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Why the Bills have become a wide receiver wasteland

Every NFL team has someone who can be considered a No. 1 wide receiver. How that’s defined – whether by number of targets, catches or yards – is subjective.

But not every team has a true No. 1 receiver – a game-changing player defensive coordinators wake up in a cold sweat thinking about – and that includes the Buffalo Bills. Kelvin Benjamin certainly wasn’t it, and Sammy Watkins failed before him, too.

In four of the past five years, the Bills’ leading receiver – at least in terms of catches – hasn’t even been a wide receiver. In that span, the Bills have ranked 20th or worse in total production among wide receivers.

The last three years have been particularly bad. According to the analytics website Pro Football Focus, Bills receivers have ranked last in the league in catches for three consecutive seasons. In 2016, Bills receivers had 146 catches, were 28th in yards with 2,107 and tied for 24th with 11 touchdowns. Last season, they were last in catches (115) and yards (1,474), and tied for 27th with nine touchdowns. This year, they are again last in catches (116), 30th in yards (1,560) and tied for last in touchdowns (seven).

So a No. 1 receiver is on the offseason wish list. But how does General Manager Brandon Beane define what the Bills need?

“This is going to sound funny, but we don't sit there and say, ‘this is a No. 1 receiver,’ ” Beane said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “There are some elite, elite guys, but where do you draw the line of who's a true No. 1? Julio Jones, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham, Antonio Brown, those guys obviously are it.

“A lot of teams have good receivers, but are they a true No. 1? Look at the Rams. Their offense is really good. Do they have a No. 1? I look at it as, there's very few guys in that elite category that just take over games. I'm looking for good players, good receivers, and we'll take as many of them as you can get.”

Other offensive positions aren’t numbered the way receivers are. Elite running backs and tight ends are rarely referred to as the No. 1 at their position. The idea of a No. 1 receiver is driven more by media and fans than it is something teams concern themselves with. Ask Bill Belichick to identify the Patriots’ No. 1 receiver and he’ll likely mumble something about the ball going to whoever is open.

"When we talk about it with our scouts, I don’t ask them, ‘Is this a No. 1?’ It’s more, ‘What did he play in college? How do you project him in the pros?’ ” Beane said.

 RECEIVER PRODUCTION
Rec. Rank Yards Rank TD Rank
2014 179 23 2,296 24 16 T-13
2015 168 25 2,390 20 16 T-14
2016 146 32 2,017 28 11 T-24
2017 115 32 1,474 32 9 T-27
2018 116 32 1,560 30 7 T-32

 

Another Julio, Odell or Antonio – receivers good enough to be identified on a first-name basis – would be nice, but are in short supply.

“You're looking for what fits,” Beane said. “I don't want all speed guys. I don't want all size guys. Some things are better in the elements. Some things are better on the fast turf. If we're playing a snow game or a wind game where you can't throw as much, you can have all the speed you want, but it's really going to be more of a possession game. ... Really, you want receivers that bring various skill sets -- big, fast, tall, long, quick, really good after the catch.”

Recent failures

Benjamin was acquired at the trade deadline last season from the Carolina Panthers in exchange for third- and seventh-round draft picks with the hope that he could recapture the form of his 2014 rookie year – when he had his only 1,000-yard season and nine touchdowns. It didn’t happen, for a variety of reasons.

Injuries undoubtedly played a part. Benjamin gutted through a torn meniscus suffered last year against the Chargers in his second game with the Bills. He made a couple of big catches in the snow game against Indianapolis – the Bills don’t end their playoff drought without them – but he largely struggled to produce.

That continued this year. Benjamin was pressing. His body language and perceived lack of effort turned fans against him, although that sentiment was not shared by everyone at One Bills Drive.

Benjamin was released Dec. 4 after he had 23 catches on 62 targets for 354 yards and one touchdown in 12 games. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs days later.

“I think Kelvin didn't know what he was supposed to do. Not that he didn't know the plays or any of that, I think he just didn’t know what role they wanted him to fill,” said Steve Tasker, a former Bills receiver and current co-host of the team’s daily radio show. “He wasn't familiar with what this offense was going to be. It was hard for him to fit in and feel comfortable out there knowing exactly what they wanted him to do. Four different quarterbacks, it's pretty tough to be good when it's that much of a carousel back there.”

Sammy Watkins is the last Bills receiver with 1,000 yards (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The same can be said of Watkins, the team’s last 1,000-yard receiver with 1,047 in 2015. Drafted fourth overall to be a weapon for E.J. Manuel, the Bills quickly soured on Manuel as a franchise quarterback, turning to Kyle Orton. After Orton's retirement, Tyrod Taylor took over. The current front office did not think Watkins was going to be part of their future after his contract expired last season, so Beane traded him to the Los Angeles Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round draft pick during training camp in 2017.

