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Bills’ receivers have plenty of catching up to do

The Buffalo Bills’ wide receivers have dominated headlines in recent weeks.

Unfortunately, it’s not because of anything they’ve done on the field.

Both Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin have lit up social media and talk-radio airwaves for situations that have nothing to do with catching footballs.

First, Watkins made waves when his comments about wanting more targets in the Bills’ offense – which were made while he was out of the lineup with a calf injury – became a major national topic.

Then, Harvin missed a Week Six game against Cincinnati because of a nagging hip injury. Or so we thought. When Harvin didn’t make the trip to London for the Week Seven game against Jacksonville, the team listed him on the injury report as being out for “personal” reasons. It was revealed that Harvin skipped the trip and returned home to mull over whether he wants to keep playing despite his injury problems. By listing him as being out for personal reasons as opposed to injury, it’s clear the Bills thought Harvin went AWOL.

Largely because of their absence, a Bills’ receiving corps that on paper looks like it could be one of the NFL’s best has struggled to find any sort of chemistry.

With the team having reached its bye week, The Buffalo News is taking a position-by-position look at the state of the roster. Wide receivers and tight ends are up:

Watkins: The numbers are what they are – 11 catches (tied for 155th in the NFL), 147 yards (tied for 133rd), two touchdowns. Watkins has played in two full games – in the first two weeks of the season. He suffered a calf injury in Week Three against Miami that took him out for the rest of that game and the following two, then suffered an ankle injury in Week Six against Cincinnati that knocked him out for Week Seven.

Obviously, injuries have prevented him from racking up the type of numbers the Bills – and their fans – thought they’d be getting when they traded away a first-round pick to move up and draft Watkins fourth overall in 2014. It’s true that he’s had uneven quarterback play during his time with the Bills. It’s also true that his presence demands more attention from defenses, opening things up for his teammates. But to live up to what people thought Watkins was going to be, he has to do more.

That pressure is undoubtedly weighing on Watkins – and he’s starting to crack. His comments about wanting more targets were largely met with an agreeable nod from Bills fans, but the timing of them was easily called into question considering he was out with the calf injury. To be the type of player everyone wants Watkins to be, he has to be on the field.

“Injury prone” is a tag no athlete wants, but in Watkins’ case, at least so far, it fits.

What’s more troublesome than his comments about wanting the ball, which every great receiver does, is the way he responded Tuesday to the Internet tough guys who were commenting on an Instagram photo he posted with his daughter at Disney World. Make no mistake, the trolls who lurk online and leave the most racist, vile comments possible are the absolute bottom rung of society. But Watkins’ responding by calling people “losers,” telling them to “get a life” and “continue working y’all little jobs” is not the right way to handle things. Nobody benefits from that.

The frustration of their team missing the playoffs for 15 straight years runs deep for some Bills fans – so much so that the optics of an injured player sharing vacation pictures – right or wrong – is enough to set them off.

Watkins’ best bet would be to keep his head down, rehab his injury and do whatever he can to be a difference-maker starting in Week Nine. Grade: C.

Harvin: Through five weeks, it seemed like the Bills’ gamble on Harvin was going to be a winning one. He had 19 catches for 218 yards and a touchdown. None of the rumored issues that plagued his previous stops in Minnesota, Seattle and New York, i.e. fighting with teammates, appeared to be present. But then Harvin’s hip injury flared up, and now everything is up in the air.

It appears the Bills, by listing him as out for personal reasons, believe he’s healthy enough to play, which would mean they think he’s quit on them. That sets up an inevitable fight about his condition – if Harvin ever returns to the team. The Bills could certainly use him. He appeared to have good chemistry with quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and has flashed explosive playmaking ability at times. His skills as a kick returner would also give the Bills’ special teams a boost. Grade: C-.

Robert Woods: Bills coach Rex Ryan called Woods a No. 1 receiver earlier this season, but that’s looked true in only one game. Woods had nine catches for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Jaguars in Week Seven. Outside of that, his production has been minimal. He looks to be a decent second option or good third option if the Bills can ever get healthy at the position. Grade: C+.

Chris Hogan: His 46-yard catch against Tennessee helped set up the Bills’ winning touchdown and was of the season’s biggest highlights. Hogan also had six catches for 56 yards against the Jaguars in Week Seven and is on pace to set career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns. The biggest negative with Hogan is his tendency to drop passes, which dates back to training camp. He’s also been a special-teams contributor, participating in 43 percent of those snaps. Grade: B.

Marcus Easley: His 58-yard touchdown catch against the Jaguars came out of nowhere – it was just his third career reception. Easley is on the roster primarily for special teams, and at least to this point, his performance in that regard has slipped some. Although he did miss one game with a shoulder injury, Easley ranks tied for fifth with special-teams tackles, and has contributed two penalties to what has been a team-wide problem. One of those penalties negated what would have been a turnover. Grade: C.

Denarius Moore: Signed primarily to be the team’s punt returner, Moore got off to a nightmare start in Week Five when he lost a fumble against the Titans. The next week, he made a fair catch of a punt at the Bills’ 4-yard line. He looked better against Jacksonville, with two returns for 37 yards. At this point, however, he hasn’t done anything to make fans forget the man he replaced, Marcus Thigpen. Grade: D.

Charles Clay: He leads the Bills with 34 catches and 350 yards, has played in 95 percent of offensive snaps … and yet, there is the feeling Clay isn’t living up to expectations. That comes with a contract that paid him nearly $25 million guaranteed and made him the fourth-highest-paid player at his position.

Analytics website Football Outsiders ranks tight ends according to defense-adjusted yards above replacement, a statistic that gives a value to the performance of a player compared to a replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and translated into yardage. Clay ranks 20th in that, as well as in the website’s defense-adjusted value over average rankings, which represents the value, per play, over an average tight end in the same game situations. The Bills have used him in a lot of different ways, including motioning him into the backfield to serve as a blocking H-back, but it’s hard not to escape the feeling that he’s somewhat underperformed. Grade: C+.

Matthew Mulligan: An exclusive blocker, Mulligan has played 23 percent of the Bills’ offensive snaps. Pro Football Focus ranks Mulligan fourth among blockers at tight end, but penalties have been an issue. He’s taken two of them, which have nullified 27 yards. Grade: B-.

Chris Gragg: Inactive for the first three games, Gragg has seen his workload steadily increase since Week Four. He played a season-high 59 snaps in Week Seven against Jacksonville and made a career-long 29-yard catch. He also had one of the all-time “what was he thinking?” moments when he was at least a full yard out of bounds when he made a catch with nobody around him. He has been targeted 12 times over the last two games with EJ Manuel at quarterback, and while that number may go down when Taylor returns, Gragg has at least carved out a role for himself in the offense. Grade: C+.

MarQueis Gray: He played just 26 snaps over the first four weeks before being lost for the season because of broken forearm. Grade: Incomplete.


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