One of the training camp battles that Bills fans have been keeping an eye on is who will be the starting #2 wide receiver opposite Lee Evans come September. The obvious choice was James Hardy, the former 2nd round draft choice. Hardy is a 6’5″ receiver, who was supposed to have been taken under the wing of Terrell Owens last season. However, since the team broke for camp, the guy lining up with the first team has been Steve Johnson.
With Chan Gailey coming in this season, fans wondered how many spots would truly be up for grabs. A lot of coaches give that cliched line about no entrenched starters at any position, but fans know that’s never totally the case. If Lee Evans has an unimpressive camp, he will not be in danger of getting cut or losing his starting spot as the team’s leading receiver. However, with Johnson lining up thus far at #2 WR, Gailey seems to be providing more than just lip service about evaluating every position and trying to let the best man win.
The Bills drafted Johnson in the 7th round, 224th overall, in the 2008 draft. At the time he was an unheralded wideout from the University of Kentucky. Sports Illustrated’s draft profile listed him as a wideout who is an “adequately sized receiver…with good hand/eye coordination” that, “loses concentration and…possesses marginal speed and not a deep threat”. I’ve been told that I have pretty good hand/eye coordination as well, but that didn’t make me an NFL draft prospect.
For that kind of mediocre scouting report, you’d be surprised to find that in Johnson’s senior year at Kentucky he had 61 catches for 1,052 yards and 13 touchdowns in arguably the best conference in college football. Johnson was a player I kept an eye on in his rookie camp, and someone who I thought could end up making the team. He showed some glimpses early on in the preseason and ended up making the team after a pretty impressive 8 catch, 78 yard performance in the fourth preseason game that season.
Johnson did not receive much playing time until the end of his rookie season. The Bills got off to a fast start, in part because of a late, game-winning touchdown catch by Hardy that won the Bills a game at Jacksonville. After that catch, Hardy showed nothing more than an inability to get separation from a defense, and that he may be a tad injury prone. Johnson maximized the opportunities he received later in the season. He had a solid 10 catches for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns in limited playing time. He showed an ability to move the chains and use his big frame to shield off defenders, particularly in the end zone.
Johnson’s 2009 season came and went without too much to be excited about. With the Bills signing Terrell Owens, and an offense without any direction, Johnson hardly saw the field. He managed only to catch 2 balls for 10 yards in 2009. With Owens gone and a new coaching staff in place, Johnson once again appears to be maximizing the opportunities he’s given. In an open competition between him and the former highly touted 2nd round pick, Hardy, Johnson is out to prove he is a worthy starting WR in this league.