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Rookie WRs can be slow to catch on

Lee Evans has been there. He experienced the culture shock that comes with being a rookie receiver in the NFL. So from the start, he warned James Hardy that the transition to the pro game can be slow and difficult.

"I told him early, it's a long season," Evans said Wednesday. "Things move quick, but it's a long season. It's a learning process for him. I told him he just has to get better from week to week."

Hardy's introduction to the league has been jarring and largely unproductive. Through four games, he has two catches for 12 yards. Hardy caught the winning touchdown in Jacksonville; otherwise he has been a nonfactor.

With Roscoe Parrish out, Hardy got his big chance last week at St. Louis. The Bills threw to him several times early, twice in the end zone, but he didn't have a catch. He was not available to comment in the locker room Wednesday.

Evans said Hardy is a little frustrated, which is understandable. But it's no shock to see a rookie wideout struggle in the NFL. The game is faster, the defenses more complex. The defensive backs are swift, forbidding athletes who will take your head off in an instant.

Most rookie aren't up to the challenge. Ten receivers were taken in the second round of April's draft (none in the first round). Only two, DeSean Jackson of the Eagles and Eddie Royal of the Broncos, have caught 10 passes. Devin Thomas has the same stats as Hardy: two catches, 12 yards. Malcolm Kelly has one catch, Limas Sweed none.

Bills receivers coach Tyke Tolbert was in Arizona when Anquan Boldin caught 101 passes, an NFL rookie record. Tolbert said Boldin -- who is unlikely to play against the Bills with a head injury -- was the exception, a rare combination of raw talent and football intelligence.

"Anquan came from Florida State with a swagger," Tolbert said. "James came in a little more humble, wanting to fit in and learn. Keep in mind, he played basketball all his life until he got to high school. So he's still learning the sport, much less the position."

Tolbert said Hardy burns to be great. When Hardy came to Buffalo, he brought a laptop computer that was compatible with the Bills' system, so he could study the same film as the coaches. But nothing could prepare him for the reality of the NFL.

"Oh, no question," Tolbert said. "At Indiana, he ran the route regardless of the coverage. In the NFL, you have to read the coverage on the run and be able to adjust your route based on the coverage. He had never done that before in his life. That was a big adjustment, and I was surprised coming from a Big Ten school he had never done that. Before, he just locked the route."

Coach Dick Jauron said he's happy with Hardy's progress and his effort. But Jauron played defensive back in the NFL. He knows a veteran DB can toy with a rookie's head. He said Hardy has to learn to react to the different techniques he sees from week to week.

"I believe he's getting better," Jauron said. "The great news is that we're still 4-0. So if he can keep learning and advancing as he's doing and we're winning, that would be terrific."

Yes, but the Bills struggled in the passing game in the first half of three of the four wins. Teams got pressure on Trent Edwards and he wasn't able to find an open receiver. As the games get tougher, the Bills will need Hardy to be a reliable option, at least until Parrish returns.

Fair or not, there was pressure on Hardy to perform as a rookie. As expectations rise for the Bills, the pressure will intensify -- not only on Hardy, but on first-round pick Leodis McKelvin. Jauron, not given to strong statements, said before the season "we have to expect a lot of [Hardy]."

I can't imagine that two catches in four games is what he had in mind.

e-mail:jsullivan@buffnews.com

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