Heading into training camp the Buffalo Bills retained three wide receivers (Stevie Johnson, TJ Graham, and Marcus Easley) from last year’s squad. As a whole, the organization was disappointed by the lack of explosive plays in the air and so the team went out and did something about it. Now 11 games in, fans are seeing a noticeable uptick in production from the wideouts.
Though some of the production can be attributed to the coaching and the upgrade at the quarterback position, it still takes athletic receivers to haul in those passes and turn them into big plays.
Comparing last year’s passing game to the current corps at the same 11 game point, this year’s Bills are decidedly better. In fact, the 2013 receiving group have more yardage (2346 vs. 2270), a higher per game average (213 vs. 206) and more pass catchers (13 vs. 12) than from a year ago.
Though this year’s offense has run 89 more plays (742 vs. 653), the percentages of passes plays instead of runs do tell a story on the efficiency this current unit is putting up. In 2012, the Bills ran a pass play 54% of the time; for 2013, the Bills pass 51%. If the percentages were the same, the Bills would have an additional 21-22 throws than runs and at the 6.1 yards per catch and current 58.5% completion percentage it would yielded another 141 yards in 13 catches to the total.
All told, rookie quarterback EJ Manuel has done a fine job in this offensive system and though he had a big day throwing the ball against the New York Jets, it’s the efficiency of his receivers making yards after the catch and hitting on big plays down the field that has helped progress this aerial attack into the modern day NFL.
So far, 13 receivers have caught the ball this season. It’s the same as last year, but one more than at the same point last year. One of those new targets is rookie fourth round pick Marquise Goodwin who has developed into a deep play threat and is solidifying himself as a luxury third option for Manuel.
Goodwin provides the speed threat that exited Donald Jones couldn’t. Jones finished fourth on the team in receptions with 41, 443 yards, with four touchdowns in 16 games. Goodwin only has 16 catches, but already has three touchdowns and 261 yards receiving in 7 games played. If this was broken over a full season Goodwin would finish with 596 yards and 37 receptions, certainly exceeding Jones’ offensive output as the third receiving option.
In all of this there is another rookie wideout who is also taking a strong standing as a super second option in Robert Woods. Before Manuel went down with an injury, Woods was his favorite target. So far this year he has put up 26 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
Last year’s second leading receiver was CJ Spiller with a 43/459/2 TD line. All Woods has to do is average 22 yards per game for the final five games to match the yardage output of Spiller from a year ago. Needless to say, if Woods can return healthy off the bye week, he will surpass Spiller’s output and set the table for a dynamic receiving duo, along with Johnson, that could match the production Eric Moulds and Peerless Price had back in the early 2000’s.
The development of rookies Woods and Goodwin, with the progression of second year man TJ Graham and seeing receivers like Chris Hogan, Chris Gragg, and Marcus Easley step up into called upon roles, has allowed the offensive attack to be effective and dangerous to score anywhere on the field.
To conclude, the Bills have done a good job of identifying the different types of talent that are needed for a successful passing attack. As long as EJ Manuel is able to continue his development, the weapons he has at his disposal will push the Bills into a dangerous offense that could rival the New Orleans Saints or Denver Broncos, though they aren’t quite there yet.