Top Priority: Bills must add wide receiver

Buffalo needs to add a complement to Lee Evans. Engulfed by double teams, Evans' play regressed last season. The BFR breaks down the possibilities with full analysis and predictions inside. The most likely signing may surprise you...

It's no secret what position the Bills need to pounce on at the break of dawn Friday.

Ever since Eric Moulds and Peerless Price's spontaneous combustion in 2002, the Bills have lacked any semblance of a 1-2 punch at wide receiver. Josh Reed, a second round pick in the '02 draft, has never blossomed into starting material. He remains a viable No. 3 in the slot, but Reed can't be force fed out wide. Buffalo can't cross its finger that Roscoe Parrish finally busts out after Parrish's fourth sub-40 catch season. James Hardy was lost as a rookie. And Steve Johnson and Justin Jenkins are projects.

Getting Lee Evans the help he needs must be the No.1 priority Friday. Evans faced double teams all last season, often disappearing from Buffalo's offense entirely – against Cleveland on Monday Night Football he didn't have a reception. A sure-handed receiver across the middle should complement the deep-threat Evans.

Surprisingly, wide receiver was the one position that benefited from the slew of franchise tags this week. Several veterans were released for salary cap purposes, building an above-average market for wideouts.

While you'd hate to see Buffalo implement some hazardous stimulus plan and overpay on a pork project, the offense desperately needs a playmaker on the outside. Scoring three points or less in three of the last four games was the painful proof.

Here are the top receiving options on the market.

1. T.J. Houshmandzadeh

‘08 Stats: 92 rec., 904 yards, 4 TD

‘07 Stats: 112 rec., 1,143 yards, 12 TD

Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles

Chad Johnson's better half in Cincinnati, Houshmandzadeh will be a rare big-money signing that actually deserves every penny he'll get. Don't expect Buffalo to emerge as a big player in this sweepstakes. Unless the Bills are willing to unload a historic contract that no team can match, look for Houshmandzadeh to flock to a big market on the verge of a championship like the Philadelphia Eagles or the New York Giants. Houshmandzadeh has been making the rounds on the radio airwaves across the country, campaigning like a politician.

With the salary cap inflated an extra $4 million, virtually every team can make a run at Houshmandzadeh. You have to think he'll want a proven quarterback throwing to him on a playoff-ready team. The Bills fit neither prereq. Next…

2. Laveranues Coles

‘08 Stats: 70 rec., 850 yards, 7 TD

‘07 Stats: 55 rec., 646 yards, 6 TD

Prediction: Miami Dolphins

Just backdrop Coles highlights to Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler." The New York Jets wideout is taking one colossal risk. Coles turned down $6 million in guaranteed money from the Jets to be a free agent. It's a big gamble – Coles is banking that another team will give him the multi-year deal he has coveted for two years. If the Bills think Coles, 31, still has some football left, this might make the most sense. He's a reliable set of hands across the middle of the field, not a deep threat. Through most of his career with the Jets, Coles played with a quarterback very similar to Trent EdwardsChad Pennington. Both are safe, high-percentage passers that love crossing routes.


Coles joined the fray this week, but Buffalo may have competition for him within the division.
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Last season, Edwards' 65.5 competition percentage ranked sixth in the NFL. A slippery receiver like Coles working underneath coverages may be what Edwards needs for his career to take off.

Pennington may be the Bills' biggest obstacle here. Remember, it was Pennington, who lured Coles back to New York after he went to Washington. And who could forget the pouting act Coles put on when Brett Favre replaced Pennington last summer. This QB-WR relationship is genuine. Now with the Miami Dolphins, Pennington may be in Bill Parcells ear as we speak, lobbying for Coles. The executive vice president of operations, Parcells, originally drafted Coles in New York. The Dolphins need a wideout to complement Ted Ginn Jr. – Coles makes sense in Miami.

3. Marvin Harrison

‘08 Stats: 60 rec., 636 yards, 5 TD

‘07 Stats: 20 rec., 247 yards, 1 TD

Prediction: Tennessee Titans


Does Harrison have any gas left in the tank?
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Before these last two seasons, Harrison strung together eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, including a knockout season just three years ago when he caught 95 balls for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. What happened? Since his season-ending knee injury in '07, arguably the 2nd best receiver to ever play hasn't been the same. The Colts threw 62 percent of the time last year, and Harrison's numbers were all career lows for a full season.

If he's willing to accept a No. 2 receiver role, he'll easily find work elsewhere. He may prefer to stay in the division and play for Tennessee or Jacksonville – two teams in desperate need of wideouts. After lobbying to play for the Minnesota Vikings last summer, Favre revealed the power of redemption. You have to think Harrison would love to stick it to Indianapolis on the Super Bowl-ready Titans.

4. Nate Washington

‘08 Stats: 40 rec., 631 yards, 3 TD

‘07 Stats: 29 rec., 450 yards, 5 TD

Prediction: Seattle Seahawks

Don't expect Pittsburgh to re-sign Washington. There's no need for the Steelers to unload a multi-million dollar contract on Washington with Santanio Holmes, Hines Ward and Limas Sweed in the fold. Washington will likely sign with a team in the opposite predicament of Buffalo – a receiving corps that needs a deep threat, not a possession receiver. As Pittsburgh's home-run hitter, Washington has averaged 16.4 yards per catch over his career. He can stretch the field, but he's not the big target Edwards needs.

Look for Seattle or another bottom-feeder to give Washington a desperation, overpaid contract.

5. Bryant Johnson

‘08 Stats: 45 rec., 546 yards, 3 TD

‘07 Stats: 46 rec., 528 yards, 2 TD

Prediction: BUFFALO BILLS

Is Bryant Johnson the fifth-best receiver on the market? Probably not. But you have figure New Orleans will lock up restricted free agent Lance Moore and that the Bills will not pursue Joey Galloway or Devery Henderson – both are simply lesser versions of Lee Evans. Reggie Williams? Bust City.

Johnson doesn't seem like a dazzling solution to the receiving corps, but he may be the most realistic addition.


Bryant Johnson may be Buffalo's best bet.
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The Bills showed interest in Johnson last year at this time. Russ Brandon didn't grant the multi-year contract Johnson was eyeing, so the bulky 6-foot-3 receiver signed a one-year deal with San Francisco – a 16-game job interview for this spring. Mike Martz's video-game passing game never took flight in the Bay and Johnson battled a leg injury all season.

At a reasonable price, Johnson is worth adding. He'd definitely be an upgrade over Reed, Parrish and Hardy as a 60-reception, 750-yard possession receiver. Maybe it's not Anquan Boldin or T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but settling with Johnson could allow Buffalo to spend its money elsewhere. By releasing Derrick Dockery, the Bills hinted at big plans for Friday. A big-splash signing is probably in order…it just may not be at wide receiver.

thdunne@gmail.com


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