Through roughly a third of the season, the Buffalo Bills stand at 2-3 and the record is indicative to the progress that is being made by the rookies on the roster. So far the top three selections from this past year’s draft have all contributed to this year’s record.
Looking around the league, there isn’t a team that can say that their top three selections are making the kind of impact the trio of EJ Manuel, Robert Woods and Kiko Alonso are having on this team.
For linebacker Kiko Alonso, his performances have been nothing short of jaw dropping. The last rookie that played this well this early for the Bills was free safety Jairus Byrd — both players just happen to be products out of Oregon. So far in five games Alonso has intercepted four passes and recovered a fumble, with each turnover coming at crucial points in the game to help set the Bills up to earn a victory.
Alonso has not only been excellent in pass coverage but also in blitzing the quarterback by picking up a sack and is also a sure tackler (44) leading a much improved run defense. Add this up and Alonso, if he continues this torrid pace, could and should be the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
On the offensive side of the ball both wide out Robert Woods and quarterback EJ Manuel have started to develop some chemistry. Woods has caught two of Manuel’s five touchdown throws. Beyond that, Woods has shown why he was considered the most pro-ready receiver in his class.
Historically, wide outs have the steepest learning curve from college to pro football due to the exotic defenses, upgraded defenders, and having to learn a completely new offense. Woods was touted as a skilled route runner with sure hands, but less in game breaking ability. Those skills fit wonderfully as Woods has become a solid complement to top man Stevie Johnson. Through five weeks Woods is currently tied for second in rookie touchdown receptions (2) and third (265) in yardage and receptions. He is also second on the team in both categories.
Thus far it has been an up and down season for quarterback EJ Manuel. As the first quarterback taken in the draft, EJ has looked the role of franchise savior, but also has made some questionable miscues. He was able to lead his team to a dramatic two minute comeback win, but also was unable to generate anything on offense to preserve a win against the New England Patriots. In all, Manuel has kept the Bills competitive with signs of a killer instinct. The problem is that competitive nature ended Manuel’s game last night when he suffered a sprained knee trying to get extra yards on a scramble.
Manuel’s play has the biggest direct impact on whether the Bills will win or lose. He has looked great at times, and indecisive on others. All three interceptions he has thrown can be attributed to timing issues with his receivers. It doesn’t mean he’s not at fault, but instead it’s a matter of development and rhythm that takes time to grow between passer and catcher.
An example of this was the 4th quarter Baltimore interception when Manuel threw deep downfield to an open Robert Woods. Woods had beat his man and it would have gone for a long gain or possible score, instead the ball was behind Woods and gave the corner Corey Graham the opportunity to pick the pass off. As the adjustment of timing is made, that pass will become a touchdown and there should be fewer miscues like this.
Outside of the miscues described above, Manuel needs to show more consistency throughout the game. When the Bills score a touchdown it’s been spread between two quarters and go dry, or settle for fields goals, for the other two. Manuel has yet to put a complete game together, though he hasn’t stalled an offense where they’ve been shut out either. If the offense and Manuel continue to grow they could reach a level of the league’s elite.
For the rest of the Bills draft class, they have either received limited time (Duke Williams) or have been injured (Dustin Hopkins, Marquise Goodwin). If the play of all the rookies continues to improve, and they make winning plays, then this draft class could eventually become one of the most significant the franchise has ever had, and quite a thank you farewell from former GM Buddy Nix.