft outlook: In the most recent 2013 NFL Mock Draft from and Mocking the Draft, three wideouts that fit the preferred physical attributes of GM Buddy Nix (i.e. tall, long and fast, making him able to catch balls even while covered) go off the board in the first round: Keenan Allen of California (6'3"), Cordarrelle Patterson of Tennessee (6'3") and DeAndre Hopkins of Clemson (6'1"). None crack the Top 20, however; we'll see if any rise to the point where they may be Top 10 considerations for the Bills.

Discussion topic: As usual, we've got two position-specific questions for the community to ponder.

  • Beyond the obvious need (quarterback), where do you rank a starting-caliber receiver among the team's various other popular needs?
  • Having seen a year of Graham at this point, what's your gut feeling about his upside? Is he worth considering as a potential starting receiver in 2013, as Nix has alluded he may be?