In recent seasons, the NFL has seen a wave of young talent revolutionize the game. Teams are relying on rookies to make immediate contributions, and the Bills are following suit with that formula.
Whether it's because of need or the swarm of injuries the Bills suffered this season, a group of rookies have needed to perform early on. The organization drafted eight players in the 2009 NFL Draft, six of which play on Sundays.
With four games remaining, including this weekend's visit to Kansas City, here's a review of the rookie class thus far:
The Bills coveted his ball-hawking skills and athleticism at Oregon State, making him a second-round pick, and Jairus Byrd responded. Byrd has appeared in every game, including nine starts, and his eight interceptions rank first among all NFL players. In that figure are three, two interception performances, making him the first player since 1960 to have three consecutive multi-interception games.
While a groin injury has slowed Byrd in recent weeks, he still ranks fifth in the AFC with 18 passes defensed and seventh among rookie defensive backs in tackles (41).
Byrd said he attributes the veteran players in making the transition.
"I was prepared for whatever. I'm still in a learning process. I've just been able to make a couple of plays and I couldn't have done it without the veterans," he said. "They really helped me in taking me under their wing and taught me what to look for, how to watch film, study and things like that."
During the offseason, the Bills surprised many by trading Jason Peters and assembling an offensive line with five new players in every position. When camp started, rookies Andy Levitre and Eric Wood competed for starting spots, and both have performed admirably.
The offensive line is decimated by injuries, now on its seventh different combination, but Levitre has remained healthy starting 11 contests at left guard and one at left tackle. Wood started every game at right guard until he suffered a season-ending knee injury at Jacksonville in Week 11.
Wood and Levitre became the first pair of rookie offensive lineman in team history to start on the line in a season opener since 1970.
"I think they've improved a lot, and not necessarily physically, just how they go about their business and prepare," Geoff Hangartner said. "Their anticipation of things that might happen in a game, some of that is physical too, but they have come a long way."
The tight end position is a recurring issue for the Bills, but fourth-round pick Shawn Nelson could be a future answer. At 6-5 and 250 pounds, Nelson creates matchup problems with his ability to stretch the field. He put those skills to use in Week 1, recording two receptions for 13 yards, and a touchdown against the Patriots.
A series of migraines left Nelson inactive for three games, taking an element out of the Bills passing attack. The coaching staff has made a point of focusing his on route running, especially during spring workouts, and technical improvements with run blocking.
Both the organization and fan base believed the defensive front received help for its pass rush in selecting Aaron Maybin with the 11th overall pick. The results haven't come to fruition, however, as Maybin is still developing his skills to the pro game.
The Penn State product boasts quality speed off the edge, so the coaching staff is focusing on his pass rush and counter moves. Maybin averages 10-15 plays a game and registered just 11 tackles thus fur, with a career-high three against the Jets last week. The lack of production for such a high pick is concerning, but Maybin fights for playing time with a veteran defensive line. For now, he's at the stage where learning the game both mentally and physically is most important.
Being an every down defensive end might require the 240-pounder to gain weight in the offseason, speculation Maybin plans to decide after the season.
"As long as I feel good, that's what I go by," he said. "We'll see how this offseason goes and decide then. Talk to the coaching staff and see what they feel comfortable with and what I'm comfortable with."
The fifth-round selection, Nic Harris, is an intriguing prospect for the Bills. The former college safety was moved to linebacker in training camp, and took extra repetitions at the position earlier in the year. Harris' transition is still a work in progress, but the Oklahoma product is contributing on special teams units.
The final two selections were used on secondary depth, picking up Cary Harris and Ellis Lankster. Harris spent the first eight weeks on the practice squad, before playing against Miami and Jacksonville. Lankster has played in six games thus far including some time at cornerback, while being inactive for four.
Others of Note
The undrafted free agent won the long snapper's job coming out of training camp and has been solid with his accuracy all season. He's still mastering line calls to make protection adjustments, but is well on his way to being the team's long snapper for years to come.
After Kawika Mitchell suffered a season-ending knee injury against Cleveland, Palmer replaced the veteran and recorded six tackles the following week at New York. Since then, Palmer's main role has been on special teams while providing depth at the outside linebacker spot.
Signed from Green Bay's practice squad Sept. 22, Meredith started three games at right tackle when injuries crippled the offensive line, and has appeared in six games overall.