on August 4, 2013 - 11:05 PM
, updated August 4, 2013 at 11:16 PM
PITTSFORD – An injury to a starter during training camp is never a good thing, but when it comes to Stevie Johnson and the Buffalo Bills, it might not be all bad.
Assuming Johnson is able to recover from the pulled left hamstring he suffered Friday in plenty of time for the Sept. 8 season opener against New England, his absence in the meantime gives the Bills plenty of time to sort out a crowded group of young receivers vying for playing time behind him.
“There’s a lot of talent in our room,” said second-round draft pick Robert Woods, one of the players whose workload has increased with Johnson hurt. “I think this opportunity is great for us rookies to come in, and all the other receivers as well. It’s a great opportunity to put more on film and get more reps.”
The Bills know what they have in Johnson, who last year became the first receiver in team history to record three straight 1,000-yard seasons. He has 443 catches and 3,235 yards in his career.
The other 11 receivers on Buffalo’s roster have combined for 145 catches and 1,415 yards. Subtract Brad Smith’s total from that, and the numbers drop to 44 catches for 466 yards.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys out there,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said, before praising them in the next breath. “They are really progressing well and now it’s a matter of being consistent.”
Through the first week of training camp, second-year man T.J. Graham has been with the starters. Graham is coming off a rookie season in which he finished with 31 catches for 322 yards.
“Compared to my expectations, not as good. But compared to others in my situation, I guess it was average,” he said, when asked to grade his first season in the NFL. “I feel like I could have done a lot better. I wanted to play a lot more, get more snaps, but they weren’t putting me on the field if I didn’t know what I was doing. I needed to learn more. All that learning that I did to try to get on the field has helped me now.”
Graham said a 1,000-yard season as a viable second option to Johnson is a “very obtainable” goal.
“I had 300 last year just on screens,” he said. “Things have to be better to play in the NFL. You can’t be out here if you’re not doing good things, so I’m just trying to be as consistent as possible.”
Graham said his entire rookie season was overwhelming — and not just on the field.
Even the minutia that comes with moving to a new place was brand new.
“It was so many things you had to learn,” he said. “Just the dynamics of the building, where to go in there, where to eat, everything like that. As a rookie, everything is crazy. It’s like you’re living a dream. Now it feels kind of second nature.”
Graham’s struggles as a rookie were most on display when the Bills played in Toronto against the Seattle Seahawks.
He was charged with four drops in an ugly 50-17 loss.
“That was my lowest point in a long time,” Graham said. “I was trying too hard. I was pressing very hard to do a good job. Those games can really help you become a better player, though. You need those games to set you back, to humble you a little bit.”
Graham said that even though a new offense is being put in place, the lessons he learned as a rookie translate.
“Plays may not be exactly the same, terminology not the same, but it’s the same concepts,” he said. “We’re trying to get to the same spots on the field.”
Marrone would like to see Graham — and the rest of his receivers — get to the middle of the field.
“I kind of value who is going over the middle,” Marrone said. “I think that Stevie has proven that he can go in there and get that. Brad has done a nice job of that. I think Robert Woods in his college career has done a nice job of that. Now he has to do it at this level.
“Basically what we’re looking for is that type of consistency at that position, and I feel very comfortable with Ike Hilliard coaching them. He’s done an outstanding job with them. I’ve seen the progress.”
Marrone has spoken promisingly at camp about the prospects of Woods, Da’Rick Rogers and Marquise Goodwin —– all rookies. He also pointed out they have willing teachers in their peers, particularly Johnson and Smith.
“They’re all working hard,” Marrone said. “So if that’s a credit to the younger guys for coming in and being professional, or Stevie and Brad, I don’t know. But I have seen Stevie and Brad take some time to go and talk to those guys. I think it’s a natural position for them to be in when you do have a young group, and I think they’ve stepped up to it.”
Woods said despite the intense competition for roster spots, the wide receivers have bonded as a group.
“Each and every guy is vying for that starting spot, but at the same time, we’re all helping each other, to get each other better,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen. We may need that guy, so we’re just trying to build our unit up.”