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Meet Buffalo’s Newest Receiving Threat

During some very recent national media interviews, Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver Steve Johnson has been setting the record straight about how he would like people to address him. Although the third-year pro’s name is listed as “Steve” at BuffaloBills.com and in the team’s print media guide, he prefers to be called “Stevie.” Heading into Week 9, Stevie Johnson leads Buffalo in receptions (30), receiving yards (409), yards per catch (13.6) and touchdowns (six). By the way, Johnson’s current receiving numbers are more than double the statistics that he compiled during his first two years with the team. Thanks to a big assist from new starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Johnson has averaged 4.8 catches, 67.6 receiving yards and 1.2 touchdown catches per game since Week 3. If Johnson maintains this level of production throughout the season, fantasy owners will be more than happy to refer to him as “Stevie.”

THE PERSONAL STUFF

Stevie Johnson, Jr., was born July 22, 1986, in San Francisco, Calif., and he grew up in the Bay Area. Johnson’s stepfather, Andre Lewis, is a music producer and a renowned community activist in the San Francisco area. Johnson is married to wife Britney and has two children, and he enjoys watching Spongebob Squarepants on Nickelodeon when he is away from football.

Johnson did not play high school football until his junior year (2003), which is when Angelo Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, Calif., first added a football program. The athletically talented Johnson started at running back as a junior and quarterback as a senior (2004). He also played defensive end, linebacker and safety along the way. As a senior, Johnnson earned All-State and First-Team All-Conference Honors. He also was named the Most Valuable Player of the East-West Shrine All-Star Game following his senior season.

THE COLLEGE YEARS

Unlike a majority of NFL players, Johnson did not start his college football career playing for a traditional powerhouse program. He enrolled at Chabot Junior College (Hayward, Calif.) and decided to play wide receiver. As a true freshman (2004), Johnson caught 32 balls for 607 yards (19 yards per catch) and six touchdowns. He demonstrated considerable improvement at the receiver position as a sophomore (2005), hauling in 73 receptions for 1,060 yards (14.5 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns, which ranked fourth among California junior college receivers. Starting 21 of 21 games during his two-year Chabot stint, Johnson earned All-America second-team and All-Golden Gate Conference first-team selection honors.

After fulfilling his Chabot Junior College academic requirements, Johnson turned down scholarship offers from Washington State, Wyoming and Marshall to enroll at Kentucky (2006). However, Johnson was slow to adjust to the rigors of big-time Southeastern Conference football. He received limited playing time in 13 games (no starts) for the Wildcats, posting just 12 catches for 159 yards (13.2 yards per catch) and one touchdown.

Following his disappointing Wildcats debut, a humbled but determined Johnson rededicated himself with more strenuous offseason workouts and an improved work ethic, and his efforts were rewarded during the 2007 season. When injuries sidelined Kentucky’s two top offensive weapons – receiver Keenan Burton and tailback Rafael Little – Johnson received a huge amount of regular playing time and made the most of it as quarterback Andre Woodson’s go-to guy, catching an impressive 60 passes for 1,041 yards (17.4 yards per catch) and 13 touchdowns while starting eight of 13 games. Johnson became just the fourth wide receiver in Kentucky history to top the 1,000-yard receiving mark, and the California native’s 13 touchdown catches were just one short of the school record. In addition, Johnson’s 80.8 receiving yards per game was the second-highest total in the SEC that year. He was an All-SEC First Team selection and was named Kentucky’s Most Improved Offensive Player by the coaching staff.

Johnson also forged a reputation as a big-play guy during three of Kentucky’s most memorable comebacks: he caught a game-winning 57-yard touchdown pass with 28 seconds left in a 40-34 win over Louisville; he snared a 7-yard touchdown pass in triple overtime during a 43-37 victory over LSU; and he closed out his Kentucky playing career with a 38-yard fourth-quarter touchdown catch to lift the Wildcats to a 35-28 win over Florida State in the Music City Bowl.

THE NFL YEARS

Did Johnson’s strong 2007 season at Kentucky impress the NFL scouts? It did to a degree, but there were some notable concerns about him heading into the 2008 NFL Draft. Here is how most scouts regarded Johnson:

Size: 6-foot-2

Weight: 202 pounds

40-yard dash: 4.59

Vertical leap: 32.5 inches

Positives: Johnson has good size, long arms and solid hands for a possession receiver. He has an ability to adjust to the ball in the air and an uncanny knack for making big plays. Johnson has a nice short-area burst and is capable of making tough catches. He is willing to make catches over the middle and in traffic, and shields the ball well from defenders just before a hit. Johnson has displayed impressive durability. The only notable injury that he has suffered was a sprained MCL back in high school.

Negatives: Johnson has played wide receiver only during his college years and lacks the true instincts to play the position. He is a raw route runner and lacks quickness in and out of his breaks. Johnson is not strong or physical and runs upright, and has mediocre speed. He will occasionally drop an easy catch. Johnson’s maturity is questionable.