In retrospect, that looks like a good move. Watkins had 39 catches for 593 yards and eight touchdowns, but the Rams didn’t re-sign him. He signed a three-year, $48 million contract with the Chiefs, and has 40 catches for 519 yards and three touchdowns. That’s not a great return on investment. He has been inactive for four of the last five games because of a foot injury, the same thing that shut him down in his last season in Buffalo.

“Receivers are so dependent on everything around them to be effective,” Tasker said.

"A quarterback's got to target you, throw it, see it, let it loose. I say this on the radio show all the time: Receivers are made by the QB.”

Evidence of that can be seen in the success Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin have had since leaving Buffalo. Woods topped out at 65 catches for 699 yards in his four seasons in Buffalo. Last year with the high-powered Rams, he had 56 catches for 781 yards and five touchdowns. This year has been even better, as he’s set career highs with 71 catches for 1,032 yards and five touchdowns from quarterback Jared Goff, a former No. 1 overall draft pick.

Goodwin blew away his previous career highs last year in catching 56 passes for 962 yards. He had back-to-back 100-yard games after the San Francisco 49ers acquired a franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. This year, without the injured Garoppolo, Goodwin has resembled the receiver he was in Buffalo, with 19 catches for 359 yards in nine games.

Stevie Johnson had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons with the Bills (James P. McCoy / Buffalo News file photo)

The Bills’ last receiver to have a sustained run of success was Stevie Johnson. He arrived in Buffalo in 2008, and the first quarterback he caught a pass from was third-stringer Gibran Hamdan. Johnson’s first two years produced little statistically, as the Bills cycled through J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards and Brian Brohm at quarterback.

“Until I had one consistent quarterback, I wasn’t able to show more of my ability,” Johnson said. “There wasn't any main quarterback to identify themselves or establish themselves.”

Once Ryan Fitzpatrick did that, Johnson’s career soared. He had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons – becoming the first player in franchise history to accomplish that – and earned a lucrative contract extension.

"You've got to have a quarterback before you can show you're a playmaker," Johnson said.

Before Johnson, Lee Evans had a three-year run from 2006-08 in which he led the team in receiving, twice topping 1,000 yards. Evans did so despite catching passes from Drew Bledsoe, Losman, Edwards, Kelly Holcomb and Fitzpatrick during that time.

“That was a challenge,” Evans said Friday with a laugh. “Regardless of who comes in, you try to work with the strengths of that guy. Some of them have stronger arms, some are a little more mobile with their feet. Trying to have a rapport with any quarterback who was back there is what I tried to do.

"I had to develop a relationship with all the quarterbacks to have some type of rhythm, because we had so much turnover – not even from year to year, but week to week.”

Before Evans, it was Eric Moulds. He had a whopping eight starting quarterbacks during his 10 years with the Bills.

“He was a guy who had Hall of Fame-type talent, and was on the wrong team to take advantage of it,” Tasker said. “Otherwise, Eric is a guy like Andre Johnson.”

What would have Evans’ career looked like with more consistent quarterback play?

"You're going down a slippery slope with that one,” he said. “I will say it is a much different situation and mentality when you have some stability.”

The Bills have lacked that stability this season. At one point, four different quarterbacks – Derek Anderson, Nathan Peterman, Matt Barkley and Josh Allen – started in four consecutive weeks.

"The hard part with the receiver room this year, and our offense in general, was all the quarterbacks that have played,” Beane said. “It started with a three-quarterback competition. That’s just where this team was. Deciding to move on from Tyrod Taylor and draft one, I think that was hard on our whole offense. There was not a lot of rapport."

With Allen healthy now, the camaraderie has started to form. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's attack no longer resembles the worst in franchise history.

“The good thing is, you're starting to see some of the same guys jell every week they're playing together," Beane said. "You're seeing an offense that's picking up steam. It takes time. Continuity is good. We haven't had a lot of it, because we're always looking to get better. We made some moves we think have made our group better, but we'll continue to try and bring in competition and make it stronger.”

Glimmers of hope

The Bills’ opening-day roster featured six receivers – Benjamin, Zay Jones, Jeremy Kerley, Robert Foster, Andre Holmes and Ray-Ray McCloud.

In the first nine games of the season, Bills receivers totaled 71 catches for 830 yards and two touchdowns. In the four games since, the receivers have 46 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns.

Those four games date back to a youth movement started by the coaching staff. Foster, who had been released and signed to the practice squad, rejoined the 53-man roster, while Isaiah McKenzie was claimed off waivers from Denver. With their emergence, the team felt comfortable releasing Benjamin and Holmes.

“I think they're for the better,” coach Sean McDermott said of the changes. “Certainly I appreciate everyone that came in early on, but we've made some changes in order to get more speed on the field. I think that shows, especially since we made those changes, dating back to the Jets game the first go-round. Are we a finished product? By no means, but we're certainly moving in the right direction.”

