Return to Relevance – Wide Receivers

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Updated: August 1, 2013
Buffalo Bills v San Diego Chargers

Definition of RELEVANCE:
1 – a : relation to the matter at hand
b : practical and especially social applicability : pertinence

If you are a first time reader of the Return to Relevance series, I’ll bring you up to speed faster than Mario Williams can flee the field at St. John Fisher (too soon?); relevancy in the NFL is defined as postseason play. By that logic, the Buffalo Bills have not fielded a relevant squad since 1999. The purpose of this column is to compare the 1999 and 2012 squads unit-by-unit, apply reasonable projections to the 2013 roster and determine just how far we have left ahead of us in our effort to return to relevancy.

So far we’ve found that this year’s linebackers have the potential to catch lightning in a bottle the way their predecessors did; the defensive backs will likely pale in comparison to the ’99 squad; the offensive line should provide the same slightly-above-average performance put forth in 1999; the 2013 crop of running backs, scheme permitted, should vastly outpace their predecessors; and this year’s defensive line will be just fine even if they don’t live up to the ’99 crew. We’ve also established that the front office of the late 90’s possessed a keen eye for talent in the draft that has been disturbingly-absent from the franchise in more recent years.

Training camp is here, and by now most of you have probably broken your mouse by repeatedly clicking “refresh” on our Twitter page, frothing at the mouth for information to be overblown, overanalyzed and overvalued. I don’t blame you. I’m right there with you. I’m trying to write this column without the use of my mouse right now. Not easy. That being said, with training camp just two days old as I write this, I thought it only fitting that we examine a unit that has us all staring at our feeds until the moment Joe Buscaglia opens up a ten pack of questions, leading us to incoherently pound our keyboards DA’RICK ROGMARQWOODS TJ GREASLEY XQL24?!

The 2013 wide receivers have captured the imagination of #BillsMafia in a way that not even the quarterbacks have mimicked. The glitz and glamour of sideline go-routes have visions of 60-yard touchdowns dancing through fans’ heads. For all of the potential this unit offers however, question marks abound and those questions will have to be answered resoundingly in the affirmative in order to live up to the precedent set by the 1999 crew.

Predominant 1999 starting wide receivers:
WR – Eric Moulds (14 Games Started, 14 Games Played, 65 receptions, 994 yards, 7 TD, 1 fumble)
WR – Andre Reed (16 GS, 16 GP, 52 rec, 536 yds, 1 TD)

Primary 1999 reserve wide receivers:
WR – Peerless Price (16 GP, 31 rec, 393 yds, 3 TD)
WR – Kevin Williams (16 GP, 31 rec, 381 yds)

What jumps out about this unit:
Much like the defensive line, this is a unit perfectly planned out by management. You’ve got your aging legend in Reed, his successor taking the baton in Moulds, and the next Robin to Mould’s Batman honing his craft in Price. Once again, general manager John Butler’s eye for talent proved right as rain, but the foresight in drafting and grooming these players at the perfect time is the truly impressive factor.

Moulds and Reed both saw their production decline from ’98 to ’99, but so did the passing attack as a whole. Price was a solid contributor as a rookie, but his breakout sophomore campaign shows just how valuable the skills and lessons he learned from playing with ’99 veterans were to him. Those veterans include Kevin Williams, who may be one of the most forgettable members of the 1999 playoff team, but played a key role in Price’s development. By mirroring his production, he took the pressure off of Price, allowing him to pick his spots and work his way into the pro tempo (unlike a diminutive 2012 rookie we will discuss later on). As a fringe-rotation player for his entire career, Williams was actually selected seven spots higher in his draft than Price. He no doubt possessed a measure of insight into life in the league, the difficulty of living up to second round expectations and how to stick as a pro that eased Price’s transition into the NFL.

