ESPN released an article on Monday ranking each organization by their quality of talent age 25 and younger. No surprise here, the Bills ranked 29th in the entire league while the New England Patriots were at the top of the list. The article was written by Danny Tuccitto and Rivers McCown from Football Outsiders and while I’m a pretty big fan of the site’s statistical analysis most of the time, they tend to deep throat the Patriots as much as ESPN.
My issue isn’t with their ranking of the Patriots however, because I do agree that the combo of Gronk and Hernandez (both 23) make them a tough team to compete with in terms of young talent. My problem comes solely from the Bills 29th ranking. In the article the scribes praise Marcell Dareus as an “enormous addition as a rookie, notching 5.5 sacks despite playing some 3-4 nose tackle last season.” However they neglect to expand on C.J. Spiller’s 2011 contributions, Stephon Gilmore being selected to reinforce the secondary and completely ignore Stevie Johnson, David Nelson, Jairus Byrd, and Kelvin Sheppard. Let’s do the youth on this roster some justice.
Dareus: Dareus led the team with 5.5 sacks in his rookie season and did it with very little help around him. Kyle Williams was banged up for most of the season and placed on the IR after only playing in five games. With “Meatball” returning and the additions of Mark Anderson and Super Mario Williams, Dareus should wreak havoc on opposing offenses this season and be a stalwart in the middle of the defense for years to come. Coming out of college he drew some comparisons to Warren Sapp and with the talent that’s been placed around him now, that evaluation could come to fruition sooner rather than later.
Byrd: For all intents and purposes with the exception of maybe Dareus, Byrd was the Bills’ best defensive player in 2011. He may not have equaled his takeaway production from his 9 INT rookie campaign but he became an absolute force in the secondary. He answered any questions about a perceived lack of tackling ability by lighting up opposing receivers and tight ends and delivering some of the most punishing hits of the season. He set a career high with 98 tackles, added 3 force fumbles, 3 interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. Byrd developed into an all-around safety last season and signing him to a long-term extension will be priority one for the Bills front office this year.
Johnson: After seeing minimal snaps in his first two seasons in the league, the former seventh round pick exploded onto the scene in 2010 setting career marks in receptions (82), receiving yards (1,073) and touchdowns (10). He followed that up with a solid 2011 campaign and became the only player in team history to record back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons. He’s become one of the best route runners in the NFL and is the ironclad number one receiver on the roster. Johnson has become one of the most polarizing figures in the league with his excessive touchdown celebrations, outgoing personality and highly entertaining (to most) twitter posts. The Bills took a huge step forward in the offseason by resigning Stevie J to a five-year, $36.25 million contract, locking him in as the team’s go-to receiver for the foreseeable future.
Spiller: Tuccitto and McCown downplayed Spiller’s abilities by saying that he’ll be blocked at running back by a returning Freddy Jackson. While they’re correct that his reps will likely be decreased from what he was seeing at the end of last season, Spiller proved that he has what it takes to be a premiere playmaker in this league. When Jackson went down after the first Miami game last season, Spiller stole the show. He finished the season with 561 rushing yards at a 5.2 clip per rush, 269 receiving yards and 6 total touchdowns. More importantly, Spiller looked like the dynamic back running and catching the ball out of the backfield that made him a top ten pick. He was terrifying for opposing defenses when he got in space and showed that the 2012 Bills backfield will be one of the league’s elite. While his carries will likely be decreased, Gailey will certainly have a plan in place to utilize both of his elite running backs in the upcoming season.
Nelson: The 2010 UDFA out of Florida isn’t going to burn anyone with his limited speed. In fact he sometimes has trouble creating separation due to his lack of elite athleticism. However, there are few players on the offensive side of the ball that are more essential to the team’s success than Nelson. He’s one of the surest-handed receivers on the team and is a constant threat on third downs. No one will forget his 10 catch 83 yard performance against the Raiders last season when he hauled in the game winning grab on fourth down with seconds remaining. Nelson will man the slot this season and his role is likely to be expanded, especially in the red zone. 2012 could be a breakout season for the third year player.
Sheppard: The 2011 third-rounder didn’t make a lot of big plays in his rookie season but his presence was definitely felt. After mostly watching from the sidelines the first four weeks of the year, Sheppard stepped in, in a big way against the Eagles in week four. In the second quarter with the Bills up by a touchdown, Sheppard came up the middle on a delayed blitz and hammered Michael Vick, forcing him to throw the pass under distress. The ball was picked off by Nick Barnett and returned 31 yards for a touchdown. Sheppard didn’t record a sack, interception or forced fumble all season but he was a presence in the box when he finally got some playing time. He finished the season with 70 tackles, including a 14 tackle performance against the Chargers in week 14. Sheppard has already been dubbed the starter in the middle of the Bills new 4-3 alignment and should be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
The Rookies: Cordy Glenn and Stephon Gilmore are expected to be major contributors in their rookie seasons. Gilmore has already been named the starter at one corner position and has the talent to be a lockdown corner from day one. If OTAs and minicamps are any indication then Glenn will also start at left tackle from day one. The Bills allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL last season and that was with a rag-tag crew holding down the fort at left tackle and right guard. Glenn is an immediate upgrade over second year tackle Chris Hairston and although there are questions as to whether he’s a legitimate NFL left tackle, has the talent to be an elite offensive lineman.
Don’t discount third round pick T.J. Graham or fourth rounder Nigel Bradham either. Graham will likely be brought in on spread formations, which the Bills show about 70% of the time, to stretch the field deep. He has elite speed, solid hands and can blow the cover off of most secondaries. While Kirk Morrison will likely start on the weak side at the beginning of the season, don’t be surprised if Bradham unseats him by the end of the season. He may not be a household name just yet but he has the athleticism, coverage ability and raw power to be a force on the outside.