Buffalo wisely lets Johnson walk

Last year, each of Buffalo's top four wide receivers measured under six-feet tall, which made free agent Bryant Johnson the logical signing. Friday though, Johnson signed with San Francisco. For the Bills, it's not a big loss. The answer to their WR woes may be found in late April...

It was Black Friday for many Buffalo fans yesterday, as Buffalo officially lost the Bryant Johnson Sweepstakes.

Johnson was precisely the offensive threat the Bills were starving for – a dependable, big-bodied receiver. They had the cap space to sign him to any contract possible, and Johnson visited Ralph Wilson Stadium just a couple weeks ago. Like those pre-made Super Bowl Champion t-shirts, you could imagine No. 80 Johnson jerseys pre-stitched behind closed doors at The Bills Store. Days moved as slow as months and finally, it was San Francisco (not Buffalo), who signed Johnson to a modest, one-year trial run.

But this was no sweepstakes. Try a $2 lottery ticket that the ‘Niners will just throw back into the market next spring if the "Lucky 7" scratch-off is a dud.

At best, Johnson is a 65-catch, 750-yard possession receiver that could have relieved Lee Evans of double-teams. But the answer to the Bills' offensive woes? No way. Unlike a WR taken at the 11th overall pick, Johnson has a ceiling. His lack of top-end speed prohibits him from ever becoming a true force on the outside. The Bills probably offered Johnson a "take it or leave it" price, and sat back.

Without any starter-worthy receivers left in free agency (Sorry, Eric Moulds fans), the Bills will take their chances in the draft and cross their fingers that they draft the right guy. Building a receiving corps will be a developmental process, not a makeshift one-year Band-Aid. The upside (and cost efficiency) of pairing Evans with a rookie is much greater than signing Johnson to a one-year deal. That being said, if Buffalo swings and misses at No. 11, 2008 will look a lot like 2007.

Eight men in the box. Evans suffocated by double-teams. Play-action thwarted. No other options.

All Trent Edwards has been handed this offseason is a once-promising tight end, who bounced around four NFL cities last year. Nonetheless, missing on Johnson should simply spark "aw, shucks," finger-snapping. It's not the sign of the apocalypse.

Bryant Johnson isn't a savior. In Arizona, he played behind arguably the best 1-2 WR punch (Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin) in a pass-heavy scheme. But he wasn't Adam Sandler being overshadowed by elders on SNL, only needing one big movie to blossom. Johnson has had a No. 2 shot before and failed. When either Fitzgerald or Boldin was sidelined with an injury, Johnson remained frustratingly mediocre in relief.

Boldin missed three straight games with a hip injury early last season, and Johnson only averaged five catches for 50 yards per game in that stretch. In 2006, Fitzgerald missed three consecutive games, and Johnson couldn't pick up the slack – averaging two receptions and 38 yards per contest in the three straight losses. His biggest missed opportunity came in 2004. Boldin missed Arizona's first six games with a knee injury suffered at training camp, which gave the lead microphone to Johnson. Four catches, 36 yards per game.

If Johnson couldn't deliver as a No. 2 on a pass-first team, than would he really deliver on a run-first team like Buffalo?

On San Francisco, he'll join a hodge-podge receiver mix that includes 35-year-old Isaac Bruce, former college quarterback Arnaz Battle and free agent bust Darrell Jackson – all catching passes from Alex Smith. Not exactly a dream scenario. It'd be interesting to see what offer Johnson turned down from Buffalo.

Still, none of that matters now. The importance of this year's draft amplified ten-fold Friday. It is Buffalo's final opportunity to freshen up a handcuffed passing game in an effort to slowly construct a receiving corps. If Russ Brandon's management team could somehow deal J.P. Losman for a No. 3 wide receiver, the Bills would probably do it. But that's wishful thinking.

Right now, Buffalo's scouting department will be nitpicked as much as the prospects themselves. In every draft the difference between the class' top-tier receivers is too miniscule to notice…until that difference becomes blatantly obvious in the pros – Charles Rogers and Andre Johnson (2003), Roy Williams and Reggie Williams (2004), Braylon Edwards and Mike Williams (2005) and Ted Ginn Jr. and Dwayne Bowe (2007).

But this year – more than any other – boils down to personal preference at wide receiver. Pre-draft rankings have the '08 WR class slotted in almost every possible combination. Both Limas Sweed and Mario Manningham are listed as the No. 1 WR prospect in one publication, and sixth in another. For now, the consensus is that Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly is the best fit for Buffalo. At 6-4, 220 lb., Kelly fills the team's size void. But maybe Michigan State's Devin Thomas or Texas' Sweed is the better pro prospect. Maybe the Bills' scouting department has a collective hunch nobody knows about.

Drafting wide receivers is often a craps-shoot, but after failing to add any free agent wideouts in free agency, it's a risk Buffalo will be forced to take. And it will take at least a year or two. Rookie wide receivers take time to develop. Last year, Calvin Johnson was considered an unworldly, Randy Moss-type of talent and he only had 48 catches for 756 yards last year. Next to quarterback, wide receiver may be the most difficult position to learn in the NFL.

The Bills showed good judgment in shying away from Bryant Johnson. But the real Judgment Day is April 26. The Bills need a legitimate No. 2 wide receiver. Day One of the NFL Draft may be their final chance.

Tyler Dunne is the Managing Editor of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at thdunne@gmail.com


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