Written by John Sparaco
There are two different types of wide receivers: There are those who rely on running designed routes to get open, and then there are “space creators”.
Stevie Johnson is a space creator.
Johnson, the former Bills receiver, who spent eight seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, and San Diego Chargers defines the space creator mentality as “understanding DB types and using irregular movements within routes to create more space from the DB and help QB windows.”
The bigger the risk, the greater the reward for receivers like Johnson, who relied on the space creator mindset for a significant chunk of his professional career.
Despite being a gifted athlete from the very beginning, the space creator mentality was not part of Johnson’s repertoire at first. Instead, he learned and developed it after countless battles in practice over time.
Competition can bring many different results. For some, the motive is to improve themselves individually without worrying about those around them. Others, however, use that competition to learn patterns that may give them an edge against future competitors. Throughout numerous battles over the years, the lessons learned from one veteran — Drayton Florence — stood out.
“As a teammate, he gifted me all the insight that a DB thinks about; from the smallest thing like where the wide receiver lined up at on the field,” Johnson said.
While most corners preferred to keep their knowledge to themselves, Florence chose another route, offering a young Stevie Johnson the tools he needed to win those one-on-one battles against veteran defensive backs in the NFL.
“Drayton was the only to speak openly about DB thoughts,” Johnson said. “Everyone else was competing; which allowed me to gain total experience.”
By the time Florence crossed paths with Johnson, he had already built a wealth of knowledge from his prior NFL experience. Before signing with the Bills in 2009, just one year after Johnson was drafted, Florence already had six seasons in the NFL under his belt. He spent five seasons in San Diego after being drafted in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the Chargers. Following that, he signed a six-year deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars but was promptly released after just one season with the team. That ultimately led him to Buffalo.
In 2009, Johnson battled rib injuries that limited his offensive production to just two catches for 10 yards in five games. The season beforehand, he recorded 10 receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns in limited playing time.
After getting healthy and stringing together a myriad of strong practices against Florence and the rest of the Bills’ defense, Johnson finally earned his way into the starting lineup in 2010. Johnson’s production skyrocketed that year, reaching career highs in receptions (82), yards (1,073), and touchdowns (10).
At the height of Johnson’s career with the Bills, Florence was also making his presence felt on a consistent basis. Florence led the team with three interceptions in 2010, recording an additional three the following season which was good for second on the team behind safety George Wilson. Bills fans will never forget Florence’s go-ahead pick-six against Tom Brady on Sept. 25, 2011, which was decisive in breaking Buffalo’s 15-game losing streak against the Patriots at the time.
Innumerable practice battles certainly raised the bar for both Johnson and Florence in their professional careers. However, the work both players put in did not come to an end when the final whistle blew at practice each day.
So what ended up clicking for Johnson? Well, after hours of “iron sharpening” against Florence and the rest of the defensive backs during practice, the veteran corner would take Johnson aside and talk through every route concept and explain his thought process as a defensive back.
“The impact was great,” Johnson said. “As a player, it gave me 100% confidence and on the tail end it has allowed me to teach others.”
Johnson went on to record three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, becoming the first player in Buffalo Bills history to accomplish that feat. Despite reaching such great heights individually on the field, Johnson still mirrors Florence’s example by passing on what he has learned to others.
“I offer something where guys can submit clips of themselves to our email along with a small fee to our Cash App and I give my in-depth expertise,” Johnson said. “All levels of guys have already participated,” he added.
Though Johnson found success using unconventional route running techniques, he has made it clear that there is nothing wrong with young receivers sticking to designed routes.
“Both can be very effective pending the wide receiver’s understanding of defenses and defensive backs,” Johnson noted. “You don’t have to be a ‘space creator’ in order to create space.”