The consensus among most Buffalo Bills fans is that they believe Stevie Johnson is a key to the team’s future. The Bills – who haven’t made the postseason since 1999 – have seemingly been rebuilding and failing for more than a decade. Furthermore, most of their homegrown talent can’t leave the area fast enough after their rookie contracts are up to sign a lucrative deals with teams that have a better chance to make the postseason.
The Bills have had their share of great receivers don their uniform over the years, James Lofton, Andre Reed, and Eric Moulds come to mind. After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons – a first in Buffalo Bills history, interestingly enough – Stevie Johnson is quickly etching his name among those former greats.
With Stevie J entering free agency, what will the Bills do: Sign him to a lucrative long-term deal, let him walk, or slap the franchise tag on him? Johnson has said in the past that he loves playing in Buffalo and he has a great rapport with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, so the question of him not wanting to play in Western NY is not a problem. It comes down to dollars, cents, and common sense.
Johnson is a stud, over the past two years he’s averaged around 80 catches, 1,030 yards, and nine touchdowns. The Bills can’t afford to let that type of production walk, especially with the corps of receivers they currently have on the roster. Tell me if any of these names scare you if you’re an opposing defensive coordinator: David Nelson, Ruvell Martin, Donald Jones, Namaan Roosevelt… *crickets*… yeah, I didn’t think so. It’s absolutely imperative for the Buffalo Bills to sign Johnson if they want to continue to grow.
Now that I have illustrated the reasons the Bills should sign him, it’s now a question of whether he gets a long-term deal or a one-year deal via the franchise tag. Wide receiver production is pretty fickle and depends on many factors. Unfortunately for the Bills, after running back Fred Jackson was put on IR last year – while on pace to produce career highs – the offense became stale and stagnant. The silver lining in it all was that the Bills gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL this past season despite many injuries to their top guys. It seems, for now, the offensive line and running game are not liabilities. Fitzpatrick has shown the potential to become an above average quarterback and has great chemistry with Johnson. So a long-term deal would only make sense since Fitzpatrick signed a five-year contract extension during the season, right?
Wrong! The Bills should absolutely use the franchise tag on him. Like I said earlier, wide receiver production is fickle and is dependent on many things to go well throughout the season for consistent production. According to Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings, the current base salary for a WR who is given the franchise tag amounts to around $9.4 million. The Bills are notorious for being cheap, but with the new CBA rules going into effect in 2013, they can spend the money this year and make sure that Johnson is the real deal before spending toward the cap on a long-term deal when they revisit this next February.
Teams can start slapping the franchise tag on players starting Feb. 20 and players can file for free agency on March 5th. I think the Bills absolutely need Stevie Johnson to play for them and continue producing at the clip he is currently at. While it may look like they are overspending now, it may pay dividends down the road.
Many believe that wide receivers are a dime a dozen. That assumption may be true for most teams. However, for the Bills that is simply not the case. Take, for instance, Lee Evans. He was the Bills #1 WR since 2004 and he never panned out. It’s fair to assume that he didn’t have the structure around him to help him succeed, which only strengthens the Bills need for Stevie Johnson’s services. I implore Buffalo to use the franchise tag on Johnson to make him prove one more time that he can put up those big numbers. If not, the Bills may not have the luxury of waiting around to see if he will re-sign.