Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.
It's a question that has become more and more compelling as the NFL has tilted more and more to the passing game season after season. Over the past four years, pass attempts have steadily climbed. Last year (17,788) the spike was the largest in four seasons, with 378 more pass attempts than the 2011 season (17,410). It's prompted NFL clubs to put a premium on receiver numbers for their 53-man roster. Introducing a new offensive system under Nathaniel Hackett this fall figures to alter Buffalo's situation to some degree. How many receivers will the Bills offense need on their roster?
Without knowing exactly how Buffalo's offense is going to operate, other than knowing it will be fast moving it's hard to pin down the attack's exact needs in terms of passing targets. With a greater proliferation of three receiver sets in the league however, it's relatively safe to assume that there will be three wideouts on the field for the Bills close to two-thirds of the time.
Last season, under the previous coaching regime, Buffalo had three receivers or more on the field for almost 69 percent of their offensive plays (68.8%). What's interesting is for their opening day roster the Bills last season carried just four receivers with QB/WR Brad Smith not counted toward that total in 2012. As the season wore on additions at receiver were made to the roster due mainly to injury.
While the receiving corps this year is largely unproven for the Bills, it is dripping with talent and potential.
"The thing that shocked me when I got here they were talking about how I had Stevie (Johnson) and who else," said Kevin Kolb. "To me there's a list of them including the two rookies that came in and have done a great job. I've been shocked at the talent level overall. I think that there are a lot of guys that are going to emerge this year in our offense."
Kolb was referring to Buffalo's two receivers taken in the second and third rounds of the draft this past spring in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. With T.J. Graham coming off a strong spring, Brad Smith making a full-time move to receiver, a couple of practice squad receivers looking to make a jump and some quality undrafted talent the cupboard isn't bare.
Predicting what Hackett's offense demands in terms of position totals is not easy. Not only because his offense hasn't been under the restrictions of a 53-man roster in college, but also because Hackett doesn't think about only receivers when considering the needs of his passing game.
"I think when you look at the wide receivers it's not just the wideouts," Hackett told Buffalobills.com. "It's a competition for everybody on the team. The question is who are the five best skill players that we have?"
"It's my job to take those five best players and put those guys out there a whole bunch and be very multiple with that. If it's a lot of wide receivers then you might have a lot of wide receivers. If it's more tight ends, more running backs, whichever one dominates and does a better job out on the field that's who we want out there."
"I think it comes down to who excels in training camp," he said. "So it could be a lot of wideouts. It could be more tight ends, more fullbacks, more halfbacks. We just want the best players out there so I think the (receiver numbers) will always kind of fluctuate."
Knowing Buffalo has some accomplished and versatile backs when it comes to the passing game, it wouldn't be surprising if the talents of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller afford the Bills the option of keeping fewer than six wide receivers.
"That's the good thing," said Hackett. "We have backs that have been split wide before. So it's really just a competition amongst everybody, not just the guys in that receivers' room."
Despite that approach the offensive staff will still need to make decisions at the receiver position. Heading into camp it appears that the only wideouts with relatively secure futures in Buffalo for 2013 are Stevie Johnson, T.J. Graham, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin. The rest of the receivers will battling against one another for what will likely be two roster spots at the most.
There's a dependable veteran talent in Brad Smith, who made his share of plays in the spring. There are some good first-year player options in Kevin Elliott and Chris Hogan. The undrafted talent also has flashed with Da'Rick Rogers the most notable example.
That's why Hackett fully comprehends the arduous task he and the offensive staff will be faced with when they sit with coach Marrone to make their final roster choices.
"It all comes down to who are the best five," said Hackett. "I think that's always going to be difficult. We're lucky because we have a lot of guys there that are competing and competition brings the best out of everybody and that's all you can ask."