The 2016 NFL free agency period is still a month away, but that hasn’t stopped Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley from already getting players under contract that could make an impact next season.
Whaley and the Bills have signed 11 players to reserve/future contracts for the upcoming season.
Seven of those players — tight ends Blake Annen and Jacob Maxwell, defensive backs Jonathan Dowling and Philip Thomas, offensive linemen Cyril Richardson and Ronald Patrick, and defensive end Cedric Reed — finished the 2015 season on the team’s practice squad.
However, for the other four players — wide receivers Jarrett Boykin and Greg Little, running back James Wilder Jr. and cornerback Javier Arenas — this offseason will mark the first time any of them have put on a Bills uniform.
Reserve/future signings aren’t usually something fans get excited about. But, that doesn’t mean these players can’t or won’t make an impact.
In fact, of the 11 players mentioned, Boykin, Little, Wilder Jr. and Arenas all have the potential to push for a spot on the 53-man roster next season.
Player: Jarrett Boykin. Position: Wide Receiver
Age: 26 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 215
It’s been talked about plenty since Boykin put pen to paper back on Jan. 12, but it’s something that cannot go unnoticed. Before breaking out in his second NFL season in Green Bay with 49 catches, 681 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, the 6-foot-2-inch receiver was catching passes from Tyrod Taylor at Virginia Tech during his college days.
A main target in the Hokies’ offense, Boykin and Taylor flourished in their three seasons (2008-2010) together as Boykin tallied 123 catches for 2,123 yards and 13 touchdowns during that time, which included a stat-line of 53 receptions, 847 yards and six touchdowns in Taylor’s senior season.
Both Taylor and Boykin have stated that they’ve kept in touch with one another despite going in separate directions once getting to the league, and it’s not too farfetched to believe that the two players may still have some chemistry together once they hit the field at OTAs and minicamps.
Boykin spent all of 2015 without a team after being cut by Carolina in the preseason, but there’s still potential there.
Boykin doesn’t have the speed to blow by defenders as evidenced by his 4.74 time in the 40-yard dash at the 2012 combine, but he does have plenty of other traits you look for in a receiver.
For starters, he has massive 10 ¼-inch hands, giving him the ability to easily pluck the ball out of the air and the strength to secure the ball after the catch.
In addition, Boykin plays up to the billing of being a “big” receiver.
Without blazing speed, Boykin uses his size to gain an advantage against defenders and is physical enough to go up and make the contested catch.
Playing behind Greg Jennings, James Jones and Randall Cobb in Green Bay, there’s no doubt that Boykin has picked up knowledge of what it takes to be a successful NFL receiver.
Right now, the pecking order in Buffalo behind Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods is up in the air.
If Boykin and Taylor are able to rekindle the spark they had at Va. Tech this offseason, then the former Packer may be able to get back to the type of production he put up in 2013.
Player: Greg Little Position: Wide Receiver
Age: 26 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 220
Little doesn’t have the intriguing backstory that Boykin has with Tyrod Taylor, but the former 2011 second-round pick of the Cleveland Browns has had more production in the league than Boykin has had thus far in their careers.
In his first three years with the Browns, Little racked up 1,811 yards and eight touchdowns on 155 receptions, proving he was a capable receiver in the league.
However, his production dipped in each of those three seasons and the Browns released Little in May 2014 due to a lack of consistency and a bad case of the “drops.”
He was quickly claimed off waivers by the Raiders, but was released during final cuts at the end of August before finding his way onto the Bengals roster in Oct. 2014 where he posted six catches for 69 yards in six games before being let go in Feb. 2015. Cincinnati resigned Little this past July and the receiver made the 53-man roster, but never saw any game action before once again being released at the end of October.
At 6-foot-2-inches and 220 pounds, Little has the frame of a prototypical NFL receiver and has shown flashes of brilliance.
If he can regain some confidence and work on his drop issues, then there’s no reason that Little can’t beat out players like Marquise Goodwin, Dez Lewis, Greg Salas or any of the other lesser-known receivers for a spot on the bottom-half of the Bills’ roster this upcoming season.
Player: James Wilder Jr. Position: Running Back
Age: 26 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 227
Wilder Jr., the son of former Tampa Bay and Detroit running back James Wilder, signed with the Bills on Jan. 20 and may be in a better position to earn a roster spot than he first anticipated.
With the investigation still ongoing with LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia, Buffalo suddenly finds itself with some questions at the running back position heading into 2016.
If McCoy were to be suspended for any substantial amount of time due to his recent off-field issues, Karlos Williams, Mike Gillislee and Boobie Dixon would be counted upon to fill the superstar’s shoes during his time away.
While the Bills would most certainly feel comfortable handing over the keys to Williams after his stellar rookie campaign, there’s no guarantees that the second-year back could handle a heavy workload after missing five games this past season.
With that said, Wilder Jr. could find a way onto the roster if he can prove to the coaches that he is more capable than either Gillislee or Dixon, who seems to be falling out of favor with offensive coordinator Greg Roman after posting a measly 44 yards and one touchdown on just 21 carries in 2015.
A former Seminole, Wilder Jr. went undrafted in 2014 after rushing for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns on 226 carries in his three seasons at Florida State. He also played some special teams while in college, recording six solo tackles in 2012.
After going undrafted, Wilder Jr. was signed by Cincinnati and has spent the past two seasons on the Bengals’ practice squad.
A bruiser who is capable of rushing between the tackles and plowing through anyone in his way, Wilder Jr. has plenty of upside to his game.
If he can prove to be a capable special teams player and can provide some relief in the backfield when needed, the 6-foot-2-inch, 227-pound back should provide competition for Gillislee and Dixon behind McCoy and Williams.
Player: Javier Arenas Position: Cornerback/Kick Returner
Age: 28 Ht: 5-9 Wt: 197
A former second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, Arenas has bounced around a bit since entering the league in 2010.
A standout at Alabama, Arenas shined as a defensive back and a kick/punt returner for the Crimson Tide, setting school records in both kickoff (2,166) and punt return yards (1,752). He also racked up an SEC-record seven touchdowns on returns.
Following his stellar college career, Arenas played three seasons for the Chiefs before also spending time with Arizona, Atlanta and most recently the Jets. New York cut Arenas this past preseason, and he spent all year as a free agent.
Although he may have lost a step or two since coming into the league, Arenas provides immediate competition for the return job on special teams.
Buffalo struggled to find a fit on returns last season, going through Tyler Thigpen, Boom Herron and Denarius Moore before settling on Walt Powell for the final two games of the season.
For that reason, Arenas has a shot to stick around.
If he can show he still possesses the quickness and agility that once made him the threat that he was in college, then Danny Crossman would likely give Arenas a long, hard look during the preseason.
In addition to his return skills, Arenas has proven to be a capable defender as well, notching 158 tackles and two interceptions in 69 career games.
Ron Brooks recently tweeted that he would not be back in Buffalo next season, opening a spot on the cornerback depth chart.
While it’s likely that Whaley and company will spend a pick on a defensive back somewhere in the upcoming draft, you can never have enough corners in this league and Arenas will likely get a fair shot at showing he can stick.
It will be interesting to see how much the 28-year-old has left in the tank.