Food for thought: the Bills have four specialists, four wide receivers and four quarterbacks. You might say three quarterbacks and five wide outs depending on your point of view.
Regardless, the Bills enter week one with a very interesting set up in terms of their 53-man roster. Tavaris Jackson, Tyler Thigpen and Brad Smith are all filling a role behind Ryan Fitzpatrick as Buffalo’s signal caller. Meanwhile, only Stevie Johnson, David Nelson, T.J Graham and Donald Jones are the wide outs for Buffalo’s typically spread open attack.
The choice to retain Thigpen was obvious. Jackson, while a fine option to fill the backup role behind Fitzpartick, hasn’t learned the offense yet and would leave the Bills crippled if Fitzpatrick was injured early in the year. In addition, Brad Smith has a wonky groin and seems better suited as a receiver than quarterback.Smith’s groin could potentially keep him out of, or limited, against the Jets. There is still five days until kickoff which allows for plenty of healing time. Regardless if Smith plays or not, there is a better chance he will be contributing as a receiver rather than at QB (outside of wildcat plays).
What might be the best option would be to cut ties with Smith. He hasn’t proven to be worth the investment they made, particularly with so few spots available for gimmick tools (see: kickoff specialist). It might just be in the best interest of the team to retain Thigpen as a third string passer, cut ties with Smith and fill the vacant spot with a proper receiver from a practice squad, waiver wire or free agency.
It seems safe to assume that the Bills will not attempt to go through the season with just four receivers while carrying an equal number of quarterbacks. At some point they will cut ties with a signal caller to free up a roster spot for either a playmaker or some other position of need. In the short term, however, they do have some options.
Smith has slowly soured as a dual-threat player. He is good running the wildcat, but not spectacular. It has been proven that he is an average receiver and has been surpassed by a number of players returning kicks. Healthy or not, the Bills may actually be better off without him. He does still represent one option they have to split out as a passing option.
C.J. Spiller is another player capable of splitting out wide for the Bills. He has straight line speed and is a capable pass catching option. Getting him in the open field is particularly dangerous due to his elite speed and elusiveness. In fact, there has been a couple of points in his career in which he seemed to be better suited as a wide out.
Spiller’s increased effectiveness as a runner will keep him in the backfield for most of the season, but there should be little surprise if he is used as a fifth receiver until the Bills make a final decision regarding the spot currently held by Thigpen (or Smith).
One other interesting option is presented by Dorin Dickerson. There isn’t a true classification for him despite being billed as an H-back by most who cover the team. He is built like a fullback but runs like a receiver. He is smaller than most tight ends but far too fast to simply serve as a lead blocker.
Dickerson ended up with a touchdown during the regular season and had a few chances to show his ability to break open on a deep seam. There wasn’t necessarily a wow factor there, but the skill set was evident. With Scott Chandler entrenched as the primary pass catching TE, there likely isn’t too much room for Dickerson as a receiving option off the line. Split out may be a better option for him.
An easy comparable for Dickerson is Aaron Hernandez. He isn’t a great blocking option, but creates matchup headaches when he is split off the line. Dickerson hasn’t proved anything with the Bills just yet, but there is zero film on him and his skillset is conducive to that type of utilization.
Dickerson and Spiller both present speedy outside threats that can certainly provide the Bills with an option as they open the regular season. However, they may not be ideal solutions on a long-term basis. Dickerson likely represents a flex option for the Bills that few other teams have. He also represents a flex option with the potential for some serious matchup issues. However, he doesn’t seem to be a proper solution as a replacement for a fifth receiver.
The Bills will release a quarterback at some point this season. Whether that is Thigpen, Smith or one of the other two (doubtful), this team probably won’t go more than three or four weeks with a barbershop quartet at QB. The easy assumption would be to replace that player’s spot with a proper receiver. Of course, by week four there may be a more pressing need that needs to be addressed.
If the time to cut a quarterback comes and receiver is no longer the position that needs the most help, Spiller and Dickerson become that much more important. Determining their effectiveness will direct the decisions made by the staff, as will the top-to-bottom need of the roster.
Progressing with just four receivers in an offense that primarily operates in a spread format seems foolish. But there seems to be some wiggle room to survive before a fifth wide out is brought in.