Overall: Johnson has some definite upside, but he is a project fifth- or sixth-round talent. Johnson will likely catch on with an NFL club as a special teams player.

The Bills selected Johnson in the seventh round with pick No. 224, and they regarded him as just a project wideout and potential special teamer. Buffalo had selected the 6-foot-5 James Hardy in the second round and planned to groom him as a possession receiver who could start opposite of the explosive Lee Evans and the speedy Roscoe Parrish. Hardy had been a red-zone force at Indiana, catching 16 touchdown passes during his last season.
 

STEVIE JOHNSON – NFL CAREER

YEAR

G

GS

REC

YDS

AVE

LG

TD

2008

11

1

10

102

10.2

21

2

2009

5

0

2

10

5.0

5

0

2010*

7

7

30

409

13.6

43

6

TOTAL

23

8

42

521

12.4

43

8

*Through Week 8

Johnson did not receive much playing time during his first two seasons. In 2008, he caught his first career regular-season pass (Nov. 2) against the New York Jets. Johnson hauled in his first career regular-season touchdown pass (Dec. 14) on a two-yard throw from now-former Bills quarterback J.P. Losman. The following week, (Dec. 21), Johnson snared his second career scoring pass, becoming the first Buffalo rookie to catch a touchdown in consecutive games since Lee Evans (2004).

A few things happened beyond Johnson’s control in 2009 that severely limited his playing time and development. Desperate to inject some firepower into a lifeless offense, Buffalo acquired Terrell Owens in free agency. The presence of Owens – he would start opposite of Evans – and the team’s continued infatuation with Hardy, even though he had struggled in 2008 and blew out an ACL, pushed Johnson down the depth chart.

Fearing for his job following an absolutely dismal preseason showing by the offense, now-former head coach Dick Jauron fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert just 10 days before the start of the 2009 regular season and promoted the inexperienced Alex Van Pelt to replace him. Although the Bills first-team offense amassed just 279 total yards, 15 first downs and three total points during preseason with weak-armed Trent Edwards under center, Edwards, a Jauron favorite, continued as the No. 1 quarterback. After a lousy 3-6 start in which the offense had been a laughingstock – even with “T.O.” in the fold – Buffalo fired Jauron. Player development, however, took a back seat to just playing out a miserable season.

Johnson’s fortunes changed heading into 2010. The Bills cleaned house, hiring new head coach and offensive mastermind Chan Gailey. Owens was not re-signed, which opened the door for a training camp competition between Johnson and Hardy for the starting job opposite of Evans. Johnson, who had played well during his previous two training camps, did so again, beating out Hardy handily for the job. Hardy’s injury-filled and overall disappointing stint in Buffalo came to an end when the Bills released him in September.

Johnson started the regular season slowly, amassing just six catches for 71 yards with no touchdowns through the first two weeks with Edwards under center. However, Gailey benched and eventually released Edwards and elected to start Fitzpatrick in Week 3. Johnson clearly has enjoyed much better chemistry with Fitzpatrick, who is a better downfield passer than Edwards.
 

STEVIE JOHNSON – 2010 GAME LOGS

WEEK

OPP

W/L

REC

YDS

AVG

LG

TD

1

MIA

L 10-15

3

40

13.3

19

0

2

@GB

L 7-34

3

31

10.3

15

0

3

@NE

L 30-38

3

66

22.0

37

1

4

NYJ

L 14-38

3

31

10.3

13

1

5

JAC

L 26-36

5

46

9.2

15

2

6

BYE

7

@BAL

L 34-37

8

158

19.8

43

1

8

@KC

L 10-13

5

37

7.4

12

1

TOTAL

30

409

13.6

43

6

THE JOHNSON FANTASY FORECAST

Because the Buffalo passing attack has been so bad for so long, it may feel like a novelty to start a Bills player on your fantasy team – especially one that has found the end zone most weeks. However, don’t go overboard on Johnson or his fantasy prospects for the rest of 2010. If you prorate Johnson’s receiving numbers for the rest of the season, he is currently on pace to compile 69 catches, 935 receiving yards and 14 touchdown receptions, which is No. 3 fantasy wide receiver production.

Should we expect 14 touchdowns from Johnson? No, but a high single-digit total or a low double-digit total is realistic. Johnson rarely amasses huge receiving yardage totals each week, and the Kentucky product’s fantasy value is clearly dependent on his ability to score. Since Buffalo currently ranks 31st in total defense (384.3 yards allowed/game) and 32nd in scoring defense (30.1 points allowed/game), you can expect Fitzpatrick and the Bills to keep throwing the rock regularly each week in playing-from-behind mode. From Week 9 through Week 16, Johnson will face two good matchups, four neutral matchups and three tough matchups.

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