There were a lot of questions throughout the offseason regarding Buffalo's lack of a true No. 2 receiver.
The bigger question may be, does it really matter?
Donald Jones is the current favorite to land the starting “Z” receiver role opposite Stevie Johnson. But with the number of spread formations the Bills employ, the Bills have several wideouts who are likely to contribute in supporting roles this season.
“We're going to play a lot of guys,” coach Chan Gailey said.
Jones won the starting job vacated by Lee Evans last season but failed to make an instant impact. He missed eight games due to injury and topped the 100-yard mark in just one game. Jones finished with modest numbers: 23 catches for 231 yards and one touchdown.
But the third-year pro has been much improved at training camp. He's been more consistent and has shown strong hands in the passing game. By Jones' estimation, he's dropped only two passes all camp.
“He's had a very good camp,” Gailey said. “He looks quicker and faster than I remember him last year.”
Slot receiver David Nelson remains one of Ryan Fitzpatrick's favorite targets. He was second on the team in receiving last year (61 receptions for 658 yards and 5 touchdowns) and is currently making his way back from a knee injury.
Journeyman Derek Hagan continues to push for more playing time with a solid camp. After stints with the Dolphins, Giants and Raiders, Hagan has quietly impressed ever since joining the team late last season, and he runs good routes for a big wideout.
“I put in a lot of work to get where I'm at and I'm thankful to be here,” Hagan said. “Obviously I've played for different teams, but the way I'm feeling now I have not felt this way before. I'm just feeling real good with this offense, with this coaching staff, with the players around me, with Fitz just knowing that I know he's going to look my way and throw me the ball.”
Rookie T.J. Graham, a third-round pick out of North Carolina State, may be the biggest surprise of training camp. The speedster appeared to be in over his head at OTAs and struggled in particular with his routes. When camp opened, however, he flew out of the gates and made several highlight-reel catches. He remains a work in progress, but his speed is obvious and a much-needed addition to Buffalo's offense.
“He's done some really good things,” Gailey said. “He's come a long way, in my opinion, since the first week of OTAs. Is he there yet? I don't think he's there yet. We don't have very many players that are there yet. They can all improve. But I think he's getting a lot better.”
The Bills are counting on these four receivers -- no matter the combination -- to step up and help take pressure off Johnson, the top target in the passing game. It looks like they may have the tools to get it done.
“I feel like we've got guys who are competing that understand what we're trying to do,” wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell said. “It's getting a little easier -- we're starting to get into gameplans where you're not doing the whole playbook. So I really think that we've got a bunch of guys that, OK, you're in, this is your time. And I feel like they're going to make a play and do a good job for us.”