The last time Buffalo had this problem, many Bills fans were anointing Todd Collins as Jim Kelly’s permanent heir apparent, Marv Levy painfully sang “Go Bills” as the team’s fight song, Jacksonville and Carolina were rookie NFL franchises with the futuristic uniforms, tight end Lonnie Johnson was hip, and oh yeah, current starting quarterback Trent Edwards was 12 years old.
Thanks to Andre Reed and Eric Moulds, it’s been awhile. And even that forgetful 1995 season was more like a hiccup at a position rich in tradition.
Last season was the first time in 12 years that a Bills receiver failed to catch 60 passes, merely four per game. Nobody could be counted on when third down struck. Every pass play was a challenge, much like in 1995 after top wideout Andre Reed missed 10 games with a torn hamstring. The Bills had their first losing season in eight years that season, and had their playoff drought extend to eight years last season.
The void was obvious.
The Bills’ new management-by-committee team anchored by Russ Brandon may differ on several issues throughout its first season. But this decision doesn’t need a compromise, it’s a consensus: The offense is starving for big, physical receivers to provide a sense of stability the Bills offense lacked all season. Buffalo fielded the smallest wide receiver unit in the league last season as the top four wideouts all measured under six-feet tall.
Maybe it was the offensive system. Maybe it was the flip-flopping at quarterback. Maybe it was the weekly double-teams. Excuses aside, Lee Evans regressed last season. The same receiver that stretched defenses to the tune of 82 catches for 1292 yards in 2006 was a virtual non-event in ’07. In three of his four NFL seasons, Evans has proven to be a go-for-the-jugular deep threat, but not necessarily a bonafide No. 1 wide receiver.
His size (5-10, 197 lb.) minimizes his impact in the middle of the field – a problem that was easily exposed in Buffalo’s make-or-break, 8-0 loss at Cleveland on Dec. 16 when Braylon Edwards (6-3, 215) was the only receiver able to excel in the Lake Erie blizzard. Edwards used his physical frame to maneuver in Antarctica, catching four passes for 64 yards.
And Buffalo’s season was finished.
In 2007, Buffalo’s receiving corps ranked 31st in yardage, 26th in 20+ yard plays and 30th in receptions. Josh Reed was mediocre at best (51-578-0), return specialist Roscoe Parrish has yet to translate raw athleticism to wide receiver (only two games with at least five catches last season) and the Peerless Price Re-Do Experiment fell apart two years into Price’s four-year, $10 million deal. Price only played four games last season, before suffering a season-ending neck injury and was released by the Bills in mid-February.
The resources are available to fix this problem, but the pickings are slowly slimming. With the defense solidified by the additions of Kawika Mitchell, Marcus Stroud and Spencer Johnson, the attention must now turn to the offense. Quickly.
Here’s a snapshot game plan:
Sign Bryant Johnson. As the NFL Salary Cap rises astronomically, general managers are locking up their core players to long-term contracts before they hit the market. And this is the result: Slim pickings at wideout. Last season mega-million deals went to the likes of Bobby Wade and Dennis Northcutt, and this March has been more of the same. Minnesota took Bernard Berrian off the market with a six-year, $42 million deal. The same Berrian, who has zero 1,000-yard seasons in his career.
Johnson, one of the last decent wide receivers available this offseason, won’t command this large type of a contract, although it’ll be close Still, he’s a solid value.
Stuck behind Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in Arizona, Johnson has been a consistent force between the twenties in five NFL seasons, exactly where the Bills struggled. He enjoyed his best season in 2007 with 40 catches for 740 yards and four touchdowns. His 6-3, 216 lb. frame alone gives Buffalo’s offense a dimension it lacks. Numerous reports say the Bills are highly interested in signing Johnson, a move that could come at any hour.
And a tight end. Buffalo may have missed out on landing prize tight end Alge Crumpler, but they will almost definitely sign someone else. Ben Troupe is the team’s next best bet. The 6-4, 270 lb. Troupe has rare athleticism for his size, but hasn’t translated it to consistency on Sundays. In 2005, he caught 55 balls for 530 yards and five scores. Since then he only has 18 receptions in two seasons due to a blend of nagging injuries and frustrating drops.
Still, Troupe deviates from Buffalo’s current stock of tight ends. While he lacks the blocking skills of Robert Royal, Troupe would stretch the middle of the field for Trent Edwards, a much better pocket passer than Troupe had in Tennessee with Vince Young. At 25 years old, the former second round pick is still young. His career may blossom in new surroundings. The Bills should take advantage of a reasonable price tag here.
Top it off. Acquiring Johnson and Troupe would freshen up the Bills’ dead passing game with a pair of big bodies. But it’s hardly a renaissance. The ultimate shot of caffeine for the position should come on draft weekend. With the 11th pick, Buffalo almost definitely will have a crack at securing another 6-3 receiver. Texas’ Limas Sweed and/or Oklahoma’s Malcolm Kelly should be available when Buffalo picks. Both Sweed and Kelly played in a physical conference (Big 12) known for generating the league’s latest wave of hardnosed defensive backs. Similar in style, both receivers had a knack for making acrobatic catches in traffic and both had a whitetail-like stride to gain distance after the catch. One of them, maybe not this season, could emerge as the No. 1, overall receiving threat the Bills are thirsting for.
Snaring Sweed or Kelly would be icing on the cake at a position that had no flavor last season.
Tyler Dunne is the Editor-in-Chief of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org