For a team that intends to employ a power-oriented, run-first offense, the Buffalo Bills sure do have a whole lot of wide receivers.
Thirteen are on their 90-man roster, giving the impression that they might actually have something different in mind than the “Ground and Pound” concept Rex Ryan has been selling since being introduced as the Bills’ coach last January.
The fact is, the Bills are more likely to stay true to seeking offensive success via their rushing attack than putting most of their fortunes in the hands of one of the non-franchise quarterbacks on the roster. They still have a $16-million running back in LeSean McCoy and they still have not one, but two, fullbacks.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to look to get as much production as possible from a core group of receivers – which will be about half the total presently under contract – that Sanjay Lal, the new coach at the position, considers himself “so blessed” to guide.
Lal has been a receivers coach in the NFL for the past six seasons, beginning in 2009 with the Oakland Raiders (after serving as their offensive quality control coach in 2007 and ’08). After the 2011 season, he joined Ryan’s staff with the New York Jets, tutoring their receivers through last season.
“I’ve watched the Bills draft Sammy Watkins and Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods,” Lal said during a break in a recent offseason workout program. “And those are guys that I had on my list that I really liked and wanted to work with. Now, it just fell into place that I get to work with them.”
There are obvious questions about the state of the Bills’ passing game stemming from the uncertainty at the quarterback position. EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel, and Tyrod Taylor are battling for the starting job, but there is no assurance that the winner will prove to be anything more than a one-year solution, if he’s even that.
Nevertheless, the Bills do have pass plays in their playbook. And they do intend to use them.
The good news, according to Lal, is that what they call won’t be limited because of any lack of talent among the receivers.
“I’ve been in offenses where you’ll go game plan and you’ll come up with a great scheme and then you get into the meeting and then you say, ‘Well, who’s going to run that route? We don’t have that guy. Who’s going to do this? Well, we don’t have him,’” Lal said. “So these great plays that would work, that we know are going to work, are thrown out.
“Now, what” having the receivers the Bills have “does is it gives you the opposite. You say, ‘Who shall we have run this this week because we’ve got three or four explosive guys who can do it?’ So it just makes game-planning that much more fun and productive. It’s just really enjoyable to actually have people that can execute.”
Lal offered some snapshot takes on the players at the top end of the Bills’ wide receiver depth chart:
Watkins, who after joining the Bills as the fourth overall pick of last year’s draft, tied for second on the team with 65 receptions for 982 yards and a team-high six touchdowns: “The sky truly is the limit for him. He can be a complete receiver. He’s a size-speed blend. He has the potential to be a very good route-runner. He can release. He catches naturally. He’s strong, and then his run-after-catch is exceptional. So those are all the phases of being a receiver. We just have to take each one of those, refine it, make it perfect technique, and then once we do that, we’ve got to get it all into muscle memory.”
Woods, a 2013 second-round draft pick from USC who last season tied for second on the team with 65 catches for 699 yards and five touchdowns: “Very good route-runner, catches the ball well, good body control.”
Percy Harvin, who spent part of last season with Lal on the Jets and whose considerable speed and elusiveness make him impactful as a returner and on sweeps and other plays that don’t involve traditional route-running: “You don’t want to pigeon hole him in that role. All those gadget plays are more effective when the receiver is a full-time receiver. That way, when he steps foot on the field, the opponent doesn’t say, ‘OK, here comes Percy. He only does this, this, or this.’ You don’t want to get in that situation.”
Goodwin, a ’13 third-round draft pick from Texas known for having tremendous speed but who saw minimal playing time last season: “Marquise, I think, gets shortchanged in terms of route-running and the intermediate stuff. I think he can do that, too.”
Chris Hogan, who joined the Bills in 2012 as a free agent and who worked his way into the No. 3 spot last season, finishing with a career-best 41 receptions for 426 yards and four touchdowns: “I was impressed with how he’s improved over the years. It’s significant, and I expect him to go even further.”
Lal thinks his position group will be as competitive as any through the rest of offseason workouts, training camp, and the preseason.
“I’m not pigeon-holing anyone,” he said. “We’ll see how far we can take them.”
The Bills signed former Clemson standout linebacker Tony Steward, the first of their two sixth-round draft picks, to a contract Monday.
That leaves cornerback Ronald Darby, the former Florida State star the Bills made their second-round choice, the team’s only unsigned draft pick.