Buffalo's offense has had a few playmakers these past few seasons, but opponents more often than not have been able to hold those two or three premium weapons in check. Proof of that comes in the Bills' won-loss record the past three seasons. And though playmakers like Lee Evans, Josh Reed and Marshawn Lynch have all posted personal career highs in that span and two have reached milestones like 1,000 yards in a season it hasn't translated into victories sufficient for a playoff berth.
Simply put, Buffalo needed more playmakers and a proven one is already on board in Terrell Owens. But who else is poised to step forward in 2009 and provide some big plays when they're needed most to assist the aforementioned players that have been doing most of the heavy lifting?
Buffalobills.com lists five candidates that could emerge and provide some game changing plays, even if it is in a supporting type role.
The second-year tight end will be battling with Derek Schouman for the starting tight end role. Though rookie Shawn Nelson is a game-breaking talent, chances are that it will be Fine or Schouman making more plays in the passing this fall.
Fine had a strong spring as his route running and ability to gain separation has gained consistency. But tight ends coach Charlie Coiner likes Fine's game even more when the pads go on.
"He's always going to look a lot better when you put pads on because that's what he is, a physical, tough guy with a lot of power and explosion," said Coiner. "That's going to be his forte, but at the same time he can catch the ball. He's going to be a big-bodied guy in the middle, make a tough catch and get you 5-6 more yards after the catch and get back in there."
Jackson has provided some big plays for the Bills in the past. His 54-yard catch and run against Washington as part of a 151-yard all purpose day in a comeback win while spot starting for an injured Lynch was just one example. Last year's 131-yard rushing effort in the season finale was another.
With a strong likelihood that Jackson's role on offense will increase, he stands a good chance of being a weekly spark plug for the offense.
"I'd like to see an ever-increasing role with Fred," said running backs coach Eric Studesville. "He's proven that he's dependable and productive in everything that we've asked him to do. So we're going to do it, get him more touches and find more ways to get him in the game."
Johnson has made big improvements in his game and with his 6'2" frame he can outmuscle defensive backs and pluck the ball even when it's outside his body frame. With a good on field chemistry already established with Trent Edwards, Johnson could find his way on the field in four-wide looks and in the red zone, which could translate into more scoring opportunities than expected, knowing attention will be paid to Evans and Owens.
"I have very high expectations (for him)," said Edwards. "If you guys could watch some of his tape from the spring practices of him getting off of the press, it's ridiculous. It's making some of the best corners on our team… he's getting right by them. He's shifty, he moves well, he comes out of his breaks well and I'm happy he's one of our receivers."
Much like Jackson, Rhodes is a smooth receiving option out of the backfield. Coming off a 2008 season with Indianapolis in which he set a career high in receptions with 45, which included three touchdowns, Rhodes is yet another potential playmaker that could make it tough for the coaching staff to keep him off the field.
"His experience speaks for itself, as far as what he's done in the past," said Studesville. "I'm excited to get him into pads. But he's a veteran player who's sharp and smart and has great quicks and burst."
Knowing Marshawn Lynch is going to miss the first three regular season games due to suspension, Rhodes and Jackson could be delivering a lot of impact plays early in 2009.
The starting tight end role is his to lose going into training camp. Schouman was slowed a bit by an injury in the spring camps, but came back and demonstrated a clear on field chemistry with Edwards and got consistent separation in his routes.
Schouman could be yet another reliable red zone threat if too much attention is paid to Evans and Owens by opposing defenses. He may not catch 50 passes in 2009, but he could provide the offense with some much needed points inside the 20-yard line.
"He's extremely smart and does a great job assignment-wise and he's pretty talented," said Coiner. "We are starting to see some of the things that he can do for us. We have high expectations for him."
In the end a lot of what will determine which of these candidates emerges as an offensive playmaker to support the primary big play guys is how they're fit into the weekly game plan, who is healthy and how the opponent decides to play Buffalo. What is clear is that all five players above are more than capable.