A little over four months ago Keith Ellison and Terrance Pennington were dressed for their first NFL regular season game. The wide-eyed sixth and seventh round picks were excited and anxious as the Bills were on the road to face New England in the season opener.
Ellison knew he'd see action on special teams, but by the second quarter the rookie linebacker was playing on the weak side after Takeo Spikes left the game with the injury. Angelo Crowell flipped over to the strong side and Ellison was suddenly helping his teammates stop Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense.
Ellison finished third on the team in tackles with nine and held his own in the times he was in coverage. The Oregon State product would go on to start the next four games and performed admirably. By season's end Ellison had seven starts under his belt and contributed 61 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery, a sack and three pass breakups.
"We thought he was good enough to play in this league," said head coach Dick Jauron. "But he's even better than we thought he was and we thought he was pretty good. He's so smart."
So smart in fact that as the season wore on defensive coordinator Perry Fewell put him in more and more defensive packages.
"He came in and played SAM linebacker, he played the WILL and he's played nickel WILL. The kid has done a remarkable job. He's the diamond in the rough in this draft class."
Ellison didn't expect to receive the amount of playing time he was given, but was more than happy to take it.
"Aside from finishing 7-9, it's been a lot of fun for a rookie year," said Ellison. "Just getting the playing time made it that much more exciting."
Considering Ellison did not participate in a single OTA last spring due to Oregon State's late final exam schedule, the linebacker's accomplishments in year one are even more impressive. And now that he'll have the benefit of a full offseason program Ellison is eager to raise his game another level in year two.
"I'm excited to get back out here in March and I think it will help my game out a lot," Ellison said. "As coach told me you make the biggest jump from year one to year two so I'm looking forward to getting back to work when we come back later this offseason and get ready to go for next year."
"We're really glad we've got this guy," said Jauron. "He's a smart football player."
As much as Ellison was able to give to the defense this season as a sixth-round pick, seventh-round pick Terrance Pennington arguably gave just as much if not more.
After barely seeing any action through the first half of the season, things dramatically changed for Pennington during the bye week when he was thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle when the staff made wholesale changes on the offensive line.
The rookie though given help early on held his own surrendering just a pair of sacks while committing just one penalty in his nine starts.
Next to J.P. Losman, Jauron calls Pennington one of the most improved players.
"He had to be on our roster thinking, 'I just need to learn what's going on and hang in there and spend a couple of years learning this stuff and I'll have a chance to play,'" Jauron said. "And in year one he became our starting right tackle. And you know what? He did okay. We knew we'd have to help him some and we did, but there were times we left him alone and he was fine. He's just going to get better. I believe that. He's going to have to work just like everybody else, but I don't think he'll have a problem with that."
"Overall I think I did okay, a solid job," Pennington said. "I know I have a lot to improve on technique-wise so I'm just excited that I got some experience in my first year. I was able to show the Buffalo Bills what I could give them. They took a chance on me as a seventh round pick and I feel they got a good pick out of me."
Pennington plans to return to Buffalo prior to the report date in mid-March for the offseason conditioning program to get a head start on sharpening up his techniques.
"I will be here in early March to work with the coaches," Pennington said. "You'll see my face a lot in Buffalo this offseason trying to get ready. I can only go up from here so that's what I'm excited about."
Jauron feels Pennington really has a chance to take another leap forward in his progress now that he's got nine starts under his belt.
"He was playing," said Jauron. "There's no substitute for that. Playing the game is the deal. Preparing and playing and learning. Terrance is pretty good and I think we're just scratching the surface. We didn't think Terrance would blossom like he did, which really is a credit to him and Jim (McNally) and (assistant offensive line coach) Larry (Zierlein)."
Granted the Bills were just a 7-9 team in 2006, but the contributions they got from their rookies especially the 16 combined starts provided by two of their last three draft picks will certainly pay dividends in the seasons to come.
"It's a tribute to those players," said Jauron of Ellison and Pennington. "Not taking anything away from our other young players because they have all performed well. But those guys have really stood out for whatever reason. It's a tribute to our personnel department and a tribute to the staff. They've done a real nice job with these guys."