The selection of Marshawn Lynch with the 12th overall pick in the draft was a sure sign to many long-time observers that the Bills are getting serious about finally involving the running back in their passing game again.
It's been years since the Bills had a true receiving threat out of the backfield. In 2002, Travis Henry caught 43 balls for 309 yards and one touchdown, but his successor, Willis McGahee, was never prolific as a pass catcher.
In his three years as a starter, he wound up with 68 catches and no touchdowns. Last year, McGahee caught a mere 18 passes for 156 yards and never found the end zone.
Compare that to the reign of Thurman Thomas, who finished as Buffalo's third all-time receiver with 456 catches for 4,341 yards and 22 touchdowns when he played for the Bills from 1988-99. In 1991, when Thomas was named NFL MVP, he rushed for 1,407 yards but he also caught 62 passes.
Nobody's expecting Lynch to be Thomas in his rookie year, but he has that kind of potential to catch the ball.
Those skills were on display during the club's recent rookie orientation camp, with Lynch catching everything in sight and making it look easy.
At Cal, the coaching staff regularly used him as a receiver in the slot. Last fall, he caught 34 passes for 328 yards and four scores.
"It'll be a tough transition as far as play calling, but the objective of the offense should be easy for me to pick up since I've played in it for years," Lynch said of the pro style system run at Cal. "Being versatile will help a lot, being able to put me in the slot, to run routes against linebackers, that will be a good match-up for us."
Coach Dick Jauron said he and his scouts liked Lynch because of his pass receiving skills, but tried to downplay that aspect of his game.
"I'd say to some degree but the primary reason we drafted this man is for running the football. The fact he can do the other things is a bonus," Jauron said.
It's up to coordinator Steve Fairchild to utilize Lynch in the passing game to make him a factor. McGahee was underrated in that regard to a degree.
"It's how it plays out," running back coach Eric Studesville said. "A lot of factors go into it. Some of our third downs, Anthony Thomas was in there and got more touches in the pass game. We also did some things in protection that limited how you can get a back out. I don't think it's an indication of what Willis could or couldn't do."
Indeed. If Lynch has to be kept in to block because the line is struggling, he won't be catching a lot of balls. The Bills feel they've improved their blocking with some free agent moves.
"Marshawn is talented," Studesville said. "He's a big back, with vision, explosiveness. He can make you miss, he can beat a defender in the open field, bounce off tackles, catch the ball. He's just a talented guy and very well-rounded back."
It's up to the coaches and Lynch's teammates to fully maximize that versatility.
Copyright (C) 2007 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.
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