In 2008, though the draft class was talented getting on the field proved difficult for Buffalo's rookies. Not even top pick Leodis McKelvin could land a starting role as there was veteran talent that kept the Bills youngsters in supporting roles. By season's end last year, McKelvin was starting with Derek Fine, Reggie Corner and Steve Johnson all making contributions.
This fall however, the Bills could be leaning a bit heavier on some of their rookies to be difference makers on the field. Heading into training camp there are four members of the 2009 draft class that have a realistic shot at earning a starting job.
Jairus ByrdIt's clear that Buffalo's defensive staff thinks an awful lot of Byrd's ability to make plays on the ball. With a former two-time Pro Bowl defensive back as a father and natural instincts, defensive backs coach George Catavolos is determined to make Byrd as ready as possible for the NFL game as he transitions to free safety.
"We're very excited about this young man," said Catavolos. "He's an excellent technician. He's got excellent ball skills, he's very instinctive, he's a good tackler, a very intelligent young man and football's very important to him. He studies the game."
And Byrd has been studying night and day after having to miss all of the spring practices due to a late college final exam schedule. His confidence however, has not suffered despite having far less time on the field than his teammates.
"Now it's just self-study and of course I'll be in contact with my coaches and they'll let me know the different things I need to focus on," said Byrd. "Pretty much they threw everything at me and made sure I understood it and gave me some things to go over. So it's about self-study and repetition now."
Byrd played free safety in high school so the position is not foreign to him. And if his playmaking instincts reveal themselves in the camp setting and the preseason even Donte Whitner is fairly confident he'll be relinquishing the starting free safety spot sooner rather than later.
"I will get the opportunity to play free safety," said Whitner. "Actually I probably won't even stay at free safety because they drafted Jairus Byrd. They want him to play some free safety. Coach Fewell likes me at both, but they like him at free so we'll see."
It'll be imperative that Byrd get more reps than anyone else in the training camp setting to help make up for lost time, and it sounds as if the coaching staff is committed to doing that to increase the chances of Byrd helping them as a first-year player.
"It's going to be all training camp for Jairus," said Catavolos. "He's going to get a lot of work."
Aaron MaybinBuffalo's top pick, much like the team's top selection the year before, was an early entry candidate in the draft. Aaron Maybin came out as a third-year sophomore. Having turned just 21-years old this past April, Maybin is still growing into his 6'4" frame.
That could be the biggest factor in keeping the rookie out of the starting lineup. Though defensive line coach Bob Sanders believes Maybin read run plays well during spring practices, how he holds up when the pads are on will be the determining factor as to whether he can be an every down player.
"Aaron is a high energy, talented, and determined young man," said head coach Dick Jauron. "He gets a little bit better every day through his effort and the application of techniques that are being taught."
Where Maybin has focused a lot of his energy is on counter pass rush moves. Already blessed with a lightning quick first step, the defensive end immediately strikes fear in opposing pass protectors. If he can add moves to supplement that speed he'll be an impact player early in his career.
"I'm picking up on everything fast and that's very comforting," said Maybin at the close of minicamp. "The coaches are very happy with what I'm doing, so as long as the coaches are happy, I'm fine. The coaches were commenting on a lot of things that I was starting to pick up on as far as my counter moves and things like that. I really feel great about it."
Still his strength against the run will ultimately decide whether he'll be able to compete for a starting role at defensive end. At the very least he'll be a situational pass rusher.
Eric Wood and Andy Levitre
Taken in the lower half of rounds one and two, Eric Wood and Andy Levitre are two interior linemen that stand a good chance of lining up at both guard spots come Sept. 14.
Much like the defensive staff is eager to get Byrd time on the practice field, the offensive staff made no secret of their intentions to throw Wood and Levitre into the fire either. Both were rotated in with the starting offensive line from day one of OTAs and that didn't change through minicamp.
"They've come along pretty well," said Bills center Geoff Hangartner. "I can't really tell much of a difference when they're in there. Those young guys have been in their playbooks and doing a good job. Seth (McKinney) is new so this is new to him and Kirk (Chambers) is playing more guard than he has in the past. So we're all just kind of working together and we'll see where it takes us."
Hangartner's point about veterans Seth McKinney and Kirk Chambers should not be overlooked. Though Levitre and Wood are learning a new offensive system, so too is McKinney, a free agent signee. Meanwhile Chambers is adjusting to full time reps at guard after manning the swing tackle role for Buffalo the past two seasons. So there is no entrenched incumbent at eight guard position for the rookies to dramatically outperform.
"Both are competing for starting positions," said offensive line coach Sean Kugler of Wood and Levitre. "Both are doing an excellent job and they're good in the classroom and workers on the field. Their production has shown up in the team work. Everything we've asked of them they've done so far and I expect that to continue."
Kugler is pleased with how quickly his top rookie linemen have adapted to the offensive scheme, and insists he won't think twice about starting both of them Week 1. And the rookies aren't thinking twice either.
"That's my goal," said Levitre of starting. "I'm not coming in here to be a backup. I'll definitely come out and compete with these guys and there are some great players out here, but I'm going to play my best and if I get the starting job that's it."
"I know they want me to come in and compete and that's what I'm going to do," Wood said. "I have a lot of respect for the guys that are here. I've got to come in and earn my spot. I don't want to be penciled into a starting spot until I've done something on the field. We haven't even put pads on yet."
Nevertheless Buffalo's staff is committed to putting their best players on the field. If they happen to be rookies, so be it.
"No matter where they were drafted or where they came from, if they're good enough to play we've got to find a spot for them to play," said Jauron. "The people that were drafted high we definitely think a good deal about them and we want to get them in the mix early, very early."