The 2014 season for the Bills offense was fraught with adversity. There was offensive line shuffling heading into the regular season, a quarterback change just four weeks into the season, the loss of one of the unit's top two running backs for half the year and the dismissal of a veteran wideout.
It all contributed to a year in which Buffalo's offensive production simply didn't meet expectations. Come season's end however, there was one encouraging byproduct. Three young receivers got a ton of experience and put up encouraging numbers in the process.
Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Chris Hogan emerged as the three primary receivers in Buffalo's passing attack in 2014, and gained valuable exposure to the weekly demands of turning in plays for an NFL offense.
"I think we came along," said Woods. "I think we grew up a little bit faster. We were just able to make plays for this offense. Being young is only age. We've just got to perform and do our job no matter our age."
Going into the season the expectations were clearly the highest for top draft choice Sammy Watkins, a player the Bills moved up five spots in the round one to select fourth overall in the draft. A rib injury slowed Watkins effectiveness early in the season, but not by much with breakout performances against Miami (Week 2), Detroit (Week 5), Minnesota (Week 7) the Jets (Week 8) and Denver (Week 14).
He was the highest targeted receiver on the roster with 128 for an average of eight per game. His six receiving touchdowns were also a team best as was his receiving average (15.1) among the regulars in Buffalo's lineup. Watkins was also targeted deep on almost 40 percent of his targets, which ranked eighth-highest in the NFL. Ten of his 65 receptions on the season went for 25 yards or more, good for 17th in the league. As a team the Bills ranked 15th in the NFL in completions of 20 yards or more.
"I think for the most part I did ok, I could be better," said Watkins reflecting on his rookie season. "I had a successful year. Like I said, I can be better and make more plays, but that just comes with growing. I can't wait until the offseason to come back next year."
Watkins progress may have been impacted by the route running techniques within the Bills previous offense. The former offensive staff employed a regimented route running tree that was predicated on step counts in an effort to tie the timing of routes to the footwork of their quarterback. At times it appeared that trying to synchronize the two left little margin for variance in the routes if, for example, a receiver did not get a clean release.
Bills new receivers coach Sanjay Lal will likely be working with Watkins and the other wideouts to retool their approach in the passing game.
Despite all of that Watkins came within 18 yards of posting a 1,000-yard receiving season (982) and his future looks awfully bright.
"I think I could have had 12 or 13-hundred yards. It's on film, but those things happen," said Watkins. "Different things happen on the field, whether it's a missed block or miscommunication or missed play or missed read. Those things happen when you got a young team. Those are things I can fix next year and I'll come back prepared."
For Robert Woods his second NFL season was one in which he wanted to take a sizable step forward when it came to production. He was thrown into the fire as a rookie in 2013, and had inexperienced quarterbacks throwing to him the entire season.
In 2014 Woods boosted his reception total by almost 40 percent from the previous season and tied Watkins for second on the team with 65 (Fred Jackson – 66). His receiving yardage also went up as he just missed the 700-yard mark for the season (699). Woods also contributed five receiving touchdowns, up from three in his rookie year.
While Watkins got a lot of the attention with some highlight reel catches, Woods had a handful as well with his one-handed David Tyree-impersonation catch against the Jets in Detroit perhaps the most impressive. That Week 12 victory was also his most productive outing when he went for 118 yards on nine catches with a touchdown.
Whether Woods role as the primary intermediate target changes under the new offensive staff remains to be seen. In reviewing how their passing game fared in 2014, Woods believes the Bills need more chunk plays in the passing game.
"We've just got to move the ball fast and get more of those big plays. We need them," said Woods. "We've got a lot of exciting players and those big plays certainly set us up and put us in good field position to get touchdowns."
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for the Bills in 2014 was the emergence of Chris Hogan. Largely relegated to special teams duties in 2013, Hogan turned his game up a notch in the offseason workouts leading up to training camp and continued to sharpen his game through the course of the preseason. His consistency eventually landed him the slot receiver role allowing Woods to remain outside opposite Watkins.
"Personally I finally got a chance to step into this offense and play a bigger role than I have in the past," said Hogan. "I'm a guy that's going to want to keep setting my goals and my standards really high. I am always going to say that I can always be better at this and do better at that. But I think I've done pretty well."
Hogan proved to be a dependable underneath target as he gained consistent separation to make plays. He had the fourth-highest reception total on the team and finished third in receiving touchdowns to Watkins and Woods with four on the year.
That made the receiving trio of Hogan, Watkins and Woods, the second in team history to finish with at least four touchdowns each in the same season (1991 – Reed, 10; Lofton, 8; Beebe, 6).
"This year I wanted to establish myself. I wanted to play receiver and I wanted to be on the field and help this team on offense," Hogan said. "I've got to be better on third downs. I've got to be better in the red zone. I want to have more catches and all that. Next year I've got to set my standards higher."
The experience gained by some of the youngest players on Buffalo's roster should pay dividends moving into the 2015 campaign no matter who mans the starting quarterback position. Watkins and Woods became the first duo under the age of 23 in NFL history to total 60 receptions or more in the same season.
"I hope we are important to this offense and this team as young as we are," said Woods. "We definitely improved. We're getting better. We've just got to be explosive and be a weapon for this team and always be a reliable target."
So what's the next step for the core of Buffalo's receiver contingent?
"I think being a consistent offense," Woods said. "I think our defense played pretty well and was consistent all year. We were up and down in the red zone and on third downs and I think that cost us some games, and I think it may have cost us the playoffs. If we get better in those areas we'll make it."