It was easy to understand why so much attention was given to the defensive additions made by the Bills in the 2011 NFL draft. With seven of the nine picks used on defensive players it was a natural focus. Lost in the wake of all the defensive talent that was added to Buffalo's roster however, was the legitimate presence of some valuable special teams additions, particularly in the return game.
Fourth-round pick Da'Norris Searcy, fifth-round pick Johnny White and seventh-round pick Justin Rogers have all doubled as returners. Bills special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven believes some of that return talent is pretty high quality.
Searcy and White both saw return duty as teammates at North Carolina, but DeHaven believes Searcy is a bit more natural in the return game.
"Searcy is probably a little bit more of a legitimate return guy than White," DeHaven told Buffalobills.com. "He was a pretty good punt returner. Searcy is more of a straight ahead guy and I kind of like guys like that on punt returns, particularly against teams that don't punt the ball a long distance. He did a good job of getting right up the field."
DeHaven says Searcy's style runs in sharp contrast to incumbent punt returner Roscoe Parrish, who makes people miss before bursting up the field for big yardage. Buffalo finished 24th in punt return average last season, due in part to Parrish's season-ending wrist injury in Week 10 against Chicago.
White is more of a jack-of-all-trades type player capable of stepping in on kick return in a pinch as he did for the Tar Heels. So although White may not factor greatly into a returner competition, DeHaven is confident he'll have a special teams role for him.
"From what I saw him do on special teams we're going to find some things for him to do where I don't know if you want him back there as a returner," said DeHaven. "He can be pretty valuable in some other positions."
Rogers meanwhile was among the league leaders in kick return average at Richmond as a freshman averaging better than 30 yards a kickoff return. It was a number that certainly caught DeHaven's eye.
"He's got some speed and it looks like it hits it up the field pretty good," DeHaven said. "Normally you'd want your kick returner to maybe have a little more size than he does. One thing I know though is it doesn't make any difference what level of football it is, if you're averaging over 30 yards a kickoff return you're doing a pretty good job."
The Bills were ranked sixth in kick return average last season with an average of just over 21 yards a return.
In terms of return style DeHaven sees Searcy and Rogers as similar returners with Searcy providing a bit more punch and Rogers a bit more speed.
"They're both straight ahead runners," he said. "The advantage that Searcy has is he's going to break a few more tackles or run through some tackles just because of his size. Rogers is a guy that can make a guy miss a little bit, but they're both legitimate return candidates."
Buffalo is fortunate to have some pretty accomplished incumbents in kick returners Leodis McKelvin and C.J. Spiller as well as Parrish. McKelvin was among the league leaders in kick return average as a rookie and Parrish led the league in punt return average two years in a row. But as DeHaven has experienced in the past there's nothing wrong with some quality depth.
"You can't ever have enough returners," he said. "I remember one year Nate Odomes caught punts during training camp, but never got in a game to catch a punt during the season. We got in a playoff game out here against Denver to go to a Super Bowl and our returner goes down in the first quarter. Nate goes out and catches his first punt in an NFL game in the conference championship game and ends up averaging about 13 yards a punt return. So you never have enough of them."
DeHaven views Searcy and Rogers as legitimate depth with the ability to compete for a spot should they outperform the veterans currently manning those roles.
"These kids coming in will give us some depth there," said DeHaven. "They've done well at the college level. They've got some pretty good guys ahead of them, but you can never have enough of those guys. They could very well help us in a big spot at some point."