The increase in wide receiver production coincides with quarterback play that has ranged from acceptable to exceptional. Barkley played a terrific game in Week 10 against the Jets, while Allen has flashed the potential that made him the seventh overall draft pick in three starts since the team’s bye week.

"Now that we have a quarterback, the playmakers can establish themselves," said Johnson, who is living in San Diego and training high school and college receivers. "This season has been pretty good when we think of the new generation."

 

Zay Jones had a pair of touchdown catches in a loss to the Dolphins. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

The Bills know Allen will be their starter next year. It’s less certain what the receiver room will look like. Jones figures to be among the top three, Foster is pushing for a spot and Daboll is finding a role for McKenzie, too. After that, it’s wide open.

“What they're doing now is finding out what they've got and how good they think they could be,” Tasker said. “Zay Jones, Robert Foster, Isaiah McKenzie – they need to know what they have in those guys before they go out and find other players.”

Other than veteran Deonte Thompson, the Bills are extra-young at the position. Jones, in his second year at age 23, has become the de facto No. 1 after Benjamin – who proclaimed that role for himself – was sent away.

“I started as a rookie. I started this year,” Jones said. “Not to say I'm a crazy-experienced vet, but I do have a lot of experience in different ways – two different offenses, two different offensive coordinators, playing inside and outside. I’ve learned a lot.”

Even before Benjamin was cut, McDermott had a heart-to-heart with Jones about expectations.

“Life hits you fast. A lot was placed on me last year, and a lot has been placed on me again,” Jones said. “I feel like I'm growing more as a leader, and trying to help build the right culture for this organization in the years to come. I've had talks with coach about being a leader, being an example for the young guys – just growing up fast and taking on a veteran role has been my responsibility.

“After Kelvin and Andre left, it's only made that conversation more real. It wasn't like, ‘Now we need you to be something different or something more.’ We've had those talks from the beginning of the season.”

Whether that role can ever expand into being the type of No. 1 receiver every team craves remains to be seen.

“For you guys, nothing against you, but you almost have to create that for our room – pick the guy or whatever it is,” Jones said of labeling players a 'No. 1 receiver.' “Everyone wants to go by stats and numbers – if I have the most catches, yards and touchdowns, people are going to say, 'He's the No. 1' now, which is fine.

"But the ball gets spread out. I'll take that role if that's what people want to call it, but Robert Foster knows he's just as able to go in the game and catch seven or eight balls as he did last game. Isaiah knows he's going to get his touches. I would like to think I'm a leader for this group because I've been here, I'm helping, I'm playing whatever spot they need me to play.”

Jones had a breakout game in Week 13 against Miami, catching a pair of touchdowns. He wasn’t able to build on that last week against New York, however, finishing with three catches for 22 yards and having a crucial drop in the fourth quarter.

Jones has 44 receptions on 78 targets for 481 yards and four touchdowns this season after recording 27 catches on 74 targets for 316 yards and two touchdowns last season.

“I think he's trending in the right direction, but he'll tell you he's left plays out there that he feels he should have made,” Beane said. "He's definitely elevated his game from his rookie year to where he's at now. I would love to sit here a year from now with you and say, ‘Wow, look at the next step Zay took.’ He'll continue to work hard and do the right things. That's what gives you hope that he's going to continue to be a big part of what we're doing going forward.”

It doesn’t appear to be a great year to need a No. 1 receiver in the draft. In Todd McShay’s first mock draft of 2019, the ESPN analyst doesn’t have a wide receiver being selected until No. 18 (Oklahoma's Marquise Brown) and only two going in the first round.

“If you look at a guy like Zay, Zay's a pretty good pro receiver now, but he hasn't been for 14 months, right? Now he's getting to be pretty good,” Tasker said. “Now that you've cleared the decks and he's getting all these reps, getting more targets. Same thing with Robert Foster, it's taken him not as much time as Zay, but it's taken a lot more opportunity, a lot more throws to get him there.

“So you're looking at that again in the draft. A.J. Green, Julio Jones don't exist in this draft, I don't think. You're not going to get a guy who's going to walk in and have 95 balls and 1,100 yards. So if you get a receiver in the draft, it's going to take a while for him to get ready.”

That’s not to say a diamond in the rough won’t emerge. Brown was a sixth-round pick of the Steelers, but he has a quarterback who trusts him, and is now as good as there is in the league.

Maybe one day that is Foster, who oozes potential. With most of their teammates away during the bye week, Foster stayed behind to catch passes from Allen, who was rehabbing his elbow injury.

“Josh likes him,” Tasker said. “It's just the way it works. Quarterbacks find their guy that they like, and the offense starts to evolve around them.”

With Allen in place, the Bills hope they have the first part of the formula solved.

“He's shown a ton of promise and optimism and has given Buffalo fans a reason to be optimistic for stability,” Evans said. “He can make plays that are special.”

Now, the challenge is to find the second part to make the equation work.

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