We’ve been running a pair of series at Buffalo Sports Daily, highlighting the five biggest bright spots… and dark clouds on the 2011 Buffalo Bills season. Our biggest bright spots section has already featured the emergence of Scott Chandler at tight end, the surprisingly strong play of the offensive line and the revelation that running back C.J. Spiller is not bust. We’re now up to the number two on the countdown— the early return on Buffalo’s 2011 rookies.
I almost don’t know what to do with myself right now— associating a Buffalo Bills draft and the term “bright spot” in the same sentence. Without needing to divulge copious amounts of details that trust me, Bills fans already know, the organization doesn’t exactly have the most glitzy of reputations when it comes to choosing college talent for the National Football League.
General manager Buddy Nix did little, if nothing to silence critics in his first rodeo running the team in 2010. In April he drafted his inaugural class, one that frankly looks like a catastrophe at this time. Torell Troup, Alex Carrington, Marcus Easley, Arthur Moats and Danny Batten haven’t done much—OK they’ve done nothing to help improve the franchise. Even the late season emergence of C.J. Spiller isn’t yet able to protect this class from verging as an overall failure.
The good news is the Class of 2011 already appears to be the polar opposite. Nix stepped to the plate and while he may not have hit any out of the park yet, he certainly had a high on-base percentage with his picks the second time around.
The 2011 season as a whole is yet another one marred in nuisance, it’s easy to get enthusiastic about many of the new youngsters on this team.
Here’s a look at the nine rookies drafted by Nix and what each did individually in their first season:
Marcell Dareus: One of the most heralded prospects to come to the organization in years, Dareus lived up to high standards as a rookie despite the absence of Pro Bowler Kyle Williams for most the season. Dareus finished with a team-high 5.5 sacks; the most by a Bills rookie since Aaron Schobel in 2001. He also registered 43 tackles, including 10 for losses and had a fumble recovery. As he continues to improve and gets to play with Williams next year, assuming he’s healthy, Dareus should continue to progress into Pro Bowl caliber linemen himself.
Aaron Williams: It was a tough rookie campaign for the youngest player on the Bills team physically. Williams suffered an upper body injury against New England in week three that sidelined him for six games and also missed a game later in the season with a knee injury. Still, Williams looked impressive at times in his first year, particularly near the end of the season as his confidence grew. He finished with 29 tackles, five passes defended, one interception and a forced fumble. Assuming he can stay healthy, he’s nearly a lock to be starting in year two.
Kelvin Sheppard: He didn’t crack the starting lineup immediately but as it became evident Andra Davis had slowed down much further than the coaching staff hoped; Sheppard took over for him at inside linebacker. The results were mixed—at times Sheppard looked out of place and even lost in certain pass coverages. However, his uncanny ability to be around the football became clear to see as the season progressed. Sheppard finished fourth among rookie linebackers with 61 tackles and added nine more on special teams. He also recorded a safety and had several physical moments that surely have the coaching staff excited. With a full season of OTA’s, NFL level strength and conditioning an extended training camp, Sheppard should show great improvement as he’s likely to take over the middle linebacker spot in the Bills’ new 4-3.
Da’Norris Searcy: Pressed into action probably sooner than the coaching staff wanted after George Wilson went down with a shoulder injury, Searcy held his own against stiff competition. He finished the season with three starts, recording 29 tackles and an interception. Wilson and Jairus Byrd are locked into starting roles at safety, but Searcy has the talent to be the third safety in specific pass defenses and may take over for Bryan Scott, who’s set to become an unrestricted free agent.
Chris Hairston: As was the case with Searcy, Hairston probably saw the field long before the coaches had hoped. Hairston ended up starting 12 games protecting Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blind side as a rookie with Demetrius Bell constantly hurt. Without question he had many rough spots but as a whole was one of the more pleasant surprises on the entire roster—-so much so that the Bills may let Bell go via free agency and have Hairston go into camp projected as the starting left tackle.
Johnny White: Didn’t do much as a rookie; rushing just 12 times for 38 yards as injuries and an organization decision to turn to Rashard Choice affected his progress. His status for next season is up in the air with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller far ahead of him on the depth chart, but White when healthy brings a lot of value to special teams.
Chris White: Speaking of special teams, White was one of the Bills most productive players on the unit, registering eight tackles. Like so many of his teammates, White saw his season end early in November with a knee injury.
Justin Rogers: Considered an afterthought pick to most, Rogers was a huge surprise as a rookie. By the end of the season, he became the team’s top kickoff returner and more impressively unseated former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin in the team’s nickel defense. Rogers had an interception, four defended passes and 16 tackles in extended playing time late in the season. If he continues to improve at the rate he did as a rookie he’ll definitely be heavily in the equation for playing time in 2012.
Michael Jasper: The defensive tackle was converted to offensive guard and spent the entire season on the practice squad—sans the regular season finale at New England when he was rewarded for his hard work by being activated. Jasper’s future, if he has one in Buffalo is a mystery, but he’s certainly a fun guy worth watching this summer.
Summary: This is a class that looks to have produced three sure-fire starters on defense at the top of the draft, a budding left tackle on offense and important role players in Searcy and Rogers. Given the putrid of history of Buffalo drafting over the past decade-plus, by comparison this was about as good as it gets.
Clearly, the rookies of 2011 were one of the biggest bright spots and a huge source of hope for this team to finally start turning things around.