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Stevie's career with Bills at a crossroads

Stevie Johnson can be confounding at times, but he's certainly not blind and definitely not stupid. He has been around the NFL long enough to know how things work, how a player can be considered a fixture in an organization one season and packing his bags the next.

Johnson doesn't appear to be going anywhere just yet. He'll celebrate his 28th birthday in July. He's approaching the tail end of the prime of his career, whatever that's defined. He's already been given the big payday. He wasn't productive by his standards last season for numerous reasons, including injuries.

So what's next for Stevie?

To his credit, he said all the right things this week during voluntary team activities on One Bills Drive. He praised EJ Manuel after seeing him assume more command during workouts in Florida. He supported the addition of Mike Williams and talked about team aspirations when asked about individual objectives.

“Playoffs,” Johnson said. “Playoffs and that's it. All those personal goals, they don't really mean nothing. Last year was kind of frustrating, but when I look back on it, it was a good thing. The whole individual stats and stuff is out the window. It's just playoffs now. It's winning.”

The Bills would be in much better shape if Johnson maintained that attitude through the season, but you never know with him. He's an emotional guy, which is one reason he's effective. He's competitive and physical and tough. He's also been selfish and immature over the years.

Earlier in his career, Stevie was more about himself than winning. Sure he wanted to win. Nobody is disputing that. Still, it seemed he wanted to win only if it meant him playing well, if it meant him getting the ball, if it meant becoming a star and turning each week into another episode of the Stevie Show.

But when a man loses a parent, he often gains perspective. In December, Johnson's mother passed away much too young at age 48. That would get anyone's attention. He missed the final two games with injuries. He's had four months to assess his priorities and become more appreciative of the opportunities and riches that came with the NFL.

If it made him a stronger man, it's bound to make him a better, more determined leader. That much was not lost on him earlier this week. He sounded like he was ready to embrace the role of a mature, responsible veteran who could pass along his experiences to a younger generation of teammates.

“It was very emotional,” Johnson said. “It was a difficult time at the end of the year, but at the end of the day I think it helped me with my mental toughness. I think that is going to help for this season. Maybe I can be an example for other players on this team, or maybe around the league.”

But you never know with Stevie, his alter ego. Too many times, he was Stevie being Stevie with his antics on the field. Even last season, a quiet year by his standards, you questioned whether he would ever grow up and become a reliable leader. For his sake, if not the Bills' sanity, it needed to change.

Johnson didn't say as much this week, but he must be wondering how long he'll remain in Buffalo. The Bills built up their receiving corps in the draft last year when they selected Robert Woods in the second round and Marquise Goodwin in the third. Johnson was moved to the slot, where he could better utilize his physical assets, but he was mostly a nonfactor.

The Bills were so desperate to get Manuel more help that they signed Williams, a talented player who was drawn to trouble in Tampa Bay. Williams was considered a high-risk acquisition with his big contract and off-field issues. The Bucs concluded he wasn't worth the aggravation.

If the Bills were willing to add a potential problem child in Williams, what did that say about Stevie? Maybe it was a coincidence, but it seemed strange that Bills coach Doug Marrone was not asked, and did not offer, anything about Johnson when meeting with the media Tuesday.

Pre-draft speculation isn't worth much, but there's been talk the Bills have their eye on Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. He caught 69 passes for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns last season as Johnny Manziel's favorite target. He's 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, a big, strong receiver who has been compared to Brandon Marshall. It just so happened that he visited the Bills on Tuesday.

Regardless, if Manuel is going to become the franchise quarterback, he'll need to find chemistry with his receivers. He seemed to make a connection with Woods and, to a lesser degree Goodwin, last season. Johnson, who had three straight 1,000-yard seasons, had 52 catches for only 597 yards and three touchdowns.

Johnson was slowed by back, groin and hamstring injuries last season after admitting he didn't work out in the previous offseason. He said Tuesday that he recovered from the injuries and felt good. He sounded like he was making a stronger commitment to conditioning this year, but only he really knows.

Perhaps he has taken a look around and realized he's being pushed. Or perhaps he's smart enough to know that he could be pushed out the door.

“It's a part of being a professional, especially when you're getting up there in years,” Johnson said. “Things start to break down. You have to use all the things that you can. That's the training room, the weight room and all that. I'm looking forward to getting after it.”


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