BBD Staff Writer: Ryan Glaze
BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Stevie Johnson has been the Buffalo Bills’ leading wide receiver for each of the past four seasons, and is under contract with the Bills for three more seasons, but a disappointing 2013 season has led some Bills supporters to sour on Johnson heading into the 2014 season.
Some even believe the Bills should move on from Johnson through a trade or release.
Despite his past production, Johnson has consistently been somewhat of an enigma, a player known as well for his antics and costly drops as he has been for his key role in Buffalo’s passing offense. By catching just 52 passes for 597 yards and three touchdowns last season, Johnson no longer had the production to overshadow his perceived flaws.
Additionally, the Bills could consider Johnson a potential cap casualty, a decision that would likely be made by March because as ESPN’s Mike Rodak explained, he is set to receive a $1.75 million roster bonus in March.
Should this offseason be the time for the Bills move on from Johnson and escalating contract? Ryan Glaze thinks it is. Dan Hope, however, thinks the Bills should remain fully committed to Johnson for at least the 2014 season.
Why Ryan Thinks the Bills Should Let Johnson Go
Deciding what to do with Stevie Johnson might be the most difficult decision that Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley will be forced to make in the 2014 offseason.
During Buffalo’s year-end press conference, Whaley told reporters that the team expects its enigmatic receiver back next season. But what was he supposed to say? Suggesting anything to the contrary would destroy any negotiating leverage should they opt to shop him.
Despite the fact that Johnson is among the franchise’s top 10 all-time in receiving yards, and its most talented receiving option—not a point to take lightly for a team trying to develop a young quarterback—I believe the Bills should look to trade him.
Trading Johnson would benefit the team culturally. If Bills head coach Doug Marrone’s mission to foster a culture of winning is going to succeed with one of the youngest rosters in the league, he’s going to need the support and buy-in of the franchise’s marquee players.
Just one man’s opinion here, but it’s difficult to envision Mr. Why So Serious, the man who received a 15-yard penalty and a $10,000 fine for a touchdown celebration that mocked Plaxico Burress for shooting himself in the foot in 2011, demanding excellence and accountability from his fellow teammates.
While Johnson’s on-field antics may belie a lack of maturity, his history of mental errors, untimely drops, bonehead penalties and fumbles in clutch situations seem to suggest a lack of focus as well. Given all of his other interests, which include fashion, modeling, hip-hop and exploring other careers, it’s not hard to imagine lack of focus being a real issue for the enigmatic receiver.
The time to move Johnson is now. Without dynamic deep speed, great size or elite body control, Johnson is, at best, a 1-B type receiver. 2013 rookie Robert Woods looked every bit the part of a very solid No. 2 receiver, and displayed many similar attributes to what Johnson brings, without the drama. Woods’ presence on the roster makes Stevie moveable.
There’s also the financials. Per Spotrac, Johnson is set to incur a $8.5 million cap hit this season, nearly $3 million more than last season. Though the significant savings realized by moving Johnson wouldn’t come until 2015 and 2016, moving Johnson’s contract would allow the team to reinvest in a position of greater need.
Though he likely wouldn’t fetch a great pick, adding an extra fourth- or fifth-round pick could provide the Bills with valuable flexibility and in a draft NFL Network’s Mike Mayock called the “deepest” of the past 10 years in a pre-combine conference call (h/t Taylor Price of 49ers.com).
Johnson himself, a seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft, is proof that talent can be found later in the draft. If the Bills don’t draft a receiver like Clemson’s Sammy Watkins or Texas A&M’s Mike Evans with their first-round pick, they could could very well end up finding great value in the middle rounds with a talented wideout prospect such as Clemson’s Martavis Bryant or Fresno State’s Davante Adams. While Bryant and Adams might be second-round picks in a weaker draft class, neither FFToolbox nor SBNation’s Mocking the Draft currently ranks them among the draft’s top-10 receivers.
Certainly, if the Bills were to give up their most productive wideout, the receiver position would instantly become a serious need. That said, there are plenty of talented options on the free-agent market, including Anquan Boldin, Eric Decker, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Lafell, and Hakeem Nicks, along with the aforementioned depth of talent in the draft.
Trading Johnson would be best for all parties involved. Stevie isn’t a “bad guy”, he’s a goofball who enjoys having fun. On a team with established leadership, quarterback play and a go-to guy in need of help, he would shine. There is plenty of room for players like that in the NFL. On a young, developing roster, however, he is not the right fit.
It’s impossible to say whether Johnson’s unique personality and approach to the game have been contributing factors to the franchise’s mediocrity; certainly poor quarterback play, and a lack of coaching consistency and quality, have been major factors. What we can say is that his production hasn’t done enough to help the team win, as the Bills are just 22-42 since he became a starter four years ago.
