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Camp Countdown: Which rookies will contribute early?

Posted Jul 6, 2014

The last two seasons rookies have had a sizable impact for the Bills. Which 2014 rookies will help the Bills on the field early in their careers?

Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we’ll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.

The last two seasons rookies have had a sizable impact on the field for the Bills. In 2012 it was Cordy Glenn earning the starting left tackle role on offense and Stephon Gilmore manning a starting cornerback spot on defense. Last year EJ Manuel, Robert Woods, Kiko Alonso and Marquise Goodwin all had big roles as rookies.

The roster is considerably deeper now with the addition of some veterans in free agency and via trade, but with Sammy Watkins, Preston Brown, Cyrus Kouandjio, and Ross Cockrell in the fold, which rookies stand a good chance of helping the Bills on the field sooner rather than later?

Sammy Watkins

He’s about as obvious a choice as there might be among Buffalo’s rookies. Virtually assured a starting role, Watkins is expected to be one of the team’s leading receivers and scoring threats. His game is NFL ready and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has said whether a play is drawn up for Watkins or not the ball seems to end up with number 14.

“EJ (Manuel) just naturally finds him. He throws it to him earlier and he goes up and catches it,” Hackett said. “It’s so exciting even in practice for me, I’m like, ‘Ooh what is he going to do next?’ So it’s very exciting to have him on this football team.”

Even though Watkins is far from a polished route runner his natural ability will allow him to make plays for an offense that needed an added dose of big play ability.

“He’s doing what he’s doing now and you can tell that he’s thinking,” said Hackett. “I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Wow wait until he’s not thinking anymore and he’s just running and playing ball.’ So he’s done a great job working to get there and he’s got a lot of work to do from a route standpoint as he knows.”

Regardless Watkins should make an early impact and as his game is refined he’ll approach a level that could be dominant.

Preston Brown

Buffalo’s third-round pick kind of flew under the radar of fans because of the long shadow cast by Watkins and the three offensive linemen that were also drafted. Brown impressed early in the spring practices winning over ‘no nonsense’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

“We added a really good player in Preston Brown, he’s really done a nice job through this,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz backed up those words making use of Brown in the first team nickel package as he and Kiko Alonso were the linebacker pairing with the five defensive backs. Additionally Brown was entrusted with calling plays and making pre-snap checks as he ran as the second middle linebacker in base defense behind Brandon Spikes.

“That’s fun, a 21-year old kid telling people 30-years old where to line up,” Brown told Buffalobills.com. “It’s fun for me because I’ve always been the young guy. Even when I got out of high school and got to college I was 17, so I’m used to being the young guy.”

The son of a former linebacker and a football coach, Brown has instincts that cannot be taught. Knowing how much nickel defenses have to play nowadays he’s expected to see time on the field early and often on defense.

Cyrus Kouandjio

He was thrown into a right tackle competition early in the spring practices rotating in and out with the first unit with veteran Erik Pears. As the OTAs dissolved into minicamp Kouandjio’s time with the starters dwindled.

By no means is it an indication that Kouandjio has taken a step back. The pads are not even on yet for the offensive linemen, and when the game gets physical Kouandjio’s presence will be more evident and impactful. He’s also just 20-years old.

“He’s an excellent run blocker, he can knock people off the ball. He’s powerful. He’s an excellent run blocker, he gets his hands on you and he can play,” said head coach Doug Marrone. “I think that’s what you’re looking for in an offensive lineman early on—people that can knock someone off the ball and lock somebody down in protection. And someone who has the ability to get better.”

Kouandjio did have trouble at times with Buffalo’s top pass rushers, but he wasn’t alone. Playing physical is his game, so it’s anticipated that he’ll be able to give Pears a more formidable run for his money in training camp.

If that proves to be the case the right tackle battle will be one of the more interesting to watch at camp.

Ross Cockrell

The Bills fourth-round pick is football-wise beyond his years. A good anticipator in coverage and capable in run support Cockrell has fared well when it’s come to mirroring opposing receivers. Much like Kouandjio his game is expected to improve in the camp setting when the pads go on and he can get a bit more physical at the line of scrimmage.

Cockrell showed he was able to handle both boundary and slot corner assignments in the spring practices, and mental errors were almost non-existent.

“I think we’ve gotten good contributions from (Ross) Cockrell,” Schwartz told Buffalobills.com. “He’s shown well and has done what we thought he could do so far. Now it’s just a matter of getting some experience and staying with his technique.”

Cockrell admitted he was adjusting to the speed of the game and the receivers he’s facing down in and down out in the practices. He’s also down a few rungs on the depth chart with as many as five cornerbacks in front of him. But with pass heavy clubs that spread the field like New England, Detroit and Kansas City on the schedule, he could get some time on defense late in the year.

Opportunities for some of the aforementioned players could very well come down to the health and availability of the veteran starters ahead of them on the depth chart, but all four look most on track to be prepared as rookies should they be called upon.