Robert Woods is spending his offseason preparing for two futures: long-term, as in what he’ll do after he finishes playing football, and near-term, as in doing what’s necessary to make a bigger impact playing wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills.
Woods, 23, is taking three classes at the University of Southern California to satisfy the final requirements for his undergraduate degree in Policy, Planning & Development. When he hangs up his cleats, he sees himself working in commercial development or as a city planner.
But as Woods completes his studies and fulfills an internship this offseason, he also intends to concentrate on making improvements to his game that he feels could help lead toward having an increased role as a playmaker.
One is Woods’ yards-after-catch, better known as YAC, production. Another is running deeper routes just as effectively as he runs the short and intermediate ones.
“I’ve just got to do things, working on myself, to be more dangerous and add to this offense,” Woods said on Jan. 4, when he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers after the end of the 2015 season.
The Bills’ No. 2 receiver ranked third on the team with 47 receptions for 552 yards, an average of 11.7 yards per catch, and three touchdowns. He missed the final two games of the season after aggravating a groin injury in the Dec. 20 loss at Washington.
Woods’ catches were down by 18 from 2014, when he and No. 1 receiver Sammy Watkins tied for second on the Bills with 65 (one behind former Buffalo running back Fred Jackson) and Woods averaged 10.8 yards per catch. This season, Watkins, who missed three games, led the Bills with 60 receptions for 1,047 yards, an average of 17.5 yards per catch, and nine touchdowns. Tight end Charles Clay followed with 51 grabs.
Woods’ role was significantly altered from 2014. He served much more as a blocker in the Bills’ run-oriented offense. And in the second half of the season, as the Bills responded to Watkins’ public demand for more targets, Woods, Chris Hogan and anyone else who lined up at receiver opposite Watkins saw less and less involvement in the game plans.
“It’s a whole different offense (from 2014),” Woods said. “You can’t really compare the two. I think we passed a whole lot more last year.”
In fact, with Doug Marrone as their coach and Nathaniel Hackett as their offensive coordinator, the Bills attempted 579 passes in ’14, compared with 465 in 2015. Not coincidentally, their rushing attempts shot up from 402 to 509.
“I understand my role here, but I’m still capable of making plays, fast plays,” Woods said. “I caught 40-something passes. Sammy had 40-something (actually 44) before the last two games (during which he caught 16 passes for 220 yards).
“I’ve just got to do something when I do get the ball, whether it’s YAC yards or being more of a vertical threat. This offseason, I’ll work on that … Just being an open target with the speed, running past defenders, YAC. That’s the main focus.”
But Woods also is realistic about what the Bills are trying to achieve with Rex Ryan as their head coach and Greg Roman as their OC. They want to ground and pound, while leaning heavily on the defense. As long as that continues to be the case, it’s likely to limit the contributions of anyone whose primary job is to catch the ball.
On top of that, the Bills have one of the league’s most dangerous running quarterbacks in Tyrod Taylor, who is just as apt to make plays with his legs as he is with his throwing arm.
“I mean, we’re a run-first offense,” Woods said. “And we added (running back) LeSean (McCoy). Great, great addition with (running back) Karlos (Williams). We know we’re going to run the ball, we’ve got great running backs. It’s just part of our offense. We’ve got a new coordinator.
“We know that is the offense. As a receiver, all I can do is, when we do call pass plays, just be an open target, make more explosive plays with those passes that we do get. We know we’re limited, but we’ve just got to make plays (with) what we do get.”
Woods is entering the final year of the four-year contract he signed when the Bills made him a second-round draft pick in 2013. His base salary is due to increase from $797,434 to $1.02 million.
Some NFL observers think, based on what they saw of him this season, he’s closer to being a No. 3 receiver than a No. 2. And with the Bills expected to be looking at the draft to find a more dynamic complement to Watkins, Woods doesn’t seem shocked or even slightly perturbed at the question of whether he thinks he still has a future with the Bills.
“That’s the goal, that’s the plan,” he said. “I always want to stick with Buffalo, my first team. I just want to put it all on tape, make sure that they want me.
“I’ve got some work in, and I’ve got some work to do.”