Commentary

Can Steve Johnson do it on his own?

Updated: August 25, 2011, 12:23 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

No matter how high you jump on the field, it's hard to make a name for yourself as a top fantasy football wide receiver, especially when your name doesn't exactly leap off the page.

32 Questions

In some cases, like with guys named Steve Smith or Mike Williams and their doppelgangers, the reasons for an identity crisis are clearly understandable. However, when it comes to wide receivers named Johnson, it's even harder to separate yourself from the crowd. Give it a try … how many can you name?

There are All-Pro talents Andre and Calvin, along with relative newcomers Jaymar, Manuel and Ronald. Many people would probably come up with Bryant, Keyshawn and even some guy named Chad -- who changed his last name into a number in order to stand out -- before coming up with Steve Johnson, who has the misfortune of playing in oft-forgotten Buffalo.

[+] EnlargeSteve Johnson
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeSteve Johnson created a stir against the Bengals when he pulled up his jersey to reveal the words on his T-shirt.

Steve Johnson certainly made an Ochocinco-like effort getting attention in 2010, his first full season as a starter. In a November game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson caught three touchdown passes in a 49-31 slugfest win but ended up making more news for exposing a T-shirt reading, "Why so serious?" He was subsequently fined $5,000 for the post-score celebration.

The very next week (Week 12), Johnson received even more headlines, this time after dropping a catchable ball in the end zone during overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Johnson took to Twitter and a firestorm of controversy arose from what appeared to be his passing of the buck to the Almighty for the drop (his fifth drop of the game).

Yet, as the season came to a close, in terms of fantasy value, most people still were not looking Johnson's way, even as he posted impressive stats: 82 catches for 1,073 yards (11th in the NFL) and 10 touchdowns for the season. That put him 10th among wide receivers in ESPN standard scoring for the year, well ahead of players like Larry Fitzgerald, Marques Colston and Wes Welker.

Yet as the 2011 season approaches, his average draft position (ADP) clearly indicates that people either have already forgotten Johnson's name or they simply don't believe he's the real deal.

The argument against Johnson seems to be that his success was largely the result of the attention being given to teammate Lee Evans by opposing defenses. Evans was traded to the Baltimore Ravens once the lockout ended, making Johnson the No. 1 receiver in Buffalo.

Presumably, with the spotlight now squarely on Johnson, the belief is that he won't be able to handle the pressure and his numbers will suffer. But this is not the first time Johnson has gone it alone. Evans hurt his ankle in Week 14 and missed the rest of the season. Over that four-game stretch, Johnson was incredibly consistent: 5 catches for 42 yards, 6-for-69, 5-for-58 and 5-for-72.

As the No. 1 option for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Johnson was one of only 10 wide receivers to have at least 20 catches and 240 yards receiving over the final month of the season. Considering the Bills lost the last two games by a combined score of 72-10, that's all the more impressive. It's not as if he simply padded his stats with tons of meaningless fourth-quarter "catch-up" stats and garbage-time scores. He did it against motivated, playoff-bound defenses.

Speaking of Fitzpatrick, it's not like he's the worst quarterback in the world. He did throw for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 games last season, and nobody was on his radar screen more than Steve Johnson, who was targeted 142 times in 2010, seventh-most in the league. That's more than such big names as Andre Johnson (138), Calvin Johnson (137) and even old No. 85 (126) had.

Lee Evans, on the other hand, had just 83 targets, catching only 37 passes on the year. Now, an argument can be made that Evans' meager catch total had more to do with Evans' declining skills rather than opposing defenses. After all, the Bills got merely a fourth-round draft pick in return when they shipped Evans away, not exactly No. 1-receiver compensation. I'd argue that Johnson, at least in the eyes of head coach Chan Gailey, already had grabbed that distinction.

Having said all that, there's no way Steve Johnson will be able to post top-10 receiving numbers again in 2011 if he's the only decent Bills wide receiver on the field. And as it stands right now, the receiver pickings are more than slim for the Bills: Donald Jones, the other projected starter, has a head injury and might not be able to get back into action in time for Week 1. Roscoe Parrish has yet to play in a preseason game because of a hamstring injury. Naaman Roosevelt is expected to miss the rest of the preseason because of an ankle injury. Craig "Buster" Davis only recently returned to the practice field after being out because of an undisclosed injury. And David Nelson saw his first action in quite some time on Wednesday.

Things got so bad that the Bills signed Ruvell Martin, who has bounced around the league for five seasons, most recently playing in Seattle. He could very well end up as the Week 1 starter alongside Johnson, which could free up Johnson a little. Martin is a solid route runner, and while he's not likely to attract double coverage, any attention he'll get would help open up the field for Johnson.

In the end, perhaps it's best for us owners that nobody believes in Steve Johnson. That kind of thought is contagious, and if opposing defenses start thinking the same way, then they won't bother to put too much stress into the game plan to key on him. And if teams aren't going to treat games against the Buffalo Bills "so serious," then another 80-catch, 1,000-yard season for Johnson is likely.

That's Steve Johnson. S-T-E-V-E. Remember the name.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can e-mail him here.

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