It has not been a season of success in terms of wins and losses, but as Buffalo's personnel department and coaching staff work to build the Bills back into a consistent winner, it appears that step one of that process will provide a solid young core for the roster going into the 2011 season.
Buffalo's 2010 rookie class may not have contributed as much as anticipated in some areas, but there was unexpected production and noticeable progress on the whole.
The rookie class has been outstanding," said head coach Chan Gailey. "We had some free agents that have come on and really played well for us this year. Our draft class was hurt a little bit this year with (Danny) Batten and Marcus (Easley) going out early, and Ed (Wang) working through thumb surgery, but we've been able to get some real help from some of the other guys that we drafted."
Taken ninth overall in last spring's draft there were naturally high expectations for C.J. Spiller. The Bills rookie back had a promising preseason when the two backs ahead of him on the depth chart went down with injuries. But adapting to the NFL game once the regular season rolled around proved difficult and Spiller's time on offense dwindled.
"The season hasn't gone exactly how I wanted it to go," he said. "I think I'm a totally different player than what I was earlier in the season. I just try to get better each game. I definitely can see the progress from week to week that I'm getting better and better. That's the only thing that I can ask for."
Despite his struggles in his rookie season Spiller is averaging just about four yards per carry on the season (3.9) with one game left on the slate. He has 24 receptions, a respectable kick return average (23.3) and very good punt return average (13.1). Ball security was an issue during the season, but it's just part of what the coaching staff intends to have him work on in the offseason.
"He's got some things to learn about protection, some things to learn about reading, blocking schemes, things that he didn't have to do a lot of in college," said Gailey. "He has amazing talent, he has a great work ethic, he's going to be a very good player for a long time, I've said that many times before. I just think he's got to continue to learn and to get better. He's going to be a very good player."
For Torell Troup and Alex Carrington, playing time was hard to come by at the outset. With Pro Bowl candidate Kyle Williams at nose tackle and veteran ends like Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson and Marcus Stroud on the roster, Troup and Carrington had to bide their time and try to get better in the practice setting.
Troup was a rotational tackle in almost every game this season, but only saw significant time when defensive coordinator George Edwards brought him on the field as a fourth down linemen in Buffalo's heavier front. As the season wore on the Bills second-round pick developed a better feel for the pro game and how to anticipate.
"I'm more comfortable out there now," he said. "I'm starting to read the offense and starting to figure out what they're trying to do to me and a lot of that comes from the older guys helping me all season to recognize the plays that the offense is trying to do and what their game plan is."
For Carrington the wait was considerably longer. He didn't see his first action until Week 4 and has appeared in just seven games to this point. Carrington has shown flashes of his ability however, with a sack, two quarterback hits and a tackle for loss.
"I think I have become a better overall defensive lineman because I am learning how to watch film and study my opponent," he said. "Watching film helps you be prepared for game time situations. I have help from a lot of the guys. They teach me a lot of stuff; let me know the little nuances that can give me an edge over the opponent. I am still adjusting to the game but it is coming to me."
As far as Easley and Batten are concerned their fortunes on the field will have to wait until next season. Easley will be all systems go for the offseason program in late March, provided there is one. His flashes alone in the offseason camps and early in training camp will make him seem like an additional draft choice next year.
Batten, who began lining up as an outside linebacker in the spring and summer, has been learning the inside linebacker position in the meeting rooms while rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder.
Ed Wang's thumb surgery cost him half of his rookie season, as it wasn't fit for playing in a game until the final third of the 2010 campaign. Buffalo's fifth-round pick was participating in practice since Week 1, so he's up to speed with the offensive scheme. He's seen time on special teams and also played guard in the Minnesota game.
He's worked at both guard and tackle in the practice setting leaving the staff with options heading into next season.
"I feel like I've gotten better and more comfortable in this setting," Wang said. "I'm understanding the system better. Just growing from this year I've had some ups and downs, so just learning from that and just applying it to next year. We've still got a couple of more games so I'm excited about the future definitely."
Sixth-round pick Arthur Moats has arguably had the most impressive surge in the second half of the season among the draft class. Moved to outside linebacker in the middle of the season it proved to be a more natural fit for the accomplished collegiate pass rusher.
Moats has been one of the more consistent edge rushers for the team the second half of the 2010 campaign, and it was all because of opportunity.
"You're always ready, but in your first year you're not expecting to play much outside of special teams," he said. "Seeing my role increase as a pass rusher on the team is a big thing for me. Just the fact that I'm getting more opportunities is a blessing."
The James Madison product has shown that with more time on the job he could develop into a consistent pass rush producer.
Seventh-round pick Levi Brown did not make the roster coming out of camp, but was brought back after the release of Trent Edwards in Week 3 and has served as the team's third quarterback and worked scout team in the practice setting. Brown had a lot of physical tools that Gailey sounds eager to develop.
"He doesn't get many chances, but the little we were able to see of him we liked him in the preseason," said Gailey. "We think he has some potential as a future NFL quarterback."
As for the undrafted rookies Antonio Coleman was one of four that made the 53-man roster coming out of training camp. Buffalo's coaching staff quickly saw why Coleman led the SEC in sacks in college, as his first step burst often gives him an edge.
"He gives you great effort and great speed in pass rush," said Gailey of Coleman. "He's still learning how to rush the passer off the edge. He's not as big and strong and physical as I would like him to be in the future. But he gives some great speed and quickness off the edge."
Offensive lineman Cordaro Howard was another undrafted rookie to make the squad, and has made four starts in his first NFL season with three at right tackle and one at right guard. A shoulder injury curtailed his progress, but at the very least Howard will provide capable depth up front moving forward.
Perhaps the most impressive production has been turned in by the other two undrafteds that made the roster. Donald Jones and David Nelson had supporting roles in the first half of the season. Jones as a gunner on punt coverage and a part time kick returner and Nelson as the team's fourth wideout.
As the season progressed both were called upon to do more, especially after season-ending injuries to Roscoe Parrish and Lee Evans. Nelson had a string of three straight games with a touchdown catch from Week 12 to Week 14 and became the first rookie receiver with 30 receptions or more since Evans in 2004.
"All year long we've had somebody step up. Every game if somebody falls down, somebody has to step up," said Nelson. "That's how it is in this business. We challenge each other individually and we challenge each other collectively, and I think we've done a good job of making plays when our numbers were called."
Jones had a breakout game against the Bengals with five catches for 70 yards and a touchdown, and has proven tough in the blocking game. Gailey said aside from Moats that Jones has been one of the most improved players over the season's final month.
"He's done a good job," Gailey said. "You've got to give the guy credit. He studied when he wasn't playing. He studied, he knew what he was doing so when he got his opportunity he took advantage of it."
Added to the mix late in the season was yet another rookie free agent in Naaman Roosevelt. The U.B. product was called up to the active roster after spending most of the season on the team's practice squad. Appearing in each of the last five games, Roosevelt has seen his time increase each week on offense and posted four catches for 74 yards this past Sunday.
"I just want to do anything to help the team out," said Roosevelt. "Making plays at wide receiver or on special teams, anything to help the team out. You have to stay confident in this league. If you're not confident you're not going to make plays."
Though Buffalo's rookie class probably left some plays on the field this season, valuable experience has been acquired. Experience that they will be able to put to good use this offseason as they put in the time to raise their personal games for next fall. "I'm definitely excited about the future because we've learned so much over our first (season) that will help us as players," said Spiller. "I'm excited about first finishing off the season and then we'll work hard in the offseason and work on the things we need to work on."