Moving Johnson might hurt in the short-term, but it would allow the team to continue to move on from its losing ways and let the team’s real leaders make a positive impact on the culture of the team. The Bills have been mediocre for far too long and, while Johnson is an above-average talent, his financial cost makes it unlikely that the Bills will ever be able to bring in an elite alpha receiver to play opposite him.
Trading Johnson now might not be “selling high”, but sometimes addition by subtraction is necessary in sports.
- Ryan Glaze
Why Dan Thinks the Bills Should Stay Committed to Johnon
Just about any time a veteran player has a significant drop-off in production from the previous season, questions get raised about that player’s future. At least externally from some media and Bills fans, those questions have been raised about Stevie Johnson, after the receiver followed up three consecutive 75-catch, 1,000-yard seasons with a 52-reception, 597-yard season in 2013.
Those questions, however, should remain external. While the Bills should certainly focus on continuing to add young talent as it builds toward the future, there is plenty of reason to believe that Johnson’s future in Buffalo remains bright.
The 27-year-old wide receiver isn’t past his prime. His 2013 downturn in production was largely due to the tumultuous instability of the team’s passing offense as a whole, as the team cycled between inconsistent rookie EJ Manuel and underwhelming veteran spot starter Thad Lewis at the quarterback position.
Johnson’s overall production decrease also came as a result of missing four games. His per-game averages last season were 4.33 catches per game and 49.75 yards per game, a significant but not massive drop-off from his average of 4.94 catches per game and 65.06 yards per game from 2010-12.
Critics might point to Johnson’s missed time as another reason to move on from him, but the criticism he took for missing games in 2013 was misguided. He only missed two games due to injuries, while he clearly played through pain in a number of other games. His other two games missed came as he mourned with his family following the death of his mother, after he showed incredible loyalty to his team by playing against Jacksonville in Week 15 one day following his mother’s passing.
Johnson will never be an elite No. 1 wide receiver, and the Bills should look to continue adding talent at the position regardless of how long they expect Johnson to remain with the team. But adding another receiver doesn’t mean Buffalo should move on from Johnson, who is still the team’s best and most reliable receiving option.
The Bills should be looking to surround Manuel with as much talent as possible in 2014. Releasing or trading Johnson would be counter-productive. Nothing from the 2013 season indicates that Johnson, assuming Manuel’s play as a passer continues to improve, cannot return to his past productivity in 2014.
Johnson has a history of questionable on-field behavior, but none of that surfaced in 2013, making it a poor excuse for wanting to move on from Johnson. Even if there are some within the Bills organization who take issue with his attitude, he can quickly make up for it by making plays on the field (Exhibit A: Riley Cooper, who just signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday.)
Another source of criticism for Johnson have been his untimely drops and errors. That criticism was justified in 2013 by his eight drops, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and a Week 13 fumble in the final minute of regulation that cost the Bills a chance to kick a game-winning field goal against the Atlanta Falcons in a game they ultimately lost in overtime.
Still, Johnson has done plenty over the course of his Bills career to make up for his costly errors. There have been plenty of situations, including a big Week 2 win against the Carolina Panthers in which Johnson caught a game-winning touchdown pass with just two seconds to play in regulation, in which Johnson has made crucial plays as the Bills’ go-to receiver.
Johnson’s play in 2013 wasn’t great, but it wasn’t nearly poor enough for the Bills to consider cutting him for football reasons. Meanwhile, there would be little for the Bills to gain by releasing or trading him this year.
While it could certainly be argued that Johnson is not worth the $8.5 million he is owed in 2014, the Bills would, according to Spotrac, incur a $8.475 million dead money hit by releasing him. That means Buffalo would save an insignificant $25,000 in 2014, giving the team little financial incentive to cut him prior to next offseason.
On the other hand, Johnson’s $26.3 million combined cap hit over the next three seasons might leave other NFL teams uninterested in trading for him. If the Bills were to find a trade partner, they would likely net nothing more than a Day 3 draft pick. That would likely require the Bills, whose roster is already full of young, unproven receivers, to take a chance on drafting another receiver earlier than the pick they would obtain in return for Johnson.
While it’s dangerous to read into what coaches and general managers tell the media, both general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone have publicly stood behind Johnson.
Whaley said he was “taken aback” by questioning about Johnson’s future at his year-end press conference, according to Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News. Marrone said just last week at the NFL Scouting Combine, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, that he has been communicating with Johnson to “make sure the top receiver doesn’t think the club is down on him.”
While we won’t know for sure until his roster bonus kicks in, all signs point to Johnson remaining in Buffalo for the 2014 season. It could be his last year with the Bills if he fails to find rhythm with Manuel and return to his past productivity. For this season, however, releasing Johnson would be far more to lose than gain.
- Dan Hope