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. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.
The Buffalo Bills offense should have a whole new look under head coach Chan Gailey. With the quarterback situation still to be sorted out by the conclusion of training camp at St. John Fisher in August, the squad boasts a talented young offensive line, tight end group, and arguably one of the deepest backfields in the NFL. For all of the potential the Bills have in the running game, playmakers at wide receiver will be a crucial piece in the offensive synergy.
A game breaker since he joined the team in 2004, Lee Evans seems penciled in as the number one target for Gailey and offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins to build the game plan around. The speedy Roscoe Parrish is looking to have a bounce-back year in 2010, and should be a matchup concern for linebackers and nickel corners, as he appears to be a natural fit as the slot receiver. Based on the order of repetitions at spring OTAs however, the competition for the all important number two receiver spot is wide open.
Steve Johnson is a player who many fans are anxious to see assume a central role in the offense this season, after showing promising glimpses the past two campaigns. In limited duty for his career, Johnson has scored two touchdowns on 12 receptions.
Johnson was part of the main rotation opposite Evans during the spring, and he did not disappoint, showing a great release off the ball, running smart routes, and of course, catching the football. The skill set he displayed illustrated why the Bills coveted him out of the University of Kentucky when he was drafted in 2008.
Regardless of where he ultimately lines up on the field, Johnson is looking forward to gaining experience at various spots on the field with the Bills offense.
"It's all opportunity. I'm getting an opportunity to play on the outside and on the inside and I just want to show the coaches I can do both," he said. "Whenever it goes down on the inside I can go there, if somebody goes down on the outside, I can be there. Just show(ing) my versatility in this offense."
James Hardy enters the 2010 season with, arguably, the most to prove of all of the Bills skill players. Drafted with the 41st overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, the 6'5", 220-pound wide out from Indiana University has the potential to be the tall, athletic, possession pass catcher that Buffalo has been searching for.
After a relatively pedestrian first two professional seasons, the result of a serious knee injury, Hardy looks to be back and better than ever this upcoming year. At the outset of spring practice, he seemed to be getting back to game speed, and progressed as OTAs went along. By the end of mandatory offseason sessions in June, Hardy was running crisp, precise routes, and used his tremendous size to his advantage, winning the battle for jump balls more often than not in the defensive secondary.
Being off the field an extended period of time, Hardy said, impacted him when he first returned to practice last season, but his main focus since then has been on self-improvement.
"Everything is getting better. I feel like the more that I'm out there, I haven't been able to do all the things that I wanted to do this offseason, but now that I'm back into it I just feel better each and every week," he said. "The coaches are telling me I'm getting better each and every week and I just want to continue to do that so by the time training camp comes I'm going to definitely be ready."
After coming on in the second half of 2009 for the University of Connecticut Huskies, Marcus Easley saw his NFL Draft stock increase tenfold. Finishing his college career with 48 catches for 893 yards and eight touchdowns in his final season, Easley became the first wide receiver ever from UConn to be drafted.
As the fourth-round pick (107th overall) of the Bills in April's draft, the expectations for Easley are very high. Like Johnson and Hardy, he too was part of the rotation for reps with the first team, making a number of impressive catches during spring practice. While he may be a rookie, Easley was hard at work to impress the Bills coaching staff to earn a share of playing time.
Even after spring workouts concluded, Easley said that there is no real downtime in between practice sessions. To remain at peak performance, a player cannot take a vacation, and must remain focused when position battles really begin at training camp.
"We're still just getting started, so you don't want to take much time off. I still have a playbook to stay on top of so when training camp rolls around I'm mentally prepared," Easley said. "I know the physical aspect and it's going to be very demanding on our bodies physically. Just try to stay ahead of the game and just be as prepared as I can be come training camp."
The veteran wildcard in the equation is former University of Florida and New England Patriots receiver Chad Jackson. Jackson is entering his fourth NFL season after he was selected as the 36th overall draft pick in 2006, and had three touchdown receptions in his rookie season with the Patriots catching passes from Tom Brady.
During spring workouts, Jackson worked to emerge from the veteran contingent of Bills wide outs, but his rep count was far from numerous. He made a number of sure-handed grabs in the time he was afforded, and he's no doubt hoping his veteran experience is considered an asset.
Playing for a third team already in his young career, Jackson said that learning a new offensive system played out nicely during the offseason.
"It's coming along pretty well. This offense is kind of like the past few teams I've been with, it's just different terminology," he said. "It's just memorizing the plays and stuff like that. Different play calling, but kind of like the same offense that I've been in before."
The remaining wide receivers, second-year man Felton Huggins, and rookies Donald Jones, David Nelson, and Naaman Roosevelt, are also part of the competition. Each saw a significant number of reps in the spring, with Nelson and former University at Buffalo star Roosevelt making consistent plays, and Huggins and Jones also turning in playmaking receptions.
In talking highly about the veteran corps in the wide receiver competition, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also gave praise to the younger players at the position, showing admiration for the hard work all had put in to stake their claim to time on the field.
"…And the four young guys we've brought in, you're going to see in the preseason, those guys are going to make some plays," Fitzpatrick said. "All four of them bring different things to the table and they're all very talented."
All position battles are still in progress heading into the opening of training camp July 29 at St. John Fisher and the number two receiver role will be among the more competitive ones. Johnson, Hardy and Easley are thought by outside observers to be the frontrunners in the race to start as the second wide receiver on the field, but the veteran leadership of Jackson, the youth of Huggins, Nelson and Jones, and a local connection in the talented Roosevelt will leave all eyes on the pass catchers in Pittsford.
That's why Buffalo's head coach wasn't even going to place odds on the candidates for the prominent offensive role.
"We're waiting to see who is going to step up," said Gailey. "It can be any of those guys out there. I don't know who it's going to be right now, and I don't know how it's going to play out. I've been in this business a long time and I've been amazed before so it's not smart on my part to make predictions."