Bills Have Decisions to Make at Wide Receiver

The wide receiver position for Buffalo during the 2011 season was in constant flux thanks to the continuous injuries the group suffered. If you can remember back to training camp, the Bills actually traded away Lee Evans because they had too much talent at wide receiver. And at that time, it made sense: the Bills had six guys who had looked good in camp – Steve Johnson, David Nelson, Roscoe Parrish, Marcus Easley, Naaman Roosevelt, and Donald Jones.

But this being the Bills, things quickly fell apart. Easley was diagnosed with a mysterious heart ailment and placed on IR (he’s been treated, thankfully, and he’ll be good to go for 2012). Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s not Roscoe Parrish, Roscoe Parrish got hurt (again) in Week 2 and was lost for the season. A few weeks later, Jones went down…and suddenly we got to see things like C.J. Spiller (a running back) and Brad Smith (a quarterback) playing WR full-time. Later, after Roosevelt also went down, we saw castoffs like Ruvell Martin and Derek Hagan suddenly playing a ton of snaps for Buffalo.

So now, thanks to the revolving door at the position in 2011, the Bills have a ton of receivers who are under contract or eligible for free agency, and GM  Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey will have some tough decisions to make. At this point, the only two current Bills receivers I would guarantee will be on the roster in 2012 are David Nelson and Brad Smith. To fill out the rest of the roster, here’s what needs to be decided:

Can the Bills bring back star WR Stevie Johnson? – Buffalo’s top receiver is a free agent and will be looking for a big payday. And he’ll get it from someone. Johnson’s somewhat of a unique receiver in the NFL in that he’s not overwhelmingly physically talented and he’s not a big home-run hitter, but he just manages to get open against everyone. He’s never going to put up 12-catch/200-yard/3 TD days, but he’s almost always good for 60-100 yards. The Bills desperately need him back and Buddy Nix has made it clear they will work to sign him. But don’t rule out someone throwing more money at him than Buffalo can match.

Should the Bills even bother attempting to bring Roscoe Parrish back? – Look, I love Roscoe Parrish (True story: I unsuccessfully campaigned to name my son “Roscoe”), but he’s a free agent and you have to wonder if he’s worth a spot on the roster. When he’s healthy, he’s a great slot receiver/kick returner. But he’s never healthy. He’s just so small and I just don’t believe he can get through a whole NFL season. If he agrees to come back for a bargain price, great, but you just can’t put any faith in him.

Will the young guys make the roster next year? – Just looking at this from a roster space standpoint: I don’t think both Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt make the team in 2012. One or the other, probably. Both were given a chance to play in 2011 and I don’t think either really distinguished himself. Obviously, their odds go way up if Johnson’s not re-signed.

Will either or both of the journeyman veterans be back? - Ruvell Martin and Derek Hagan took advantage of the injury chaos to earn some playing time down the stretch. Hagan, in particular, seemed to win favor with Gailey, even earning a starting role at the end of the year. Martin played a lot of special teams and caught the occasional pass. Either or both could be back in 2012. Hagan’s a free agent, but he looked good enough that the Bills should really look into signing him.

What is Brad Smith’s role going to be? – Smith was a bit of disappointment in 2011. Gailey never made much use of Smith’s versatility, and Smith’s performances at receiver were inconsistent at best. He’ll be back on the roster without a doubt thanks to his contract, and Gailey should really spend part of his offseason trying to figure out ways to best use Smith.

Is Marcus Easley ever actually going to play? – The Bills’ 2010 4th-round pick has yet to play an actual NFL snap. He blew out a knee very early in his rookie season and then lost his 2011 season to the aforementioned heart issue. Supposedly he’ll be good to go in 2012, but Buddy Nix made it clear in his season-ending press conference they have no idea what they have in Easley: “Marcus has had the worst luck. I try to stay away from him, I’m afraid it will wear off on us… we don’t know what we’ve got. We know he’s talented. We’ve always thought he was. He’s a really big, strong guy. He’s 225 pounds and can run.”

Easley did look very good in camp before his issues, so he’ll certainly have every opportunity to make the team. Tough not to root for the guy.

Will the Bills use a draft pick (maybe even their 1st-rounder) on a receiver? – This is a very real possibility. Buddy Nix believes in the “best player available” draft strategy, so if a wide receiver is tops on their board when the Bills pick, he’s the selection. If Oklahoma St. receiver Justin Blackmon is still available at #10, you’d best believe he’s the pick.

So there’s a lot to sort out there, and it will be very interesting to see how it all shakes out come training camp.

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