The Buffalo Bills have some decisions to make at wide receiver as they prepare for the 2013 season.
Complicating things for the Bills is the contract – and health – status of their second-leading receiver from each of the past two seasons, David Nelson and Donald Jones.
Both of those players are restricted free agents, meaning the Bills have until the end of the 2012 league year on March 12 to submit qualifying contract offers if they want to retain a right of first refusal or compensation in the event another team signs Nelson or Jones.
The Bills will need to put at least a second-round tender on both Jones and Nelson if they want to ensure compensation should they decline to match an offer from another team.
That’s because both players were undrafted free agents, meaning the lowest tender, which corresponds to the original round a player was drafted and is worth $1.323 million in 2013, does not apply to Jones or Nelson.
The second-round tender is a high-enough draft pick that it would likely prevent another team from making an offer for either player. But the tender for 2013 is $2.023 million, which means the Bills would be offering both Jones and Nelson raises of nearly 275 percent from the $540,000 base salary each had in 2012.
Nelson, who missed almost all of the 2012 season after tearing the ACL in his right knee in the season opener, finished second on the team in 2011 with 61 catches for 658 yards and five touchdowns.
Jones stepped up in his absence in 2012, finishing with 41 receptions for 443 yards and four touchdowns, totals that were second on the team among receivers behind Stevie Johnson.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m going to continue to work and do all I can from my side of and then let the agents and the front office people handle all that stuff,” Nelson said at the end of the season. “When it happens, it happens, and I’m just going to be ready to go when it’s time to go.”
Jones also ended the season on injured reserve because of an undisclosed illness unrelated to football. He said after the season that the condition should be fine with medication, and will not require surgery.
“It’s never hampered me football-wise,” Jones said of his condition, which he chose to keep private. “This year, it wouldn’t have either, if it wasn’t for some of the treatments and things we were doing, which really hampered what I was doing. It’s nothing life-threatening or anything like that. It’s something that I have to deal with. The medicine that I was on kind of weighed me down, so they had to shut me down.
“We’ll see what Buddy and those guys think about it,” Jones said of returning, referring to General Manager Buddy Nix. “But, talking with those guys, they’d definitely love to have me back, and I’d love to be back.”
Nelson and Jones are part of an unheralded group of receivers that also includes Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick who has become the first receiver in franchise history to record three straight 1,000-yard seasons.
“We’ve kind of started something here. We all came in together, nobody knew who any of us was, and we kind of came in and made a name for ourself,” Nelson said. “There’s still a lot to be done. We feel like with the group we have here, we can do that. We all want to stay together. We’re very close. It’s something we want to continue to build on.”
The decision on whether they do come back ultimately rests with Nix, but new coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will have input, as well.
Nix made it clear at the end of the season he’s interested in adding another receiver.
“We’re certainly looking at wide receiver,” he said on his radio show in December.
Nelson is a proven commodity in the slot, while Jones has bounced inside and outside, and also has good special teams ability.
But by adding another receiver through the draft or free agency, the Bills would also give themselves the flexibility to move Johnson inside to the slot, something Nix indicated the team would like to do more of.
“I think Stevie Johnson’s a guy that really fits the slot well,” he said. “But we need a big-time outside receiver. T.J. [Graham] gives us a lot of that, but you still need to get another, bigger guy that can line up out there and catch the ball when he’s covered.”
Graham finished with 31 catches for 322 yards and a touchdown in his rookie season, but struggled with drops.
Brad Smith is also under contract for next season, but he hasn’t proven to be a capable starting receiver in the NFL.
The rest of the Bills under contract for next season – Marcus Easley, Chris Hogan and Kevin Elliott – will come to training camp hoping to earn a job.