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Bills’ young receiving corps needs to find its footing

Youth will have to serve.

For the Buffalo Bills to assemble an effective offense for 2013, they must get production from a group of receivers so young that Stevie Johnson is their accomplished voice of wisdom – by several years.

“It’s kind of weird, though, because I’m only 26,” Johnson said. “But it’s like a whole new life. It’s exciting. It’ll help the team overall, bringing these young guns in.

“We can be a threat. We got guys that can run any route. As soon as we get the chemistry down, it can be exciting.”

Even with running back C.J. Spiller’s breakout season, the Bills ranked 19th in total offense last year. They ranked 25th in passing offense.

Under new head coach Doug Marrone, the Bills have revamped their passing-game philosophies and personnel. Ryan Fitzpatrick is out as quarterback. First-round draft choice EJ Manuel will compete with veteran newcomer Kevin Kolb for the starting job.

The Bills also have loaded up on promising newbie receivers.

“I’ve been shocked at the talent level,” Kolb said. “I think there’s a lot of guys who are going to emerge with our offense, and they’re able to play fast.

“They’re going to have some decisions to make. It’s exciting for us as quarterbacks.”

The Bills enter training camp at St. John Fisher College with a dozen receivers on their roster. Johnson has 95 more catches, 1,703 more yards and 19 more touchdowns than the other 11 receivers combined.

Receivers coach Ike Hilliard declared inexperience will not be an excuse.

“They don’t have time in this business,” said Hilliard, who played 12 NFL seasons with the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “We’re going to count on them to do the right thing and do the right thing well.

“I share a lot of that responsibility. If they don’t play well, you can point the finger at me. I’m comfortable with that. We intend on having a bunch of guys making plays all over the field.”

Four of the Bills’ training-camp receivers are rookies: second-round draft choice Robert Woods, third-round pick Marquise Goodwin and undrafted free-agents Da’Rick Rogers and Brandon Kaufman.

Two others, Marcus Easley and Chris Hogan, haven’t caught an NFL pass.

Dorin Dickerson is a back-and-forth tight end (as of last week, the Bills listed him as a receiver on their website) with nine career receptions. DeMarco Sampson has three catches to his name. Kevin Elliott has 10. None has scored a touchdown.

T.J. Graham, a third-round pick last year, was a rookie disappointment. He was supposed to stretch the field in Chan Gailey’s offense, but trust was an issue. The Bills didn’t dial him up deep. He averaged just 10.4 yards on 31 catches and scored one touchdown.

Then there’s Brad Smith. At 29, he’s older than Johnson and officially listed as a receiver. Smith has been an asset for the Bills.

But his NFL longevity is rooted in his versatility as a gadget quarterback/runner/returner in addition to his hands. Smith has only 29 career starts at any position and has gained more rushing yards than receiving yards.

“Every guy brings something different to the table,” Hilliard said. “I think we’re more talented there than we have been in a while.”

Of critical importance is speed and downfield play-making ability.

“It’s definitely a priority,” Hilliard said, “a high priority.”

The Bills traded up to draft Graham because of his world-class speed. Goodwin, an Olympic long jumper, ran the fastest 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL scouting combine at 4.27 seconds.

Johnson has been the Bills’ best deep threat essentially by default since Lee Evans departed after the 2010 season.

One of Fitzpatrick’s biggest flaws was that he was a poor downfield thrower. The Bills rarely tried to stretch the field last year. When they did, Fitzpatrick had one of the league’s worst deep-ball passer ratings.

Among quarterbacks who threw at last 25 percent of their team’s passes, data ranked Fitzpatrick 32nd in completion percentage on passes that traveled 20 yards or farther. Fitzpatrick completed 27.5 percent with four touchdowns and five interceptions.

In Fitzpatrick’s defense, Johnson isn’t an overpowering deep threat, Graham was green and slot receiver David Nelson suffered a season-ending knee injury on opening day.

Buffalo’s targets could shape up much more attractively this year.

“You can’t stretch the field unless you make plays down the field,” Hilliard said. “That’s something that we’re learning about each guy right now: Who can make the plays above their head in order to make us a more dynamic offense?

“We definitely have some pieces to do it, to help out the guys who have been here.”