Buffalo Bills: Full Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis at Wide Receiver
Turnover is certainly not a new concept in the NFL, but what the Buffalo Bills have done at the wide receiver position since Doug Marrone became head coach is astounding. A unit that had collectively underachieved for previous regimes—sometimes at no fault of their own—has been completely reshuffled, with only two guys remaining from the pre-Marrone era at the position.
A year after spending early picks on Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, the Bills completed their overhaul this offseason with two draft-related trades. The much-debated decision to give up multiple picks for Clemson superstar Sammy Watkins will be under a microscope for the next few seasons, and an April trade sent a sixth-rounder to Tampa Bay for near 1,000-yard wideout Mike Williams.
The Bills have made it clear that they want a dynamic combination of height and speed in the receiving corps. With former mainstays like Stevie Johnson and David Nelson no longer fits in the development of a fast-tempo offense, the Bills have replaced them with speed on the outside and low-key signings like Ramses Barden to become the tallest unit in the NFL.
The hope is that big investment in the wide receiver position will pay dividends with the development of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel. Improving the overall talent will help the process, but the Bills will only be able to avoid another underwhelming season if Manuel can take on the full load of mastering the offensive playbook.
Buffalo currently has 12 receivers on the 90-man roster entering mandatory minicamps, and with the team's history of injuries, it has to figure to keep at least six. Who needs to have a great camp to have a chance at a roster spot, and who could be a surprising cut at the end of August?
Let's take a look at what the Bills' receiver depth chart looks like entering the dog days of summer.
In years past it has been easy for no-name receivers to make an impression in the offseason and in turn secure one of the final roster spots. Guys like Johnson, Nelson and Chris Hogan all used strong summer performances to become important parts of a Bills squad within a short period of time.
The infusion of talent at the position has made the security of a roster spot harder to accomplish, and the following four players are long shots to make the team entering camp.
Cordell Roberson was a highlight-reel player for Cleveland last August after signing a UDFA tender in May. He quickly became a fan favorite with great performances in two of the Browns' preseason games, but he became a cap casualty despite depth concerns. He spent a week on the practice squad for the Panthers before signing on with the Bills in October in the same capacity.
Roberson has spent much of the spring working on the sidelines with an injury, which won't earn him any favor with the coaching staff. However, his 6'4" frame will continue to get him at least a few looks. If the Bills view him as a developmental player, he would be better served by spending another year on the practice squad.
Chris Summers has the same allure of Roberson as a 6'5" red-zone target, which puts them in direct competition for a roster spot. Summers has bounced around the NFL since going undrafted out of Liberty in 2012 before landing a starting receiving spot with the LA Kiss of the Arena Football League earlier this year. With very little professional experience, he is another likely stash player if he makes it through waivers after preseason.
Another undrafted free agent from the 2012 draft, Kevin Elliott has the prototype body of an NFL receiver at 6'3" and 215 pounds. The former Florida A&M standout created a little bit of a buzz during voluntary OTAs with a couple of nice grabs, including this high-flying catch over dime corner Ron Brooks.
Out of the four receivers in this grouping, Elliott has the best chance to stick this summer because of his familiarity with the complex system the Bills are running on offense. The Bills liked him enough last season to put him on injured reserve after the practice-squad player was injured early in the year and secure his rights for another offseason.
Caleb Holley was a last-minute addition to the free-agent class following the draft, and he follows the trend of "big." The 6'2" receiver dominated D-II competition at certain points last season, including racking up Madden-like numbers against Northwestern Oklahoma in October—10 catches, 224 yards and three scores.
Holley's name hasn't been mentioned much by beat writers during the team's voluntary sessions, which may be a sign of his drastic adjustment to the speed of the pros from a lower level of competition in college. He is the slightest receiver in this group and would need an astronomical summer to have a chance at making the final roster.
A general consensus of those who cover or follow the Bills would have four receivers as untouchable entering training camp: Watkins, Woods, Goodwin and Mike Williams. That leaves four players squarely on the bubble fighting for as little as two spots.
Ramses Barden is an interesting bubble player because he has an advantage over the other guys in this grouping. The former mid-round selection by the New York Giants has an above average size-speed combination at 6'6" and with a 4.68 40-yard dash, per NFL.com. Unfortunately for him, injuries and inconsistencies led to scattered opportunities in the Big Apple before his eventual release last August.
He is going to get the first look out of the big receivers because of his four seasons of playing experience, but the leash will not be very long if he can't show the playmaking ability he had at Cal Poly.
If any player is used to being on the bubble, it is third-year receiver Chris Hogan. The former college lacrosse player has been a fan favorite during summer practices in each of his four stops, but he never made a final roster cut until last season.
The Bills saw use for his crafty route-running skills, which has garnered him the nickname "7-11" because he is always open. He played sparingly on offense until the position was ravaged with injuries, but he was a contributor on special teams.
Hogan will once again be fighting for his career in 2014, and an infusion of talent at the top of the depth chart could push him out of the picture completely.
