Buffalo Bills second-year receiver T.J. Graham remembers getting some advice from veteran running back Tashard Choice last season.
“There’s a draft every year,” Choice said.
The message: Don’t get complacent because the pipeline of talent to the NFL never stops flowing. Choice’s words hit home when Graham looks around the receivers’ meeting room these days.
“Seeing the guys coming in kind of lights a fire underneath you,” Graham said Friday. “You kind of get motivated because you know there are guys competing with you. Our receiver room is stacked now with great competition, so you’ve got to put your A game on tape.”
The Bills’ young talent at receiver is one of the eye-popping developments at the team’s practices this spring.
Buffalo added three rookie receivers with significant credentials, and their ability has been immediately evident.
Second-round pick Robert Woods caught 252 passes in three seasons at Southern California. Third-round pick Marquise Goodwin of Texas was the fastest player in the draft, with a time of 4.27 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Undrafted rookie Da’Rick Rogers has a body by Adonis and led the Southeastern Conference in receiving in 2011 (before getting booted out of the University of Tennessee).
Throw in Graham, a speedster drafted in the third round last season, and the Bills have the makings of what might become the youngest receiving corps in their history. No. 1 wideout Stevie Johnson still is only 26. The only other experienced veteran in the mix is 29-year-old Brad Smith, who is trying to cling to a backup spot on the roster.
While the receiving corps is potentially exciting, it’s also a worry. Receiver is one of the toughest positions at which to make an immediate impact because of the precision needed to complete passes in the NFL.
How well are the rookie wideouts learning their assignments?
“In my past experience, it’s better than what I expected,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “The person who really needs the credit for that is obviously the players themselves. ... A lot of times on the weekends I’ve overheard them saying they’ve been staying in their rooms and looking at the playbook. But I think a lot of credit goes to Ike Hilliard, who knows what it takes for a young player to make a team because he’s been through it before.”
Hilliard, the Bills’ new receivers coach, played 12 years in the NFL and came to Buffalo from Syracuse University, along with Marrone.
Graham, who caught 31 passes during an uneven rookie season, has looked good this spring. He caught a 50-yard pass from Tarvaris Jackson in Friday’s practice.
“I’ve been going against T.J. since I got here, and he’s gotten way better off the line and at stacking the DBs once he gets past them,” said cornerback Stephon Gilmore. “Sometimes last year I could cut him off kind of easy. Now once I get my hand on him, if he gets a step on me he does a better job of staying in his position on the top.”
Graham says his comfort level is much greater.
“Everything was new last year – everything,” he said. “This year the offense is new. But that’s the only thing I have to learn that’s new. So it’s a lot easier to grasp. Instead of training for a combine, this offseason I could train and work on the craft of being a receiver, just being an athlete.”
Woods is the most polished of the young receivers. He gets separation when he cuts and he has sure hands.
“A good route-runner,” said cornerback Justin Rogers. “He understands the game, he understands leverage, he understands how to get open. That’s probably why he caught so many passes in college.”
Goodwin was a four-year player at Texas but never was one of the team’s top two wideouts. He caught 30, 31, 33 and 26 passes in his four seasons. He’s only 5-foot-9. But he’s powerfully built and has showed good hands this spring. Maybe the Bills can get some big plays out of him in a situational role.
An undrafted receiver normally is considered a long shot to make the team. However, Da’Rick Rogers isn’t a typical undrafted guy. He’s 6-3, 205 pounds. He caught 67 passes for 1,040 yards at Tennessee as a sophomore in 2011. He subsequently admitted to failing three drug tests and spent last season at Tennessee Tech.
“I played against him in college,” Gilmore said. “He’s a big body. He has to work on getting off the line more. A lot of people underestimate his speed. He has good speed.”
Rogers has caught the ball well this spring, gets his feet down in bounds with ease along the boundaries and uses his wide frame. He made a tough catch Friday on a 15-yard hitch pass from EJ Manuel against tight coverage from Ron Brooks. After the catch, Brooks fell to the ground, and Rogers stood over him for a second.
“I thought today was probably a better day for him than what he’s had,” Marrone said. “I think it shows that he has the ability to do it. He needs to make sure that we see it consistently. The thing that concerned me – and I addressed it with him right after – was he made a very good catch. Then he kind of stood there over a player, and that’s a 15-yard penalty. That’s not what being a pro is, and that’s not playing like a Buffalo Bill.
“I told him, ‘Is this going to be something we’re going to have to be concerned about with handling any type of success from you?’ That’s what I told him. I looked at him in his eye and he understood that. It’s good to end on a good note cause now you’re excited to see what he can do when we come back to the mandatory minicamps.”
Watching the development of the young wideouts will be priority for the Bills all summer.