By Paul Wanecski
As the NFL rosters begin to take shape, the eventual release of players from the 90-man rosters is inevitable. Over the course of the pre-season it can be a huge challenge for coaches to make the decisions needed to trim down to the 53 player roster limit. While this happens, players you may not be familiar with become casualties of the system. This series of articles will get you familiar with those players who are hoping to be one of the few that make the active roster. Today, we will focus on the wide outs.
Last season, the Buffalo Bills struggled through injuries and growing pains from having an inexperienced group of receivers. The two veterans on the squad were Marcus Easley and Mike Williams. Williams saw action in nine games with only 19 targets, catching 8 passes. Easley has only 2 career receptions on 5 total targets. His last reception was in week 13 against the Pittsburg Steelers in 2013. It is pretty safe to say that the young players were left to learn on the fly.
This leads us to the current wide out roster which remains intact from last season having only lost Williams. It is all but assumed (as it should be) that Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Percy Harvin and Marcus Easley have carved their name the 53 man roster. Chris Hogan contributes on special teams along with Marquise Goodwin, but these are all players that you have heard of. Currently the Bills have thirteen wide outs all fighting for 6-7 active roster spots. Four ofbthose are clearly accounted for (Watkins, Woods, Harvin and Easley) without considering a player being injured. Here is an opportunity to get to know the remaining players on the roster.
Holley is returning for his second stint with the Bills. He was in camp last year under Doug Marrone but was released in final roster cuts that included Jeff Tuel and TJ Graham. Holley has no problem playing in the cold; he is from Anchorage, Alaska. Attending college at East Central, Holley set a school record with receiving yards in 2013. He manufactured 970 yards on 55 catches with nine touchdowns. He stands at 6’2” and was added to the practice squad after his release from the active roster. Holley did enough to earn a shot at the roster this year, even though he did not haul in a reception the entire 2014 preseason. He still retains practice squad eligibility (he and QB Jeff Tuel were the only offensive players on the practice squad last year following the preseason). Holley is a physical wide out who flashed great pass catching ability in college but has yet to really be given an opportunity to show his skills on an NFL level.
Palmer came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent (UDFA) from North Carolina State. He has seen his fair share of travel, having spent time with the Jaguars, Saints, Chargers, and now the Bills. At 5’11”, he will struggle to make this team due simply to his height. Palmer does bring kick return ability and speed. At North Carolina State’s pro day Palmer ran a 4.31 in the forty yard dash. He was a sought after UDFA but has struggled to make any roster. With speed like his, he could be viewed as a taller Marquise Goodwin. In college, Palmer flashed his kick return ability averaging 25.7 yards per return with a pair of touchdowns. He accounted for 1,130 yards in kick returns alone. Add to that his 781 yards receiving, 6TD on 54 receptions (14.4 yards per reception) his senior season and you can see why so many teams have brought him in for a look. It would be hard for Palmer to latch on with the Bills who have multiple players who are also dynamic kick returners.
We are including Thigpen even though most of the #BillsFam/#BillsMafia knows who he is. Honestly, he was a depth addition last season but had such a huge impact in the kick and punt return game that he was impossible to let go. Prior to playing for the Bills, he had stops in Miami and Tampa Bay. He has six career fumbles, seven career rushing attempts (totaling 26 yards), nine career receptions (for 112 yards) and 1TD. With the Bills, he averaged 27.5 yards per return (Y/Rt) on kickoffs and 12.9 Y/Rt on punt returns with a TD. He is not seen as anything more than just a return man given his lack of touches in all offensive facets of the game. He is the oldest receiver in camp at 28 years old. He and Marquise Goodwin are also the shortest, measuring in a 5’9”. Watch out this preseason for ball security issues, as that seemed to be a problem that plagued Thigpen in the past.
It appears that the Bills are loading up with players who have plenty of kick return experience. Thompson is yet another kick returner who had spent the last 4 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. In 7 kickoff returns, he has averaged 28.7 Y/Rt. Thompson will also struggle to make the team as he is only 6’0 tall. With 15 career receptions to his name (across 4 seasons), Thompson has yet to score a TD. He averaged less than 10 yards per reception across that time. The Bills signed Thompson as a hold-over from the last coaching staff. Out of all the players on the roster, Thompson holds the least value as he no longer can be released and signed to the practice squad.
Playing college football for The University of South Florida, Davis comes to the Bills as his college team’s 2014 MVP. He raked in 594 yards on 36 catches and team-record tying seven touchdowns. With 30 collegiate starts, he recorded 2,136 yards on 153 receptions and 17 TDs. The 6’1” wide out isn’t the most fleet of foot. At his pro-day, he clocked only a 4.68 forty-yard dash. His vertical was an unimpressive 32” and his broad jump was a shockingly low 9’10”. Don’t let those number fool you, Davis is possibly the best and most deceptive route runner of this young group of wide outs. He runs with very long strides which can make it appear as if he lumbers a bit downfield. He played in only 8 games due to a chest injury his senior year but averaged 16.5 yards per reception. This was an improvement from the 49 catch, 735 yard season he had as a junior when he averaged 15 yards per reception. If anyone snags a practice squad spot, smart money is on Davis. His major drawback to making the active roster is that he did not record a special team tackle his entire college career.
The Oklahoma product has spent the last few seasons with the Pittsburg Steelers. He has yet to really contribute on offense. He does not have an NFL TD reception and has only caught 12 passes for 94 yards, which is only a 7.8 yards per reception average. The 24 year old wide out was a 6th round selection. He has more positives to his game than negatives. He averaged over 13 yards per reception during his college career. He does a good job of keeping the ball away from his body and using his arm length to snag errant throws. He isn’t regarded as a crisp route runner and he is not going to burn anyone in the NFL with his speed. He also struggles against press coverage. Brown does do a good job of framing to the ball and using his body in route against defenders, but he is far from a physical player. He does bring more experience than a lot of players currently at the position for the Bills. He, much like Thompson, has no practice squad eligibility.