Bills WRs might be 'Smurfs,' but there's a place for them in NFL

The Bills acquired 5-foot-11 receiver John Brown this offseason and he's one of seven wideouts on the roster who are under 6-foot. Said GM Brandon Beane: "We're looking for good football players." Mark Konezny/USA Today Sports

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Three receivers, three head tilts, three confused expressions followed by a laugh.

John Brown, Cole Beasley and Zay Jones each had the same initial reaction to the way Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott described his team's wide receivers. They had never been teammates before this offseason and are still building chemistry -- but when your head coach calls you and your position mates "Smurfs," it doesn't take long to get on the same page.

McDermott didn't mean any offense by it; he just wanted to bring attention to the overall quickness of the team's receivers.

"I would say with all of our wide receivers, they are kind of like Smurfs," he said last week to chuckling reporters. "If you have ever watched the Smurfs, they work in like a small village so they can separate into small spaces.

"And all of our receivers are like this tall."

He has a point. Of the 12 receivers the Bills brought to training camp, seven are under 6-foot.

At a position where most of its biggest names are also some of its biggest bodies, there remains a role for players such as the 5-foot-11 Brown or the 5-foot-8 Beasley.

"It kind of makes sense, we are a small receiver group," Brown said. "We're probably one of the smallest in the NFL, but we can run, too. It was kind of a funny comment but it makes sense.

"You've got teams that believe in small guys. They brought all of us in for a reason -- because we can do special things."

Both receivers bring a trademark skill to the field; Brown tied Kansas City's Tyreek Hill for the fourth-highest yards per catch average last season and Beasley posted the fourth-highest catch percentage (the number of receptions divided by the number of targets), according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

The reason boils down to a common trait -- the ability to separate, whether that's vertically or in small spaces.

"It's just easier throws for the quarterback, in my opinion," Beasley said. "If you've got guys who can separate and get a lot of space from the [defensive back], you have more room for error to make mistakes.

"So if [the quarterback] throws one maybe a little bit behind us, it won't matter if we've got separation."

The Bills looked into adding big-bodied receivers through free agency and the draft, but for the most part didn't find any proper fits. What they did find were two players -- Brown and Beasley -- who can create clear targets for second-year quarterback Josh Allen.

General manager Brandon Beane said his goal was to get Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll "a variety of weapons" this offseason, with an emphasis on "variety."

"You don't want just three or four of the same thing," Beane said. "If you just have a bunch of fast guys who separate, what happens when the weather changes? Sometimes you play in those cold, wet snow games and the separation's not going to happen because the field conditions won't allow it.

"You still need that big target to be able to make plays on third-and-short, or the red zone -- whatever the situation calls for."

That's where at least one Bills receiver took exception to McDermott's comment. The 6-foot-2 Jones provides a big target in short-yardage and red zone situations, as do the 6-foot-2 Robert Foster and the 6-foot-3 Duke Williams.

So they're not all Smurfs.

"I'm gonna have to disagree with that," Jones said. "We've got some shorter guys on the team -- they're quick, they're fast, they get the job done. But I wouldn't call me and Duke [Williams] Smurfs, you know what I'm saying? We've got Rob [Foster], too ... But I see his point, which is kind of funny."

But Jones, entering his third season, knows he can't get by on size alone. He dominated defensive backs during his time at East Carolina, only to receive a swift lesson once he entered the NFL.

It doesn't matter how big you are -- if you can't get open, you can't get the ball.

"For me, I didn't understand the magnitude of [how] important [separation] really was," he said. "In college, you kind of play off raw talent. When you enter the league, you face guys who are more skilled, watch film and have that veteran presence. You've really got to understand how to utilize your space, quickness and speed. Separation is key in this league."

Even while receivers such as Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins remain among the position's elite, it's impossible to ignore separators such as Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. and Hill. The Bills aren't partial to either receiver archetype, however, no matter what their roster looks like.

They just want guys who can play.

"For the most part, we do have more small receivers right now. Doesn't mean in three years it'll shake out the same way," Beane said. "We're looking for good football players, is honestly what we're trying to do."