When Sanjay Lal talks about the wide receivers he gets to coach for the Buffalo Bills, he is understandably thrilled.
Sammy Watkins … Robert Woods … Percy Harvin. You hear the names and these words immediately come to mind: Talented … athletic … dynamic.
“Like I tell them, we’re going to be feared for our route-running, for how violently we play the game,” said Lal, in his first year as the Bills’ receivers coach. “Every week,” opponents are “going to say, ‘We can’t take all of these guys away and stop the run. What are we going to do?’”
Where does Chris Hogan fit in all of this?
He evolved into the Bills’ third receiver last year, his second official NFL season after being on their practice squad as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Hogan made two starts and finished with career-best numbers for receptions (41), yards (426), average yards per catch (10.4), and touchdowns (four).
With Hogan, the words that come to mind tend to be “decent” and “solid” and “reliable.” You don’t think of game-changing ability. You don’t think of speed that puts the sort of fear in opposing defenses that Lal is expecting from the Bills’ receivers.
Except Lal makes it clear he is expecting nothing less from Hogan than from the other mainstays among the 13 receivers on the 90-man roster the Bills will take to training camp in July.
“I don’t short-change his athletic talent or speed or any of that,” Lal said. “We have all these competitions when they do weight-lifting and Hogan always seems to be top three, if not one. He’s one of the best athletes on the team, so I think he gets short-changed perception-wise that way.
“I see him as one of our best receivers, and nothing less than that. In terms of the route-running, he is one of the fastest to pick up all the small technique things we teach. And then no one works harder than him.”
Hogan has a reputation for being an incredibly hard worker. He can always be seen after practice spending extra time either working to hone his route-running or pass-catching, or his 6-foot-1, 220-pound body. And if he isn’t doing those things, he’ll likely be watching additional videotape of an opponent’s secondary or taking another look at the game plan.
That’s the way it has always been for Hogan. When you enter the NFL as an undrafted free agent, you always have to pour in more time and sweat and energy than everyone else to stay there.
Lal’s supportive comments notwithstanding, Hogan fully understands that he faces a tremendous challenge just to remain on the Bills’ roster, let alone maintain the prominent role he had in their passing game. Last year, his contributions increased as Mike Williams ultimately played his way off the roster and Marquise Goodwin struggled to stay healthy, leaving the No. 3 receiving spot behind Watkins and Woods vacant.
This year could be different. The new Bills’ coaching staff loves Harvin’s incredible speed and explosiveness, having been exposed to it when he played for the New York Jets last year, and want to make it a significant part of the offense. Goodwin, who is also exceptionally fast, is going to have every chance to prove he should play a prominent role as well.
But Hogan isn’t flinching. In fact, he welcomes the opportunity to compete.
“I love it,” he said. “The competition is great, because it pushes everyone in that room. And it’s been that way since I’ve been here. It’s a crowded room always during camp. I think it really pushes us to work hard and try to get each other better.
“I’m that type of guy no matter who you bring in – 14, 15, 20 guys – to that room, it’s really just going to make me work that much harder. And I’m the type of guy that really has to go out there and prove myself every single time, every single year. And like any other year, I’ve just got to go out there and make the best of my opportunities and impress.
“Obviously, we have a whole new coaching staff so I’ve got to make sure that I impress them and prove to them that I’m a trustworthy guy on the field again.”
By all accounts, Hogan has been doing exactly that so far through the last two weeks of OTA practices and other offseason workouts.
He has a genuine admirer in Lal, who paid attention to Hogan while Lal was the receivers coach for the Jets the past three seasons.
“He catches well, really has a good feel for the game,” Lal said. “He understands defenses, spacing. I trust him.”
Which is another reason for the coach to be excited about his new job.