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 20 (16th)
Offensive yards per game: 333.3 (11th)
Passing ypg: 205.8 (19th)

Don’t let the numbers fool you. This is a team that ranked second in rushing attempts and 24th in passing attempts. If you wanted to poke holes in the unit, you could say they lacked a multitude of downfield threats. The Bills registered six passing plays of 40+ yards in 1999. Four went to Moulds, one to Price, and one to…Bobby Collins. Let’s be honest; we’re all friends here…hands up if you had Bobby Collins on your “reliable deep threat” sheet. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Frankly, their most reliable big play receiver next to Moulds may have been Jay Riemersma. With all due respect to the pride of Evansville, IN, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Like the safeties and defensive line, this unit was just perfectly constructed. They played to each other’s strengths and hid each other’s weaknesses. They brought out the best in each other and put the man next to them in a position for success. The 1999 wide receivers had chemistry and leadership that may have eclipsed their considerable talent.

Predominant 2012 wide receivers:
WR: Stevie Johnson (16 GS, 16 GP, 79 rec, 1,046 yds, 6 TD, 1 fum)
WR: T.J. Graham (11 GS, 15 GP, 31 rec, 322 yds, 1 TD)
WR: Donald Jones (10 GS, 12 GP, 41 rec, 443 yds, 4 TD, 1 fum)

Primary 2012 reserve wide receivers:
I WON’T PUT BRAD SMITH IN HERE! YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!

What jumps out about this unit:
Do you properly appreciate Stevie’s sustained excellence? Yes? Well, let’s double check, since there won’t be much sunshine elsewhere in this section. He’s led the team in catches, yards, targets, receiving touchdowns, first down receptions and 20+ yard receptions for three straight seasons. Last year, he more than doubled Scott Chandler in targets, the closest man to his mark. While his total production has clearly benefited from the amount of looks he’s received, I believe the disparity in targets also supports the legitimacy of his numbers, increasing the degree of difficulty for production as the only viable option a defense needs to account for. Over the three-year stretch in question, he’s missed a grand total of one game, and for your cherry on top, nearly all of those numbers were compiled with the combination of Fitzy and Chan at the helm of the passing, uhh, “attack.” Stevie Johnson; take a bow.

The rest of the receiving corps were a warning for those whose eyes widen examining the 2013 crew. The most important name behind Johnson on this list is the one that isn’t there – David Nelson, an invaluable security blanket for Fitzy in 2011 that went down for the season in Week 1 of 2012. His absence had a profound affect on the rest of his unit-mates as well. Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) is a stat used by Football Outsiders to help show the importance of workhorse running backs and receivers who can draw the attention of the defense away from other players. Nelson’s 2011 rank of 42, while unspectacular, blew Jones’ rank of 67 in 2012 out of the water. (Here’s a Football Outsiders fun fact for Nelson; would you like to know who his highest ranked most similar player for 2011-2012 was? Kevin Dyson, 1999-2000. Ha…haha…hahahaoh God, I have to go back to counseling again).

Frankly, nothing jumps out about Graham’s performance, but we will look into his rookie campaign and try to glean some wisdom for the 2013 squad shortly.

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 21.5 (21st)
Offensive yards per game: 5,486 (19th)
Passing ypg: 204.3 (25th)

The “next man up” mantra sounds good on paper, but the 2012 Bills receivers simply didn’t have the horses to pony up. Jones was miscast as a number two receiver and battled with wild inconsistency, registering two or fewer receptions in five of his eleven fully-healthy contests. As you can probably tell by my temper tantrum in the “reserve” section, I am aware that Brad Smith is a professional football player whose purported trade is wide receiver. However, Brad Smith received seven more targets in 2012 than Dorin Dickerson and had two less plays of 20+ yards. I truly believe Brad Smith is a good football player. It’s not his fault that he has been overpaid and misused. That doesn’t change the fact that he had virtually zero impact on this unit in 2012 and certainly did not pick up the slack for any of his injured or disappointing teammates.

