THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills’ no-name group of receivers will look even more unrecognizable with starter Lee Evans out indefinitely with a sprained ankle.
Already minus veteran slot receiver Roscoe Parrish, the Bills are left with a ragtag crew made up of Stevie Johnson, a former seventh-round draft pick who’s enjoying a breakout season, and three undrafted rookies.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick would be worried, if he didn’t have confidence in the players — Johnson, David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt — he grew comfortable with in training camp.
"You look at that, and you’re first thought is, ‘Oh no,"’ Fitzpatrick said Monday. "But I’ll tell you what, as I told you guys in the pre-season, these three guys that we have — Naaman Roosevelt included — they can all play."
Ready or not, they’re going to have to prove it as the Bills (3-10) prepare to close the season with a three-game stretch against AFC East rivals, starting with a game Sunday at Miami (7-6).
Coach Chan Gailey expects Evans to miss at least two games, and isn’t sure if the player will be healthy in time for Buffalo’s season finale against the Jets on Jan. 2. Saying, "it really doesn’t look good right now," Gailey wouldn’t rule out the possibility of placing Evans on the season-ending injured reserve list.
Evans was hurt at the end of Jonathan Stupar’s 35-yard reception in the second quarter of a 13-6 win over Cleveland on Sunday. Evans was attempting to hold off a defender from catching Stupar from behind when he fell awkwardly while appearing to trip over his teammate’s leg.
Buffalo’s 2004 first-round draft pick, Evans is the team’s most experienced receiver. Though he was having a so-so season with 37 catches for 578 yards and four touchdowns, Evans has played a key role in drawing coverage in opening opportunities elsewhere on the field.
The lead role will now fall to Johnson, who’s leading the Bills with 66 catches for 874 yards and nine touchdowns. Nelson is next up, having proven himself already this season with 28 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns — both coming in each of his past two games.
Jones has stepped up with 12 catches, all coming since Parrish broke his wrist in a 22-19 loss to Chicago on Nov. 7. And that leaves Roosevelt, a University at Buffalo product, who opened the season on the practice squad and was added to the active roster only three weeks ago.
Roosevelt has yet to make an NFL catch, and has been used solely on special teams. He’ll get a chance for more playing time, especially on a Bills offence that occasionally lines up in a four-receiver sets.
Fitzpatrick has done a solid job in spreading the ball no matter who is on the field.
Johnson has been his favourite target for much of the season, while Nelson has proven dependable particularly in third-down situations. Nelson has 10 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown on third down.
Bills receivers are accustomed to being overlooked ever since opening training camp with questions of how the team would replace the loss of Terrell Owens, who wasn’t re-signed after one season in Buffalo.
"People were kind of questioning what we could do, if we could make some plays, if some guys could step up, and I think we’ve proven that this year," said Nelson, who went undrafted after playing a secondary role in Florida’s Tim Tebow-led offence. "We’ve kind of flown under the radar a little bit, but at the same time, that’s how I like it."
The Bills passing attack ranks 25th in the NFL, but the numbers were dragged down in part due to the offence’s dreadful start under Trent Edwards, who went a combined 29 of 52 for 241 yards in two games before losing his job. He was released a week later.
Under Fitzpatrick the Bills are averaging nearly 230 yards passing a game, and he’s become the first Bill to throw 21 touchdowns since Drew Bledsoe had 24 in 2002.
"I’ve got a ton of confidence in those guys, and they know it," Fitzpatrick said of his revolving receiving corps. "We’re not going to change anything. We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing and just plug them in."