Production from Bills' WRs could be NFL's worst in past 17 years

Jordan Matthews is the clear No. 1 among Bills wide receivers, but he has just 10 catches and is battling injuries. AP Photo/David Goldman

Sean McDermott reiterated in recent days his faith in the Buffalo Bills' wide receivers -- or what's left at the position after the departure of Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin in free agency, August's trade of Sammy Watkins and the surprise training-camp retirement of Anquan Boldin.

The first-year coach has the back of his players, but in this case McDermott is backing a position group that is on pace to produce less than any team's wide receivers over the past 17 seasons.

Through five games, the Bills' wideouts are averaging 10.2 targets, 4.8 receptions and 63.2 yards per game. All of those would be the lowest rates in the NFL since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information's position-specific pass target data.

Among full seasons, the 2008 Oakland Raiders' wide receivers were the NFL's worst, having averaged 5.13 receptions and 73.88 receiving yards per game. With draft bust JaMarcus Russell at quarterback, the Raiders' top pass catcher was tight end Zach Miller (56 catches for 778 yards) and their second-leading receiver was running back Darren McFadden (29 catches for 285 yards). Johnnie Lee Higgins was Oakland's top wideout with 22 receptions for 366 yards.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Baltimore Ravens hold the distinction of having the fewest pass targets per game (11.13) to their wide receivers -- and for good reason. Jamal Lewis ran for 2,066 yards that year, the third-most all time.

LeSean McCoy, who has 279 rushing yards through five games this season, would need to average 162 yards per game the rest of the way to match Lewis' production that season. McCoy is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, which would be his career low, so clearly it is not a prolific running game that is taking opportunities away from the Bills' wide receivers.

If anything, it is the Bills' lack of a legitimate passing game that is taking opportunities away from the run game.

"There are certain routes, certain bracketing in coverages, and all the attention is on the [running] back," McCoy said Sunday. "So as much as I want to be angry, we’ve just got to adjust to it and figure out a way to beat it."

Similar to the 2008 Raiders -- whose wideouts besides Higgins were Ronald Curry, Chaz Schilens, Javon Walker and Ashley Lelie -- the Bills do not strike fear in opposing defenses with their wide receivers. As with Miller and McFadden in 2008, the Bills' leading pass catchers have been a tight end (Charles Clay, with 20 catches for 258 yards) and a running back (McCoy, 27 catches for 189 yards).

Jordan Matthews (10 catches for 162 yards) is the clear No. 1 among Bills wide receivers, but he missed last Sunday's loss to Cincinnati because of a thumb injury and could miss further time after the bye week. That has left Zay Jones (five catches for 66 yards) as Buffalo's top wideout, but he has been one of the least-reliable receivers in the league. Among the 104 wide receivers with at least 10 targets this season, Jones ranks last in receptions per target rate (25 percent).

Part of the problem has been Tyrod Taylor, whose most recent target to Jones -- in the closing minutes of Sunday's defeat -- sailed high and was intercepted. Taylor's accuracy on passes, especially to Jones, has been spotty. It is also fair to blame Taylor for not throwing to his wide receivers when they are open, just as it is fair to assign blame to those receivers for not getting open more consistently.

Of the 434 passing routes run by Bills wide receivers this season, Taylor has targeted those players 51 times -- or about 12 percent of their routes. Meanwhile, Taylor ranks fifth among NFL quarterbacks in average time in the pocket (2.46 seconds) and average time before pass (2.73 seconds), so he is being protected but holding the ball.

Injuries only figure to complicate the problem. With Matthews out, the Bills had to dig deeper at receiver. Buffalo signed lanky veteran Andre Holmes to a three-year deal in March that averages $1.716 million per season and guaranteed him $2.45 million. Holmes is the Bills' highest-paid receiver, but he played the fourth-most snaps (31) of Bills wide receivers Sunday.

"Just rolling guys in and out based on game plan, based on the opponent, and also Andre’s role on special teams," McDermott said Monday. "That also plays a role in this."

Holmes has been mostly a red-zone target, with two touchdowns on six catches for 35 yards. A pair of smaller receivers, Brandon Tate and Kaelin Clay, received more playing time Sunday. Clay was targeted once without a catch, while Tate had two catches for 25 yards and a touchdown.

The Bills are banged up at tight end, too. Charles Clay tore his meniscus and sprained the MCL in his left knee in the first quarter of Sunday's loss, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, and could miss as many as six weeks.

That leaves Nick O'Leary and converted quarterback Logan Thomas, who caught his first NFL pass Sunday, as the team's top tight ends. Although O'Leary posted career highs Sunday -- five catches for 54 yards -- and earned the praise of McDermott afterward, life will be even easier for defenses without Clay in the lineup.