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#21 - Which rookies will contribute early?

Posted Jul 8, 2013

Which of the Bills rookies will make the biggest impact in their first season?


Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.

With major changes at the top and an influx of young talent, the Bills will enter training camp with multiple competitions at major positions. Lots of rookies find themselves in the middle of some intense battles and a few are poised to capitalize on the opportunity before them and make an immediate impact.

EJ Manuel
With a high pick comes high expectations, and fans are understandably curious about what the first-round quarterback will bring to the table. The Bills, however, are understandably protective of their investment and are in no rush to throw Manuel into the deep end too early. Instead Manuel will enter training camp as part of the continued two-man competition with Kevin Kolb.

Though Kolb is the first man through in the rotation, Manuel has seen an increase in reps to the point where they were almost evenly split during the team’s three-day minicamp.

“I thought I got better every day. That’s the biggest thing for me just continue to develop and get better each day and continue to work hard,” Manuel told Buffalobills.com. “I feel very comfortable around the coaches, my teammates and the guys on offense as well as defense. I love the competitive nature about the team. It’s a great blueprint that I’m happy to be a part of.”

Manuel has had some ups and downs throughout spring practices, hooking up for big plays but also throwing the occasional interception, but such fluctuations are to be expected early with a rookie.

Head coach Doug Marrone declared the competition a tight one after minicamp, and he has consistently said the best man will win the job. The one thing that is certain is the opportunity is there for Manuel, and if he wins out it will be because he earned it.

Robert Woods
Coming into the draft the read on Woods was that he was the most NFL-ready receiver in the entire draft class. After a spring filled with crisp routes and all-around solid play, it appears the scouting reports were correct. Woods has played with a level of understanding that quarterback Kevin Kolb was impressed to see in a rookie.

“I was really impressed with a move that a lot of young guys make a mistake on and he didn’t,” Kolb explained back during OTAs. “He beat the guy off the line and he continued to run his route and continued to push and was patient with it. He understood the timing of the offense and my footwork and we were able to hit a big play and keep the integrity of the pocket. That was good to see and I complimented him on it. A lot of young guys don’t do that. He’s somewhat complex in his route running ability.”

The receiving corps has openings behind Stevie Johnson, and the versatile Woods is right in the mix.

“I wouldn’t say I have a distinct style,” said Woods. “I can be a possession receiver because I can catch the quick passes and pick up the first down, but I can also make a guy miss and go the distance. So I would say I’m probably more of a complete receiver because I can do it all. I can play inside or outside.”

In offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s versatile offense, Woods will have a great opportunity to contribute immediately from multiple spots.

Kiko Alonso
The linebacker out of Oregon may have had the biggest impact out of all the rookies through spring practices. When he was drafted the Bills saw Alonso as a potential three-down linebacker, and the team’s confidence in him has only grown.

“I think Kiko has done an outstanding job, he really has, for a young guy coming in,” said Marrone. “There’s a little bit of ups and downs but I think that’s not a knock on him, I think that’s what happens with young players. I’m extremely excited to see him perform when the pads come on. I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to it. He’s done a very, very good job.”

Working with the first team, Alonso has been adept in all aspects of play, so much so that Mario Williams likened the 22-year-old to one of the best linebackers in the league.

“I’m not saying he is because he’s a lot smaller, but he reminds me of Brian Cushing,” Williams said on the John Murphy Show in May. “The kid has instincts like him. He sees it and goes. He’s looking very good. I said in the meeting the other day that this kid is pretty good.”

With the confidence of the coaching staff and high praise from the veterans, Alonso has wasted no time in putting his mark on this defense, and he appears poised to have an impact through training camp and beyond.

Marquise Goodwin
The third-round pick out of Texas is one of the most explosive talents on a youthful Bills roster and the team is looking to use him in multiple ways. Goodwin has performed consistently as a receiver, running solid routes and making big plays through spring practices.

“I think [the offense] is developing really well and I fit into it pretty good,” said Goodwin. “We just have to get the little kinks out so we can get this thing rolling as fast as possible.”

With 4.27 speed it is no surprise Goodwin enjoys the high-tempo offense, and it is also no surprise that the team is looking into utilizing his speed as a kick returner. Goodwin has been returning kicks alongside Leodis McKelvin, T.J. Graham, and Brad Smith, and he is hoping to claim the job for himself.

“Any way I can get on the field I want to make it my own,” said Goodwin. “Whether it be kick returner, punt returner, receiver, any position I can be out on the field to help the team.”

Chris Gragg
At 6’3” and 244 pounds with 4.5 speed, the seventh-round pick out of Arkansas has been an interesting addition to the tight end corps. With Scott Chandler out early on and Lee Smith dealing with an injury, Gragg had an opportunity to earn a lot of reps with the ones and the rookie took advantage.

Gragg has frequented the end zone during practice, as the offense has taken advantage of the athleticism he brings to the tight end position. Gragg’s versatility and athleticism allowed Arkansas to use him in multiple roles (H-back, split out, and lined up tight), and the Bills have similarly done so just as they said they would when Gragg was drafted.

“I’m actually thinking about building upon what he was doing at Arkansas,” Marrone said after Gragg was picked. “He’s got 4.5 speed and I think he can stretch the field vertically, which gives you some good matchups at times depending upon what’s on defense.”

Though the top tight end in all likelihood will be Scott Chandler when he is fully healthy, Gragg’s success will at least provide depth at the position.

With a team-wide overhaul and the addition of so much youth, Bills fans can expect to see rookies contributing all across the field.