Evans ready to take flight

Last season was full of frustration for wide receiver Lee Evans on an inconsistent offense. But with a new offensive coordinator, stability at quarterback and possibly a new contract on the way, the deep threat should have a strong 2008 season.

You had to feel for Bills wideout Lee Evans last year.

The diminutive fourth-year receiver was once again caught in the muck that was Buffalo's latest quarterback carousel, stunting his progress of joining the premier wideouts in the NFL and bringing into question his ability to be a No. 1 guy.

When current backup J.P. Losman finished the 2006 season strong, helping Evans reach career highs in catches (82) and yards (1,292), it appeared as if the 5-foot-10 speedster was poised for a Pro Bowl-type season in '07. But Buffalo fans were issued the familiar script, one they know like they know their address or the Pledge of Allegiance. One the organization seems to keep backing into ever since Jim Kelly hung his cleats up in 1997.

First Losman started. Then it was rookie Trent Edwards. Then Losman, briefly, before Edwards finished out the season. And, naturally, Evans was the one who suffered. He caught 27 less balls for 450 less yards with three less touchdown catches than he racked up in his breakout year. One more change at the signal calling position and Evans would have had to start wearing a "Hello, my name is …" name tag.

Chemistry between a quarterback and his wide receivers is important at this level, especially since most patterns are contingent upon timing and instincts. Just ask Randy Moss or Terrell Owens -- who cried while defending his QB -- how imperative it is to be on the same page with a quarterback in the NFL. But with a revolving door replacing the sidelines in Orchard Park, Evans has really never gotten that luxury.

And that's only part of what's standing in the way of Evans joining the game's elite playmakers.

The other reason is that Evans hasn't been given much help in the passing game, from his fellow receivers or his offensive coordinator. Last season Buffalo's offense was as predictable as the songs played at a high school reunion. And again, Evans suffered. Just where was Buffalo's intermediate passing game last year? Where were the 10-yard slants, the 20-yard posts or the go patterns that a guy with 4.3-speed could thrive off of? His rookie year, Evans' bread and butter play was the fade to the sideline, the play that produced many of his career-high nine TDs that year. I'm not sure if former offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild tried that throw even once last season.

Then there was No. 83's supporting cast. Peerless Price, who was around the last time Buffalo had an explosive offense, was injured early, and probably was too past his prime anyway to really be an effective No. 2. Josh Reed has been too inconsistent with a knack for dropping balls in big situations, while Roscoe Parrish, although still an asset to the team, is simply too small to be anything more than a No. 3. Not counting Evans' five scores, Bills receivers accounted for exactly one touchdown during the 2007 season. With that kind of production, or lack thereof, it's no wonder Evans name was never heard over the loudspeaker when they needed it most.

Things, however, are looking brighter for the former first round draft choice out of Wisconsin. Edwards is the unquestioned starter, and although he doesn't have the arm Losman does, he's a much better decision maker than his counterpart. And he doesn't freak out when he's under pressure in the pocket, meaning he won't take nearly as many sacks or throw the ball to nearly as many fans with "D-Fence" signs as Losman did. Both attributes should help Evans begin to blossom again.

Fairchild is out the door, replaced by quarterbacks coach Turk Schonert, who's made it clear he plans on opening up the offense a little more this year, more than the equivalent to the crack in the door you give when you think someone might be in the gas station bathroom ahead of you. According to Schonert, defenses will be stretched. Six-yard dump offs to Robert Royal on 3rd and 12 might finally be a thing of the past. With Schonert, the Bills might actually look to the end zone when its fourth down with their season on the line instead of opting for a screen pass to the back-up running back. How could Fairchild have decided that to be the go-to play -- a swing to the No. 2 runner -- in that situation? And how could Jauron have allowed it?

But perhaps the biggest, as in tallest, reason for Evans to smile this season is the selection of 6-foot-6 wide receiver James Hardy in the second round of April's draft. At 6-6, 212 lbs, Hardy is the tallest wideout in Bills history. Last year, none of the top four wideouts were taller than 5-10 or weighed more than 200 lbs. Take a look at the 2007 team photo. Price, Reed and Evans are standing next to each other, and although they're among the linebackers and defensive linemen, they still appear to the three smallest guys on the team.

Hardy brings a whole new dimension to the passing game. Even with Eric Moulds on board, Buffalo never really attempted any end zone jump balls. Hardy, who was originally recruited to Indiana University to play basketball, made a living off it with the Hoosiers. The Bills now have someone they can go to over the middle, someone who can pick on smaller defensive backs the way the Lions' Roy Williams and Dolphins' Chris Chambers feasted on Buffalo two seasons ago.

More importantly, they have someone who can take the pressure -- and possibly a nickel corner -- off Evans, giving him the opportunity to have the monster season he was scheduled to have just a year ago.

jpbutler10@gmail.com


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