The News will examine 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.
The Buffalo Bills can only hope the receivers competing for jobs on their roster get as wide open as the competition among them promises to be at training camp.
With the departures of Chris Hogan and Percy Harvin, the question of who will step up at wide receiver is one that even coach Rex Ryan is asking.
“I think it’s all going to have to shake out,” Ryan said last month. “Nobody has really jumped out. … I’m excited to see these guys when training camp comes around. We’ll see who separates themselves at that point.”
Adding intrigue to the competition is the status of one of the receivers whose job is safe – No. 1 wideout Sammy Watkins. His availability for training camp remains a mystery as he recovers from a broken foot.
If Watkins misses some or all of camp, there will be an even bigger opportunity for the players behind him on the depth chart. Watkins and Robert Woods are the only two receivers who are locks for the 53-man roster heading to training camp.
While it’s too early to handicap the race with any certainty, some early jockeying for position was done in the spring. Second-year veteran Dez Lewis, the Bills’ tallest receiver at 6-foot-4, was one of the players to make the biggest push out of the gate.
“Dez Lewis is really making huge Year One to Year Two strides,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “He’s here first thing in the morning. He’s one of those guys that we started to take notice of before we even got on the field. What usually happens, what they do in the meetings, weight room, etc. carries over to the field. Those two are very interconnected. His play on the field has reflected that.”
Lewis, who played in college at Central Arkansas, spent almost all of 2015 on the team’s practice squad.
“I just think our organization took a great approach with him,” Roman said. “Knowing that there’s a jump and you’ve got to have patience with young guys. Yes, there’s a period of time where you’ve got to kind of draw a line in the sand to see whether he gets it or not, but I think we had a lot of patience last year early with him knowing that that leap would in fact happen.”
The Bills have also shown plenty of patience with Marquise Goodwin. The team supported his failed bid for a spot on the U.S. Olympic track and field team, which means he will be available for the entirety of training camp.
“If he’s not the fastest guy in the league, he’s certainly right up there in the conversation,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said.
All that speed doesn’t do any good on the sidelines, however, and Goodwin has played only 12 games the last two seasons, including only two in 2015, with just three catches over that time.
Goodwin has his toes firmly up against that “line in the sand” Roman referred to.
If there is a silver lining to missing out on a spot in the Olympics, it’s that Goodwin will be able to devote himself entirely to the most important training camp of his four-year career.
“I know this is the NFL and I respect that,” he said last month. “I respect the work that teammates have been putting in, but I don’t think I’ll be too far behind because I’ve been working, too.”
Greg Salas also belongs on the short list of candidates for the No. 3 job. He had three catches for 41 yards in the season finale against the New York Jets, and has a previous history with Ryan and receivers coach Sanjay Lal.
“I think he played pretty well for us at the end of the year,” Ryan said. “We’re actually looking at him returning punts, as well. So he’s doing a nice job.”
Salas is on his sixth team, so he too is running out of chances to prove he’s an NFL talent.
The options don’t end there, either. Jarrett Boykin, Leonard Hankerson and Greg Little are all veterans with at least three years of experience who stand 6-2 and weigh between 210 and 220 pounds. Each one of them also has at least one season with 500 receiving yards on his resume.
Boykin played in college at Virginia Tech with Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Hankerson was the Falcons’ No. 2 receiver early last season before a hamstring injury, while Little had a three-year run as a starter in Cleveland from 2011-13.
The Bills also have a rookie option in sixth-round draft pick Kolby Listenbee. The burner from TCU was still recovering from hernia surgery in the spring, but should be ready to reach high gear in camp.
“He’s been explosive when he is out here, so we have to get him healthy,” Ryan said.
Just how many jobs are up for grabs isn’t exactly clear. NFL teams typically keep five or six receivers on the 53-man roster, but seven isn’t unheard of when jobs on special teams are factored in.
“Overall, ‘hey, this guy is a clear No. 3, No. 4, whatever it is – you really haven’t seen it,” Ryan said.
The Bills must hope it starts to come into focus at St. John Fisher.