The Bills' special teams already have strong contributors in S John Wendling, WR Justin Jenkins, S George Wilson, CB Leodis McKelvin and WR Roscoe Parrish. However, the unit's leading tackler from 2008, Blake Costanzo, was released in June.
Even though the Bills were the top ranked special teams unit in football in 2008, there is a void to fill. So who will step forward and be a playmaker for Bobby April's units in 2009?
The prime candidates include linebackers Alvin Bowen and Marcus Buggs, as well as a pair of rookies, LB Nic Harris and DB Ellis Lankster.
Bills assistant head coach/special teams coach Bobby April and assistant linebackers coach/special teams coach DeMontie Cross, are encouraged with Bowen's recovery from an ACL tear suffered last August. Bowen is a very dynamic player, with no fear of contact, making him a possible candidate for a standout special-teams playmaker.
"He's a guy that has great range and runs around," Cross said. "He's the kind of guy we like to play linebacker with the athleticism to defend the run and do a lot of things in the pass game. Obviously, we also expect him to contribute to our special teams."
Bowen is on a mission to show he has what it takes to be the playmaker the Bills are seeking on special teams.
"Just to be a part of that group would be an honor," he said. "I'm determined to make my name first of all on special teams and I have no problem with that. I'm eager to take part in kickoff return and kick coverage and punt return and punt coverage. So wherever Coach April wants to use me, I want to make sure I'm ready to play."
Buggs, who is a naturally aggressive and solid tackler, also fits the description of a special-teams playmaker. Last year, he was placed on the active roster for the Oct. 26 game at Miami, and appeared in four games on special teams. However, he was placed on injured reserve in Week 12, due to a high ankle sprain.
But the coaching staff likes his speed and hitting ability, which are both pluses when it comes to making a difference as a special teams coverage player.
Although there is no contact in OTAs and minicamp, fifth-round pick Nic Harris demonstrated that he won't hold back when it comes to making plays. Through college and Bills practices, he has also shown good form, which is something the special teams coaches look for in the early stages of a player's development.
Harris is anxious for the opportunity and knows that with the Bills' special teams already ranked as the best in the league, he will have to continuously prove he is the man for the job.
"I have a lot of confidence," Harris said. "I'm just elated to play. Just to be given an opportunity to come out and play in the NFL, I'm living the dream. Right now I know that you have to get better each and every day and everybody is going to be great in this league."
As a rookie, Harris has been looking to the other veterans for a preview of what is to come this season.
"Ultimately, the guys make sure you understand what's going on before the play as well as they can," Harris said. "I don't want to make the 'rookie mistake.' I just try to be as poised as I can possibly be and make the plays that I should make."
The Bills have uncommon depth in their return game, but if the Bills somehow get thin there seventh-round pick Ellis Lankster is a prime candidate. At West Virginia, he was the team's punt return leader with 20 returns for 171 yards. He also had an average of 8.6 yards per return and a long of 36 yards.
Lankster also saw spot duty on kick returns for the Mountaineers with seven kickoff returns for 175 yards, an average of 25.0 yards per return with a long of 32 yards.
At 5'9" and 190 pounds, Lankster has enough size and strength to make a strong contribution in kick and punt coverage as well.
Although early in their careers, these players show promise for April and the Bills' special teams. Training camp and the preseason will be the testing ground for these up and comers to determine who will be the best fit as one of this season's playmakers.