This is the second part of a series assessing the Bills' 2010 season. Today's installment deals with receivers.
The departures of Terrell Owens and Josh Reed left the Buffalo Bills without a proven wide receiver opposite Lee Evans. But a perceived weakness became one of the team's biggest strengths by the end of the season.
Stevie Johnson answered the call as the No. 2 receiver. Taking advantage of defenses focusing almost exclusively on Evans, Johnson enjoyed a breakout third season with 82 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Roscoe Parrish finally was in an offense that used him properly and undrafted rookies David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt excelled when their opportunities increased.
The surprisingly productive receiving corps gave quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick plenty of options. Just as important was the confidence he showed in the young wideouts.
"I think it says a lot about the guys that we have in the group, just with the amount of uncertainty," Fitzpatrick said. "We knew some guys were going to get thrown in that really hadn't had much playing time or no experience at all in the NFL. Between what Stevie did this year and Roscoe having the year he was having, and David and Donald stepping up and really doing some really good things, we've got a lot of talent at that position."
Coach Chan Gailey needs to get more out of the tight ends, but the future looks bright at wide receiver.
"That's really nothing to worry about there, but there's still room for improvement everywhere," Johnson said. "Even if you think that you've got it all, there's still ways to improve and make the team better."
*Positives: Johnson's 82 catches were the most by a Bills player since 2006. He tied a team record with a touchdown catch in five consecutive games and finished with 10 TDs, one shy of the Bills' record. Johnson was the go-to guy as soon as Fitzpatrick became the starter. Johnson was targeted 142 times, more than Evans (83) and Parrish (51) combined. Sixty-one of Johnson's receptions went for first downs and his 30 third-down catches led the AFC.
Parrish was having a career year (33 catches for 400 yards and two touchdowns) before breaking his wrist midway through the season. Gailey did a good job of utilizing Parrish's quickness on routes over the middle, something previous coaches failed to do.
Nelson was a revelation, finishing with 31 catches and three touchdowns as a reliable slot receiver who effectively worked the middle of the field. Jones flashed exceptional receiving and blocking skills. Roosevelt was a late-season addition to the active roster, but the Buffalo native responded with nine catches in the last three games.
*Negatives: Evans had the worst year of his career, and that was on the heels of his previous worst year. His speed attracts double teams, but No. 1 receivers shouldn't disappear as much as he did. Gailey must figure out how to get Evans the ball more. Johnson's strong season was marred by eight dropped passes, which according to Stats.com tied for seventh in the NFL. His dropped TD in overtime against Pittsburgh was one of the NFL's lowlights this season.
In a year in which NFL teams got big production from tight ends, the Bills got very little from the position. Their tight ends combined for 23 catches, the lowest total in the NFL. Shawn Nelson has the look of another draft disappointment. Jonathan Stupar and David Martin were used mostly as blockers. Will late-season signee Scott Chandler contribute in 2011?
*Outlook: Wide receiver should be low on the offseason priority list. The top seven return as will Marcus Easley, who impressed before a knee injury in training camp ended his rookie year. The newfound depth has some people believing Evans should be traded. Gailey said an Evans trade is unlikely, but added, "I'm not gonna say anything's impossible." Getting rid of Evans would be risky because there's no guarantee the young receivers will duplicate this season's performance, and none of the other receivers can make defenses respect the deep ball like Evans.
Next: Running backs.