Stevie Johnson emerged as a playmaker for the Buffalo Bills last fall. The 224th pick in the 2008 draft produced 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season of full-time action, proving that raw receiving skills, size, speed, strength and college pedigree don’t matter nearly as much as the artful ability to get open and catch the ball.
This summer, Johnson is seeing those things in teammate Naaman Roosevelt, the second-year receiver who grew up in Buffalo, starred against middling college competition for the University at Buffalo, and signed with the hometown club as a free agent, buried on the depth chart to start his career.
“Naaman is a natural,” Johnson said after a recent training camp practice at St. John Fisher College. “Like me, he’s not a blazer. But every practice, we see him getting down there, beating somebody. He’s a pure athlete. He’s a gamer.”
Coach Chan Gailey concurred, and hinted that Roosevelt will survive what could be one of the most fierce camp battles for a roster spot.
“He is a great young player,” Gailey said. “God didn’t give him a lot of speed. God didn’t give him a lot of size, but he gets the most of out what he has. He is a very good young player and I’m excited to see how he does in the games this year. He did well when we threw him in there last year.”
Having re-written the receiving records at UB — while learning the position after being the best quarterback in Buffalo during his St. Joe’s career — Roosevelt went undrafted because he measures just 6-feet tall and runs a relatively slow 40-yard dash. He performed well in limited duty during training camp and preseason last year, and was signed to the practice squad after being one of the final cuts. Activated for the final five games, Roosevelt caught nine passes for 139 yards.
Roosevelt made his debut in a home loss to the eventual AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a game the Bills would’ve won if Johnson had not dropped a touchdown in the end zone. Roosevelt played mostly on special teams in the game. Afterward, Fitzpatrick found him in the locker room, and said he was sorry he couldn’t get him his first NFL reception, but that it would come soon enough.
In the ensuing week, Roscoe Parrish was lost to injury, and Fitzpatrick fawned over Roosevelt during interviews. He offered even more praise Sunday.
“Of the three undrafted guys last year, Donald (Jones) and David (Nelson) have a lot of physical qualities that are very special,” Fitzpatrick said. “Naaman is a lot like me, he’s going to maximize his potential with what he’s been given.”
Roosevelt has taken reps as the slot receiver with the first-team offense during camp, but is working at all three positions.
“He's had a great camp,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s such a solid receiver. You can put him at any position. You know where is going to be at all times. That, to me, is the most important part about being a receiver, being on the same page at all times and knowing that you can throw a ball and trust that he’s in the right spot.”
“They told me to learn every position at receiver, and that’s what I’m doing,” Roosevelt said. “Being versatile like that is definitely going to help me.”
Roosevelt spent the lockout working out at various facilities around Western New York. Last year, he was listed at 187 pounds. Now, he weighs more than 200. Roosevelt got some sessions in with old friend Mike Williams, the top receiver in Tampa Bay, and caught passes from Fitzpatrick whenever the opportunity arose. Combined with a year of experience, Roosevelt came to camp with confidence.
“Last year, the first week was nerve-wracking. I was just trying to learn the offense, not wanting to make mistakes, thinking too much,” he said. “This year, I’m going in knowing what to do, knowing where I need to be, and I’m definitely more comfortable.”
Roosevelt also found time to record a hip-hop album with former UB teammates Domonic Cook and Justin Winters during the offseason. Johnson, who also raps, heard some of Roosevelt’s music. He’s more impressed with his football skills.
“He's good at it, but, ehhh, I don’t know if he's on my level,” Johnson said. “We’d have to have a rap battle. But that’s after the season. We have more important business right now."