The Buffalo Bills got tremendous production out of their first three picks in the 2013 NFL draft. EJ Manuel was the day one starting QB, Robert Woods became a starting WR, built a great rapport with Manuel and finished as the second best WR on the team statistically, and Kiko Alonso won the Pro Football Writers Association Defensive Rookie of the Year, so I guess he was pretty good too.
Alonso’s accolade (and alliteration) aside, that all happened last year. The question remains… How will Buffalo’s 2013 rookies perform in their sophomore year?
Let’s begin with EJ Manuel. He started 10 games for the Bills in 2013, throwing for 1,972 yards and 11 TDs with a completion rate of 58.8%. Those numbers show Manuel to be in the bottom quarter of all qualifying NFL QBs. However, if you extrapolate his numbers over a full and hopefully injury-free season, like he could have in 2014, you get a much different picture. Manuel would have thrown for 3,154 yards and close to 18 TDs, numbers like that depict a top-20 QB and a guy the Bills are hoping can get their franchise back on top. If he makes strides to improve his completion percentage and cut down on interceptions, he could have an even bigger sophomore coming out party. The addition of a dynamic offensive threat like Sammy Watkins is sure to help that progression.
Another guy who could benefit from the arrival of Sammy Watkins is Woods. In what will be just his second year as well, he comes into the season as Manuel’s favorite option. Many believe he is the reason the Bills weren’t afraid to trade Stevie Johnson during the draft. With Watkins as more of the prototypical/true No. 1 receiver, it allows Woods to work opposite him much the way he did at USC with Marqise Lee, as more of a move-the-chains type receiver. He still has enough foot speed to make big plays on his own though. Woods could be in for a big year in 2014. I could see him putting up a stat line along the lines of 60 receptions, 750 yards and 5 TDs.
Saving the best for last, we have Alonso. He took the league by storm as a rookie. Remember #TheLegendofKikoAlonso? Of course you do, it is one of the only things better than Alonso’s rookie stat line of 159 tackles, 11 of which were for a loss. Not to mention his 4 interceptions. All of those stats led the team or tied him for the team lead. In fact, his 159 tackles were the third highest in the NFL. All that being said, I don’t think he can duplicate his gaudy stat line. Before Bills faithful tear my head off for saying it, let me justify why. Luke Kuechly, an almost perfect comparison for Alonso, had a similar amazing rookie season in 2012 but then had lower stats in 2013. The main reason his numbers decreased? Because the defense improved around him. He didn’t have to make every single tackle. He still made a ton of them, enough to win Defensive Player of the Year, but from an individual statistical perspective, he did worse. I think the same thing happens with Alonso, especially transitioning to a different position with a new coaching staff. However, I think Alonso will be in a better position to get after the QB more, increasing his sacks and he’ll continue to excel in coverage. Let’s be clear, he will definitely get better and earn respect as one of the top LBs in the NFL, just not at the meteoric pace set in his rookie season.
While I chose to focus on just the first three picks and remain fairly optimistic, there are other guys looking to have a bigger impact in their sophomore campaign and there is plenty of chance some of the guys I mention take a step back instead, so feel free to comment with your answers to the question: How will Buffalo’s 2013 rookies perform in their sophomore year?