Doug Marrone made a surprising admission about receiver Chris Hogan this week.
“Chris was a guy – and I’ve never mentioned this to Chris – that you looked at and were looking for reasons why maybe he shouldn’t be on the team,” the Buffalo Bills’ coach said.
As it turns out, Hogan never gave them one.
In fact, he’s done exactly the opposite. Hogan has gone from making the 53-man roster to being a core member of the special teams units to now working as the team’s No. 3 receiver.
“Have we seen the best of Chris Hogan?” Marrone asked. “I can’t answer that because he keeps getting better and stepping up every time. Every time you try to count him out a little bit if he doesn’t have the greatest day, the next day he’ll come back and you say to yourself, ‘Holy cow.’ ”
Hogan’s emergence in the offense caught national attention this week when the highlight of his 28-yard reception on the game-winning drive against Minnesota played on an endless loop. The catch set the Bills up at the Vikings’ 2-yard line. On the next play, rookie Sammy Watkins caught the game-winning touchdown.
“There’s nothing like that,” Hogan said of the feeling after making his leaping reception. “Getting out on the field and being a part of a game-winning drive, playing a big part and being able to make a big play on that drive, it’s a great feeling.”
While Hogan’s grab may have caught outside observers or the casual fan by surprise, it’s not like his ability has snuck up on the Bills’ coaches. During training camp, he was given a look with the starters in the slot.
The team eventually started the year with Watkins and Robert Woods as its top two receivers, with Mike Williams and Marquise Goodwin being the next two in. Hogan, 25, didn’t play an offensive snap the first three weeks, but started working into the rotation in Week Four, when Goodwin was out of the lineup.
He’s seen a big spike in playing time the past two weeks, getting 30 and 37 snaps, respectively. For the season, he’s played 19 percent of the offensive snaps.
“He’s a resilient type of guy with attention to detail,” Marrone said. “You can trust what he’s doing out there on the field. He knows exactly what to do. He knows all three positions.
“I always tell the players ‘you’ve got to put yourself in a position where the coaches have to play you because that’s how well you’re playing.’ I think Chris has done that.”
By now, Hogan’s back story is well known. But for those who need a refresher: He was the New Jersey high school player of the year in lacrosse, which he played for four years at Penn State.
With one year of college eligibility left (because of an injury during his sophomore year), he played football at Monmouth, earning a shot in the NFL thanks mostly to his 4.47-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He also bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times, better than any receiver at the NFL Scouting Combine in the last decade.
“Athletically, I think I’m gifted enough to play in this league for a long time,” said the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder. “I’ve just got to continue to go out there and make plays and be able to prove that I belong out there.”
The Bills are Hogan’s fourth NFL team, after training-camp stints with San Francisco, the New York Giants and Miami. While with the Dolphins, he got the nickname “7-11” during the HBO show “Hard Knocks” – because he was always open.
“Someone mentioned it before, about pulling for those type of guys, undrafted or whatever it may be,” Marrone said. “He’s a guy that, all of the sudden, stepped it up. He took a bigger role on special teams, addressed that, has gotten better at receiver and really has done all of those things. He’s a guy that didn’t have a lot of experience playing, so he’s another one that I like the direction he’s headed.”
Hogan has also won over quarterback Kyle Orton. All 12 of his receptions, which have gone for 162 yards and a touchdown, have come with Orton under center. In just the past two games, Hogan has 10 catches for 135 yards, surpassing his entire 2013 output (10 catches for 83 yards).
“He runs hard routes,” Orton said of Hogan. “He’s aggressive to the ball, makes contested catches and is a smart player so he’s stepped in nice and has really seized his opportunity to get more playing time on the field.”
As Marrone indicated, the Bills are comfortable using Hogan in any of their three wideout roles – meaning in the slot, at flanker or as the “X” receiver.
“My role over the past couple years being a scout-team player, you get to work all inside and outside, that kind of thing,” Hogan said. “I used those practices and that time really to work on being an outside receiver, because they are two different roles. Playing in the slot, you run your routes a little differently than on the outside. It took a little time, but it’s something that I’ve worked on.
“I try to be that guy that’s willing to do anything and everything to help this team win.”
Especially the past two weeks, Hogan has started to reap the rewards of that hard work. That makes Sunday’s game against the New York Jets all the more special.
Hogan grew up in Wyckoff, N.J., 18 miles from MetLife Stadium. He’ll have a healthy cheering section of family and friends at the game Sunday.
“I’m really excited, really looking forward to this game,” he said. “It’s always fun going back home. … This would be a huge win for us.”