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Training camp preview

There's nowhere to go but up for Bills' wide receivers

This is the third in a series previewing each position on the Buffalo Bills before the July 25 start of training camp.

A sense of uncertainty surrounds the Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver position, even though the team bolstered the unit in the offseason.

Newly acquired speedster John Brown, signed from Baltimore, represents an upgrade for the Bills as the No. 1 receiver. Yet nobody would rank Brown among the top 16 No. 1 wideouts in the NFL entering the 2019 season. Brown has topped 50 catches once in five seasons. Will he be a major asset?

Cole Beasley, signed from Dallas, gives the Bills a proven slot receiver. He spent the spring recovering from core-muscle surgery. It’s important that he gets back to full strength for training camp so he and quarterback Josh Allen get a lot of practice repetitions together.

Then there’s the fleet of young receivers on the roster. The Bills hope Zay Jones and Robert Foster are ready to take big steps forward in their third and second years, respectively.

And in an ideal world, one of the other young wideouts will emerge in preseason to be an occasional playmaker and give the WR corps quality depth.

That’s a lot of should-happen, might-happen, cross-your-fingers scenarios for a team looking to upgrade one of the weakest units on the team.

The Bills' receiving corps ranked second last in the NFL last season in catches with 149. Buffalo was last in 2017 with a dreadful 115 wideout receptions.

There’s nowhere to go but up.

Returnees: Zay Jones, Robert Foster, Ray-Ray McCloud, Isaiah McKenzie, Victor Bolden, Da’Mari Scott, Cam Phillips.

Newcomers: John Brown (Baltimore), Cole Beasley (Dallas), Andre Roberts (N.Y. Jets), Duke Williams (CFL), David Sills (undrafted), Nick Easley (undrafted).

Departure: Deonte Thompson (signed with Jets).

Key numbers: Bills fans who go to training camp should have fun watching Allen throw long. His deep ball is a beautiful thing to watch ... particularly when someone catches it on the other end. Last season, the Bills were second in the NFL in pass attempts of 20 or more yards downfield with 89. Only Green Bay (92) had more.

Another thing to monitor is which receivers are most reliable. Last year, Allen had the second-highest rate of dropped passes (6.3 percent) of any NFL QB, according to Pro Football Focus. Bills receivers (not just the wideouts) combined to drop 20 of Allen's 320 attempts.

What to expect: The key issue for the summer is the health and progress of the primary receivers, more than the battle to make the 53-man roster.

Brown, Beasley, Jones and Foster look like locks as the top four, and Roberts is virtually assured of making the team as the lead return man.

A good camp for Beasley is particularly important. The slot receiver runs a lot of option routes in the Bills’ offense. Beasley and Allen need to be on the same wavelength against the myriad defensive looks the Bills are going to face. The sooner Beasley becomes Allen’s BFF the better.

The Bills kept five wideouts to open the 2017 season and six last year. In all, 27 of 32 teams kept at least six receivers to open last season. There will be an intense fight for the No. 6 spot (presuming the Bills keep six).

McKenzie, who ran the 40 in 4.42 seconds out of Georgia, caught 18 passes and ran 10 times last year in eight games. He showed some flashes on jet sweeps. McCloud, a sixth-round pick from last year, had five catches as a rookie. He will need to look better than McKenzie to have any shot. Bolden is in that same “smurf” mold. The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Williams, who led the CFL last year with 1,579 receiving yards, offers better size than any wideout on the roster. That could be a big plus on the boundary and in the red zone, if he can channel his Canadian mojo. However, he has a challenge to stay ahead of Bolden, signed late last season, another boundary receiver who showed good flashes in the spring.

Many thought Sills, who starred at West Virginia, might be drafted in later rounds. He has excellent ball skills but will have to prove he can separate against NFL cornerbacks. Three undrafted rookies (Foster, Bolden and Cam Phillips) spent time on the Bills’ 53-man roster last season. It’s going to be a lot harder for an undrafted rookie to make it beyond the practice squad this year.

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