Stevie Johnson established himself as one of the 10 best receivers in franchise history during six seasons with the Buffalo Bills.
During his tenure, which ended with a trade to the San Francisco 49ers last month, Johnson caught 301 passes (seventh most all time) for 3,832 yards (ninth) and 28 touchdowns (seventh).
Johnson’s unique style of route running – which last year the team utilized mostly out of the slot – has befuddled some of the best cornerbacks in the game, including Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman.
So to expect him to be easily replaced is asking a lot.
The Bills, however, feel they’ve got someone ready to step into the void in second-year veteran Robert Woods.
“We felt very comfortable with him being able to play the slot and be very successful there,” coach Doug Marrone said of Woods, who finished his rookie season with 40 catches for 587 yards and three touchdowns.
“That feels pretty good. I’m confident in my game, what I can do. It’s a great thing that the organization thinks highly of me from that standpoint, but I’m just here to play my game,” Woods said after a recent spring practice. “I’m not trying to fill Stevie’s shoes, I’m just trying to do what I can do. Getting open, catching the rock, and just making some plays – being a playmaker for this team.”
Woods showed glimpses of that ability as a rookie. A high ankle sprain kept him out of two games, but he managed to average 14.7 yards per catch and converted first downs on 26-of-40 receptions. His 587 receiving yards ranks sixth in team history among rookies.
Woods is a limited participant during spring practice after having arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle in February.
The procedure, which was performed by Dr. Robert Anderson, a noted foot and ankle specialist who has also operated on Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams. Scar tissue was removed from the ankle, dating back to an injury suffered while playing pick-up basketball in college in 2011. It was the second arthroscopic procedure performed on the injury.
“I didn’t want to get it, just because it didn’t really do anything the first time, but it actually feels healthy, feels better,” Woods said. “I’m just trying to ease my way back in with this squad and keep progressing.”
There have been plenty of introductions needed in the receiver room, following the offseason makeover that included not only the trade of Johnson, but also the acquisitions of Buffalo native Mike Williams (via a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Clemson star Sammy Watkins (in the first round of the NFL Draft).
“It’s been pretty crazy. We as a group, we didn’t know anything,” Woods said of the roster holdovers at receiver. “It’s a lot of upstairs business. We’ve just got to keep controlling what we can control, and that’s ourselves. Keep getting better.
“I think they’ve been good moves. Bringing in Sammy, a speed guy, who’s been pretty much sure-handed. Hopefully that translates into the league. As for Mike, he’s put up great numbers at Tampa, been consistent, and he’s another threat on the other side.
With Williams an established outside receiver (25 touchdowns in his first four seasons) and Watkins having the flexibility to play inside or out, Woods rounds out an intriguing top three receivers from the slot position.
“On paper it looks good, but that doesn’t matter. It’s all what happens on the grass, Woods said. “We need to prove why we’re a good top three.”
Woods estimated he spent about 30 percent of his college career playing out of the slot. He’s excited about the challenge it presents this upcoming season.
“I feel good about it. I mean, it’s just another way to, I would say, get myself the ball. Playing inside, you’re closer to the quarterback, an easier target,” he said. “There’s a lot more traffic, bigger guys, and it’s easier to get double-teamed, but there are a lot more plays for the inside receiver.”
Whereas the outside receiver is defended on one side by the sideline, receivers operating out of the slot have the freedom to run routes in either direction.
“There’s a lot more freestyle from the slot,” Woods said. “Every route could look different or every route could look the same, depending how you want to play it.”
With Johnson, no two routes looked the same. His herky-jerky style could drive defenders batty. Woods is the opposite – a crisp, polished route runner.
“That’s how you get open, how you get separation,” he said. “I’ve been taught that since high school, have quick feet in and out of your breaks.”
A differing style from Johnson, to be sure, not that the Bills will care about that if the results are the same from Woods, or better.