Did Bills WR T.J. Graham Live Up to Rookie Expectations in 2012?

Erik FrenzSenior Writer IJanuary 15, 2013

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 23:  Wide receiver T.J. Graham #11 of the Buffalo Bills celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on September 23, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

When the Buffalo Bills drafted wide receiver T.J. Graham in the third round in the 2012 draft, they were hoping to find a way to harness his speed and convert it into big plays for their offense.

Graham came up short in that area, but he was not entirely a failure as a rookie—not, at least, when compared to other rookie third-round receivers.

We previewed Graham's rookie season by setting a baseline stat line for wide receivers selected in the third round since 2007. 

He blew that baseline out of the water by Week 13. In fact, the only area in which Graham did not exceed expectations was in his abilities as a downfield threat. Considering Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick classically handcuffed the Bills offense from doing anything downfield, Graham's struggles downfield were clearly not entirely his own.

He became the first rookie wide receiver to start more than eight games after being taken in the third round since Packers wide receiver James Jones did it in 2007.

Graham's career got off to a solid start, and based on the success of third-round receivers, he could continue to trend upward. As I wrote in the preview, 13 of the 31 have developed into productive receivers for their teams, and 10 of those 13 recorded more than 10 receptions in their rookie year.

Improved coaching could lead to improved play. As the Saints offensive coordinator, Bills head coach Doug Marrone helped get the most out of wide receiver Devery Henderson, who is similar to Graham in his skill set and size (Henderson is 5'11", 200 pounds, Graham is the same height but 12 pounds lighter).

As of yet, his skill have been best used in the short passing game, where he is getting into space and creating yards after the catch.

He earned 183 of his 322 receiving yards by running after the catch, and 24 of them came on one play in a loss to the Colts.

The Bills lined up in an empty set in the shotgun, with three receivers in a stack formation on the offense's left. The receivers lined up so close to one another makes it difficult for the secondary to keep their assignments in such close space.

It also creates a situation where the wide receivers can dictate which player they are matched up on. This allows Graham to be matched up on the Colts deep safety, who is 15 yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball.

The screen to Graham on that side of the field got him out in open space with blockers in front of him, and he scampered 24 yards.

Plays like this could make Graham a valuable weapon to the Bills offense, but he will only reach his fullest potential when he is stretching the field. In order to do that, he has to learn how to get off jams, but his 5'11", 188-pound body is not conducive to getting into physical battles with NFL cornerbacks.

He was not a well-rounded route-runner when he entered the NFL, and still has a lot of work to do in that regard. 

Of course, it would help if his coaches were calling patterns he was familiar with running in practice, but he's not the first receiver in NFL history to be asked to run a pattern he hadn't practiced before.

That being said, perhaps a little familiarity with the route would have prevented him from running it the way he did, which resulted in a game-ending interception in the end zone when he ran behind safety Devin McCourty instead of in front of him.

Will he learn how to run routes in the NFL? Will his coaches learn how to best utilize him? Can he develop into a top receiver despite his size? 

These are all questions without answers, but all will go a long way in setting the stage for his career progression. As of right now, though, his statistical performance has exceeded expectations.

What happens from here is in the hands of Graham, the quarterback and the coaching staff.


Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.