The special teams unit was brutal to watch at times last season. The Bills' coverage on any type of returns was a glaring issue, as evidenced by being ranked the third worst group by Football Outsiders. As a result, fans called for the firing of Danny Crossman at the end of the season. But he returns for another shot in 2014, as does his top gunner Marcus Easley.
Easley was supposed to be a solid contributor for the Bills coming out of UConn, but a series of unfortunate circumstances got his career off on the wrong track. He has bounced back but remains almost a noncontributor on offense.
The question is, How far will his special teams prowess take him? His return skills and coverage skills make him a valuable asset, but the inability to make plays on offense could eventually catch up with him in the numbers game.
T.J. Graham is the most interesting guy on the list because of where he was drafted only two years ago. We all know the story by now, as the Bills traded up to take a mystery player that had fans thinking of a future with Russell Wilson. Graham was the pick, and the success of Wilson in Seattle has made the N.C. State speedster a target of angst from fans, fair or not.
His speed was one-of-a-kind on the outside for the Bills two years ago, but the additions of Goodwin and Watkins make his shine a bit dimmer. His problem has been showing signs of brilliance one moment before committing a series of costly drops the next. No longer the only deep threat on the team, Graham's price tag and general ineffectiveness is going to force him into a prove-it situation this summer.
Goodwin was a surprising pick in the third round last offseason, especially after the team added Woods with one of its two second-round selections. The Texas track star had impressed enough at the Senior Bowl to warrant a mid-round grade, and Buffalo's recent stance of hoarding blazing-fast skill players made him a fit.
A preseason return out of the end zone for a touchdown showcased his abilities, but his potential in the return game was never really satisfied during the regular season. However, his speed on the outside did give the Bills a different look in Manuel's rookie season. Goodwin only caught 17 passes in his first year but at nearly 17 yards a pop, including a 59-yard score off the hand of Jeff Tuel in a disappointing loss to Kansas City.
With Graham possibly on the outs, Goodwin will have plenty of opportunities to open up the field for Buffalo's offense.
A lot was expected out of Woods during his rookie season, especially with injuries and absences of Buffalo's former top receiver Johnson. Woods' season had the highs and lows expected of a rookie receiver, but he handled the pressure well by providing an immediate impact as a starter.
He was the Bills' most consistent receiver at times last season and finished with 40 receptions for nearly 600 yards and three scores, although he only crossed into the end zone once after Week 4.
With Johnson heading to San Francisco in a draft-day trade, Woods becomes the guy over the middle of the field. For all of Johnson's quirks, he was a consistent player for the team for five seasons, which speaks volumes about what the organization thinks of Woods entering his second year.
A difference in his second season compared to his first will be the diverted attention of opposing defenses to other players. Watkins and Williams create matchup issues on the outside, and Woods is good enough to find consistent holes in the defense against sub-package corners. Outside of the tight ends, Woods may be the most important receiving option for Manuel this season.
A somewhat comical trend for the Bills in recent years has been the additions of players with the last name of Williams. The team has seven players on the roster with the surname, and outside of Nathan Williams, the other six could all be starters by the end of training camp.
Mike Williams is no stranger to Western New York, having played his college ball just down the road at Syracuse. He was a standout for the Orange and had a brief encounter with Marrone during his stay as Syracuse's head coach—an encounter that did not have the best of endings.
Williams left the Orange in the middle of his final collegiate season and declared for the draft following the year. His curious departure hurt his buzz as an early-round selection, but Tampa Bay took a chance in the fourth round in the 2010 draft.
He had plenty of success in four seasons with the Bucs, finishing with just less than 1,000 yards in two seasons before a disappointing, injury-marred 2013 campaign. He enters a similar situation in Orchard Park as he had in Tampa, with no true stability at the quarterback position.
Williams' talent made it work in Florida, but his off-field issues made the Bucs finally give up on him in April. A sixth-round pick was a low-risk gamble for the Bills that could pay big dividends as long as Marrone can keep him under control this time around.
Two trains of thought exist after Buffalo's surprising first-round roll of the dice to move up to get the Clemson standout. Either the Bills traded too much for a team that is not one piece away, or they made a bold move that could push a wildly talented roster over the edge.
To say expectations will be high for the congenial Watkins would be an understatement. Being a top-five pick in general comes with a bevy of mildly unrealistic projections, but when a team trades up into the first five picks, already inflated expectations can become even more so. There is no denying his talent in his first month of the team, but the price to pay was awfully high for a team with questions remaining at the quarterback position.
The Bills have a plan in place for the offense to improve, but it will come down to execution in Year 1 for Watkins. It is no surprise to see other rookie receivers get ranked ahead of Watkins in early fantasy big boards, but no Bills fan should be concerned by his potential impact in this regard.
Watkins will be heavily involved in the offense as a receiver, but his best trait in Year 1 could come as a decoy. Opposing defenses will have to respect his speed on the opposite side of Mike Williams, leaving plenty of room for Woods, the tight ends or the running backs to find space.
How the Bills use Watkins will be key to keeping Manuel off his back and reading the right progressions.