Related Galleries


PITTSFORD — Stevie Johnson took off on a short crossing route over the middle against Stephon Gilmore in a one-on-one passing drill Wednesday.

Counting head fakes, hesitations, shoulder jukes and stutter steps, Johnson must have thrown 12 moves at the Bills' best cover man before getting a half-step of separation and making a catch.

The Buffalo Bills hope it's a scene that gets played out over and over this season.

Johnson, the Bills' No. 1 receiver, is seeing most of his work at an inside position in the slot this summer. That's a big change. Johnson worked almost exclusively at the outside, X-receiver spot, in catching more than 1,000-yards in passes each of the past three seasons.

The Bills have more outside receiving options this season. It looks like they're going to have the luxury of playing Johnson mostly inside, where his separation ability could be a huge asset to the passing game.

“It's easy money,” says Johnson, because he has more room to go in either direction from the slot.

“I got talent around me, you know?” Johnson said. “I'm not stupid to the fact we've got burners. We've got guys who can run and stretch the defense.”

Rookie Robert Woods and second-year man T.J. Graham are battling to be the second starting receiver, opposite Johnson. But the reality is the Bills likely will have three receivers on the field a majority of the time. Graham is an outside, vertical threat. Woods has the ability to play inside or outside, but he spent most of his college career playing outside for the University of Southern California. Rookie Marquise Goodwin is a vertical threat who could play inside or outside.

Johnson is the best inside receiver on the Bills' roster.

“I can get past a DB,” Johnson said, “but why not put me inside and let me work with the linebackers and nickel guys and let our speed guys do work on the outside? We've got versatility in our room where we have the ability to do that.”

There are lots of ways to get open. Wes Welker, late of New England and now with Denver, caught 672 passes for the Patriots out of the slot the past six years by using his short-area quickness and precise pivot moves.

Johnson, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and long-armed, uses unconventional jukes to create space and has a basketball player's box-out ability.

“He has a lot of moves in his arsenal,” said Bills slot cornerback Ron Brooks. “As a nickel player, I can tell you it's hard to cover him in the slot.”

I can only feel for those linebackers and other guys who may get matched with him in the slot.”

A quality slot receiver needs to have a mind-meld with his quarterback. That's how the Bills' David Nelson excelled in 2011 when he caught 61 passes out of the slot. (Nelson was hurt all last season and has moved on to Cleveland.)

Johnson says that's a key to his transition this summer.

“The only adjustment is getting used to the quarterback and letting the quarterback get used to you,” he said. “In the slot, it's pretty much play football. You see the hole. You find a spot and get open or you find the sticks.”

Giving a No. 1 receiver more snaps in the slot could become a trend. Indianapolis did it last year with Reggie Wayne, playing him in the slot more than 50 percent, according to Detroit increased Calvin Johnson's slot snaps from 15 percent to 23 percent last year, according to PFF figures. The Bills' Johnson played outside 83 percent and in the slot 17 percent last season.

“Hopefully I can get to that level where I can be as money as Reggie Wayne in the slot,” Johnson said. “If I can grow into that dynamic type of player in the slot, then I think we'll be more efficient on third downs. I've got work to do and this is where it starts, this is where we have to work.”