OK, so the Buffalo Bills do not want reporters to tell fans if anyone drops a pass or throws an interception in their laughingstock of a media policy.
The most unpleasant sight at One Bills Drive this week wasn’t on the practice field, rather, in the fieldhouse.
That’s where star receiver Sammy Watkins was hunched over crutches with his broken left foot in a boot. The Bills are confident Watkins will be ready for Week One at Baltimore — head coach Rex Ryan did everything but pound the lectern — but there are no guarantees he’ll be ready for training camp and no guarantees he’ll avoid a ninth injury in his third season.
So with Chris Hogan off to New England, what’s left at wide receiver if Watkins does miss any game action?
A healthy Robert Woods and a hungry collection of NFL outcasts.
“Of course we want Sammy here,” Woods said. “We want to work and want to pick back up where we left off. This team has been plagued with injuries. But he should take his time, get healthy and it gives myself and other guys opportunities to step up, make plays and let coaches figure out what they have.”
So, right now, Woods is the No. 1 wide receiver.
“I just have to be open,” Woods said. “I’m healthy. I got my speed back. So other than that, it’s all timing. Be open, stay open.”
Emphasis on healthy. He was anything but last season.
Woods originally injured his groin in a joint August practice with the Cleveland Browns and was not the same all season. While catching 47 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns as predominantly “a blocking receiver” in Greg Roman’s offense, getting separation was an issue. “Opening up” and basic “running” was an issue, he said. It felt like Woods was “pulling” his leg behind him and he had trouble staying on his feet.
The 2013 41st overall pick had surgery in late December and wasn’t able to sprint until mid-March.
"I feel like I can run again," he said, visibly relieved.
The Bills plan on running the ball a lot again this season — they did 31.8 times per game in 2015. No, Woods won’t play in friendly three-, four-receiver sets like Hogan will with Tom Brady. Last year, he described this all as a new role he had to accept. And when asked if he truly enjoyed it, he admitted mid-season, “I have to. I have to make it fun for myself.”
Dive into this line of questioning today and Woods repeats that he'll do whatever the Bills ask.
“That’s my job as a wide receiver," he said. "I have to be open when they ask me to and I have to block when they ask me to. It’s nothing different. Just going out there, putting my best on tape and being well-conditioned to do it all.”
So in this offense, Woods views himself as “an all-around guy.” After catching a myriad of passes on shorter routes in his career, averaging 12.1 yards per catch, he hopes to develop into more of a deep threat for quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He expects cornerbacks to press up closely on him, which will put his new wheels to the test.
“Now, I have my speed back as well," he said. "I can even take them up top. Tyrod has a great deep ball. So we need to capitalize on that.”
Woods never told anyone in the media about the pain in his groin because, well, he didn’t want defenses to take shots. Now, it’s the last year of his rookie contract and he still believes he’ll get enough opportunities in the passing game.
Who else steps up? Jarrett Boykin appears to be one (very) early leader in the clubhouse. Taylor’s former go-to receiver at Virginia Tech broke out in 2013 with 49 receptions for 681 yards and three scores with Green Bay, was buried on the depth chart in 2014 and then couldn’t make Carolina’s team in 2015.
Watching football every Sunday was brutal. He knows this could be his last shot in the NFL.
“I don’t want to leave anything out there,” Boykin said. “Watching people play on Sunday, you’re like ‘Man, I wish I was still out there.’ It comes and goes so fast. I want to come out here and pick up where I kind of left off and keep excelling.
“It instills an extra fire in you but you can’t blame anybody but yourself. But then you just sit back and dwell upon things — what you could’ve done better, what you could’ve taken advantage of. And once you get the opportunity, for one, don’t take it for granted. And two, capitalize.”
With Greg Salas and Marquise Goodwin also not practicing in OTA's, Boykin has a chance to get a leg up in the competition. He plucked a Taylor pass off a deep in route for 20 yards during Tuesday's open practice. His game? Boykin calls himself “a size guy.”
This day, he holds out his massive 10 1/4-inch hands. They're tightly squeezed into the Bills' 3XL-sized gloves. Boykin could go up to 4XL like he did in college, but likes this snug fit.
“I know I’m out here to make myself better to get in a nice position to make the team,” Boykin said. “The first thing is to come out here, learn and develop chemistry with everybody. … This is going into my fifth year. I’ve been around different programs to see how things are run. I’ll just pick up certain things and bring them all into one at this point.”
Added Taylor, "I know his body language. ... I know what type of receiver he is. Excited what he can do for us."
The Bills are banking on the cream rising to the crop.
Maybe Kolby Listenbee burns corners with his world-class speed — he ran a 10.03 in the 100 at TCU. Maybe a stronger, matured Dez Lewis elevates in Year 2. Maybe one of the forgotten vets like Salas or Greg Little or Leonard Hankerson or Boykin finds new life in Buffalo.
Woods' personal goal this year to treat every ball in the air as "my ball." He lists off the names of Buffalo's receivers with confidence, saying all the offense needs is a solid group as a whole.
“What hurt us last year was injuries,” Woods said. “We weren’t at full strength at any point of time. Somebody was always down. So first off, everybody needs to take care of their body. Injuries are a part of the game. You just have to find ways to eliminate them or decrease them from happening.
“It’s the second year of the offense. We’re going to be a lot better than we were.”
They’ll still need Watkins at 100 percent.
“I know he’s doing everything he can to get back,” Woods said. “He wants to be here. I know he’ll do everything to be ready.”