This brings us to T.J. Graham, the undersized third round pick with blazing speed who was being relied on for immediate production in the preseason. The flawed logic behind this planning of course was the concept that Fitzy could get the ball more than ten yards downfield before the trajectory of the ball resembled the target in a skeet shoot (remember: flawed logic in planning was almost never a part of Butler’s front office in the ‘90s). STATS LLC “credited” Fitzy with 17 underthrown passes last year. Of the four quarterbacks who eclipsed that mark, Josh Freeman was the only one within 108 attempts of Fitzpatrick’s number, and he only notched two more wounded ducks in 41 more attempts. Graham’s most defining feature was destined to go underutilized, but a player with so much riding on his role needed to find a way to impact games, which he failed to do. Gailey attempted to work him into the offense through the bubble screen, but defenses quickly adjusted and pressed him at the line where he was unable to break from larger defenders. His 2012 season should serve as a lesson regarding both rookies and one-trick ponies. It should also provide hope for his 2013 season.

The State of the Union:
If you can’t get excited about the potential of this unit, then I don’t know why you get up on Sundays. Quarterback competition aside, let’s assume the play under center improves to simply league average this season. You can set your watch by Stevie’s 75 catches and 1,000 yards as a baseline. That leaves a whole lot of unknowns lining up around Mr. Dependable.

2013 rookie Robert Woods will be asked to fill Peerless Price’s role and then some. Both second round picks from major college programs, the two players bear many similarities. Much like Price would eventually be called upon to do, Woods will need to fill a multi-faceted role, lining up all over the field, but he will not have the benefit of a should-be Hall of Famer drawing the defense’s attention away from him as Price did in his rookie year. By all accounts, you couldn’t ask for a more pro-ready rookie receiver than Woods, and I don’t doubt his abilities for a moment. To me, he has the potential to succeed Stevie as the team’s best receiver down the road much like Moulds did with Reed, I remain wary of the rookie until I see the production on the field. That concern goes double for the tantalizing, undrafted Da’Rick Rogers.

Marquise Goodwin is the newest toy in town, running a 4.27 40-yard dash at the 2013 NFL Combine that literally made me double-take when the figure came across the screen. It would be easy to compare him to Graham as a small and speedy outside threat, but their numbers and athletic profiles don’t really match up. Graham was a late bloomer from a volume standpoint. He wouldn’t crack 20 catches until his junior year, whereas Goodwin broke 30 in his first three seasons at Texas. Graham was much more of a big play threat, however, gaining 28 less yards as a freshman on barely half as many catches and averaging 16.5 yds/rec as a senior. His 46 receptions in his final year with the Wolfpack greatly outpaced any of Goodwin’s seasons, but the Longhorn still caught more balls over his four year span.

From a physical standpoint, Goodwin’s 40 time at the 2013 combine blew Graham’s 4.41 from 2012 out of the water, and Goodwin also bested Graham by 12 inches in the broad jump. While Graham is two inches taller than Goodwin, he’s only five pounds heavier. Even as a smaller, faster player, Goodwin notched five more repetitions on the bench press than Graham. It’s easy to look at Goodwin’s speed and paint him as a go-route gimmick, but when the college production and combine performance are examined, he easily looks to be the more complete and versatile receiver when compared to Graham. This puts this wide receiver corps in a difficult position; you’d like to rely on the second year player to take a wider share of the responsibility than the rookie, but what if it turns out that the rookie is better suited for that role?

We all know we can count on death, taxes and Stevie Johnson. I believe the world is Rogers’ oyster, but I’m not betting on him to crack it year one. Smith’s value is in leadership on such a young roster, rather than on-field production. That means the Bills receivers cannot flourish unless Robert Woods plays like a veteran and at least one of Graham and Goodwin become reliable sources of production on a weekly basis. Allow me to go on record as saying Goodwin will be the key to pushing this unit over the edge and that the bloom may be well off Graham’s rose by November. Can the 2013 Bills wide receivers return the team to relevance? They are certainly capable of it, but don’t look for the kind of performance the 1999 unit provided.

Previously in the Return to Relevance Series:

Defensive Line

Defensive Backs

Running Backs

Offensive Line

Linebackers