In recent years the Bills have been the recipient of some solid play from their rookie draft class in their first NFL season. In 2007 Buffalo's top three draft choices all got on the field early and made contributions led by Marshawn Lynch's 1,100-yard plus rushing season. In 2009, Eric Wood and Andy Levitre solidified the interior of a shaky offensive line while Jairus Byrd went to the Pro Bowl. But those draft classes do not measure up to the collective contributions of Buffalo's 2011 group.
The Bills most recent draft class stepped forward when called upon and more often than not propped up a defensive unit that sustained key player injuries.
"Our rookie class we're real tight," said top pick Marcell Dareus. "It's not just us, but we kind of put it on ourselves to help turn this team around. The best way to do that is to stick together and just grind it out and make sure you're right there with a veteran doing what you're supposed to do."
It was widely anticipated that Dareus would step into a starting role right from the first snap of the season and that proved to be the case. Though he was learning on the fly there was clear progress to his game.
He capably adjusted from playing defensive end in 3-4 front to nose tackle or a shade in a 4-3 at midseason. By the end of the year Dareus led the team in sacks (5.5) and was second in tackles for loss with 10.
"It's been a great progression for him," said Bills head coach Chan Gailey. "He's really made progress each week. That's been one of the impressive things is the progress that he's made each and every week. He's got a lot to learn yet and I think he can get better. A lot of people think that maybe he's arrived, but he hasn't. He's still learning. I think he has a chance to be even more dominant as time goes on."
With Pro Bowl DT Kyle Williams returning to the fold healthier than he's ever been in his playing career it leaves Buffalo with a pretty formidable interior tandem on their defensive line.
Had Aaron Williams not suffered a sterno-clavicular joint injury in Week 3 against the Patriots, he may have moved into the starting left cornerback position a lot sooner than he did this past season. The second-round pick missed seven games, but still finished tied for the fourth most pass breakups on the team (5).
Displaying sure open field tackling with an interception and a forced fumble to his credit, Williams showed enough to make him a legitimate challenger for one of the starting cornerback roles in 2012.
"Aaron played fairly consistently for a rookie," said Gailey. "He battled injuries all year long and that's always tough on a guy and that's the one thing we've got to hopefully do is train him in the offseason and get him where he can make a whole season without the injuries. But I thought he showed potential to be a very good corner in this league for a long time. He matches up well size-wise."
Third-round pick Kelvin Sheppard might have earned a starting inside linebacker role right from the start had a hamstring injury in training camp not compromised almost his entire preseason. Far behind with reps on the field, Sheppard had to play catch up through the first half of his rookie season before the coaching staff was convinced he was ready to read and react at the speed necessary to play consistently in the NFL.
Sheppard started nine of the last 10 games and was productive with 61 tackles including a safety.
"He made a lot of strides this year," said Gailey. "He was still making mistakes that rookies make from time to time. He's aggressive and he's got better at his reads. He got a lot more comfortable playing every day and I think that he is going to be a good player as time goes on. I saw improvement each week in him."
The inside linebacker should be an odds on favorite to land a starting role next season.
Fourth-round picks Chris Hairston and Da'Norris Searcy each earned starts in 2011 with Hairston making seven and Searcy making three as they filled in for injured veterans at left tackle and strong safety respectively. Both should push those incumbent starters at their respective positions next season.
Johnny White, Chris White and Justin Rogers all played roles on special teams, with Rogers emerging as a kick returner and a nickel cornerback almost simultaneously. Rogers showed he could hang with the elusive slot receivers with four pass breakups on the season and an interception.
"Justin started playing in some of our dime packages and then nickel later on as well as special teams," said Gailey. "He did a great job on kickoff return late in the season. It was a real positive for us, but he needs to get bigger and stronger and I think he has a chance to be a pretty good football player."
Mike Jasper spent almost his entire rookie year on the team's practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in Week 17, but did not play in the season finale. He was moved back to the offensive line at the start of the season and saw most of his time at guard.
The sum production of Buffalo's rookie class in 2011 may not look like it did much to lift the team's fortunes in the win column, but several veterans on the roster realize they would've been in trouble without them particularly on defense.
"I remember the first Miami game and there were points in the game where we had five rookies on the field," said Chris Kelsay. "I've been asked about who the unsung hero was this year and I mentioned the rookie class defensively. A lot of guys went down with injuries and the young guys had to step in and they played pretty well. Considering they are rookies and their best experience comes in games, I think all in all they did a good job."
Knowing the rookies did not have the benefit of a full offseason of preparation with OTAs and minicamps scrapped the Bills are encouraged by the jump all of them should take heading into year two of their respective careers.
"Now we not only have depth, but experienced depth," said George Wilson. "Now you add in a true NFL offseason for them and they should have even more confidence going into next season as well as having another year under their belt to see how they fit into the scheme and what their coverage concepts are and get reps in training camp so we're ready to hit the ground running come next fall."