This is the third of a 10-part series that examines how well the Buffalo Bills have addressed each position during the offseason.
Today’s installment looks at wide receiver.
By Vic Carucci
News Sports Reporter
As the Bills prepared for the NFL Draft, receiver looked like a plausible priority.
Maybe it wasn’t as large as edge rusher or linebacker, but it seemed to merit a prominent spot on the needs list.
The Bills’ decision-makers weren’t sold on Robert Woods in the No. 2 role. The third spot opened after Chris Hogan bolted for New England as a restricted free agent.
Injury-plagued Percy Harvin chose retirement over the chance to return to Buffalo for a second season. And even if Marquise Goodwin weren’t on a fast track to Rio for the Summer Olympics, his extensive injury history makes him a constant wild card.
With Sammy Watkins recovering from his second offseason surgery since joining the Bills as the fourth overall pick in 2014, it’s fair to wonder whether there might be more than a little regret at One Bills Drive over not targeting a receiver somewhere in the first few rounds.
Perhaps the Bills could have taken Pitt’s Tyler Boyd, who went to Cincinnati in the second round, or Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, who went to Houston in the third.
Instead, they went all-in on defense through the first two nights – beginning with the risky pick of Shaq Lawson, whose shoulder operation earlier this week could delay the start of his rookie season – and didn’t address receiver until their next-to-last choice, Kolby Listenbee, who also arrived as damaged goods.
Here’s the breakdown at wide receiver:
Returning: Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Leonard Hankerson, Marcus Easley, Dezmin Lewis, Greg Salas, Marquise Goodwin and Walter Powell.
Newcomers: Kolby Listenbee (sixth round, TCU), Jarrett Boykin (FA), Greg Little (FA), Davonte Allen (UDFA, Marshall) and Gary Chambers (UDFA, Arizona State).
Better, worse or the same?: The call here is slightly worse.
Even if Watkins – who somehow suffered a broken foot in the last month that was repaired with the help of a surgically inserted screw – returns to action during training camp or the preseason, he’ll likely be touch-and-go until the Bills begin playing for keeps.
The Bills should take every precaution to allow Watkins to fully heal before allowing him to do any high-stress work. It would make much more sense to tolerate having him begin the regular season rusty than take the chance of him re-injuring his foot in practices or games that don’t count.
How much Watkins will be able to trust the foot’s ability to hold up when he’s running and cutting full bore remains to be seen.
But being extra careful with him is vital because without him, the Bills basically lack a passing game that is pretty much driven by the deep ball.
Who else is going to consistently catch those kinds of throws from Tyrod Taylor?
In Greg Roman’s offense, he became mainly a blocker last season.
His greatest trait as a receiver is the ability to run precise routes, especially on intermediate throws, but that doesn’t carry much value for the way the Bills operate.
Otherwise, Hogan would still be on the team.
Will Listenbee, the super-fast sixth-rounder from TCU who underwent surgery in March for a double sports hernia, make a game-breaking impact as a rookie? Don’t hold your breath. Ditto for Goodwin. They’re both track guys and track guys get hurt a lot.
How about Leonard Hankerson or Dezmin Lewis? No difference-makers there, or among veteran free-agent signees such as Greg Little, who has a reputation for dropping too many passes, and Jarrett Boykin.
It should come as no surprise that the Bills are kicking the tires on another free agent, Andre Roberts, a slot receiver recently released by the Washington Redskins. Roberts was due to visit One Bills Drive on Friday.
Here’s more food for thought: The Bills’ best hope for finding improvement in their passing game is to continue to have the best running game in the NFL – or at least close to it.
Opponents have to continue to be forced to over-commit to stop the run, which, in turn, should help give some additional space for receivers to run their routes.
Next: Tight end.