An impressive class of rookies for the Buffalo Bills will head into uncharted territory in the coming weeks.
The Bills, who return to practice today following their bye weekend, have played 11 games. Their 12th comes Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons in Toronto. That number matches the amount of games played in a collegiate regular season.
It’s common, then, to start worrying about first-year pros hitting the proverbial “wall” soon. But coach Doug Marrone said last week he is not overly concerned.
That’s a change from Marrone’s last stint in the NFL – when he served as offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints from 2006-08 before working as the head coach at Syracuse for four seasons.
“Coming back, I don’t see it as much now,” Marrone said. “I think practices have changed. The last time I was in the league, we had a couple rookies starting for us in New Orleans and we went to the playoffs. We really made a conscious effort to make sure those guys didn’t do that,” referring to the team’s young players running out of steam in the season’s final month.
“They played extremely well throughout the playoffs. I don’t see that as much anymore. I do think if you’re not prepared, that could happen to you. I have not seen that in any of our guys.”
The Bills have five rookies playing major roles this season, part of a class of 17 rookies or first-year players on a youthful roster.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso has been the busiest of the bunch, taking every one of the 787 defensive snaps so far this year. Fellow second-round pick Robert Woods had played in 614 snaps, which was 76 percent of the offensive snaps, before missing the last two games because of a high-ankle sprain.
“They’re a lot of snaps,” Marrone said. “I don’t see those guys slowing down at all.”
Marrone said nutrition and weight lifting are two ways to keep players fresh. He also credits changes brought about by the league’s new collective bargaining agreement signed with players in 2011 as a reason rookies are able to play significant roles as fall turns into winter.
“The way training camp is now — normally you practice two days in pads, one day is in helmets and shoulder pads — that’s not the case any more,” Marrone said. “You’re only allowed one day in pads and you’re only allowed to do it so many times per year.
“Training camp — we all have those old stories, walking uphill both ways. But training camp was pads in the morning, helmets and shoulder pads in the afternoon, hitting every single day except Sunday. Everyone was reporting to camp the second week in July and playing X amount of preseason games. It was tough. I think when you’re a rookie and you’re going through that, that takes a toll on you. So I think the change of schedule has helped a lot of these younger players.”
Alonso has made the most of his extensive playing time, leading all rookies with 112 tackles and four interceptions, totals that rank second and tied for third respectively in the NFL.
“He’s just a guy you always notice, always flying around the field making interceptions, making tackles, a great leader,” said fellow rookie EJ Manuel. “I’m very happy he’s on my team.”
Manuel missed four games in the middle of the season because of a knee injury, but has shown promising signs of his own. He’s coming off the best performance of his professional career in Week 11 against the New York Jets, when he threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-14 win.
“Has he arrived? Obviously I hope so, but the proof in the pudding is going to be the consistency,” Marrone said.
In an effort to keep his entire team as healthy as possible for the five-game stretch run, Marrone had players run and lift weights last week to “flush out” any soreness. Because of the off week, they’ll have one extra practice this week, occurring today, to prepare for the Falcons.
“When we get back, it’s going to be all business,” Manuel said. “We understand we have to come back ready to play.”
Two of Manuel’s top targets are rookies in Woods and third-round draft pick Marquise Goodwin. They have combined for 42 catches for 610 yards and five touchdowns, despite missing six combined games.
“When I saw it unfolding from the draft and I saw them pick up Kiko early and I saw them pick up Woody after that, then they picked up Marquise, I was like ‘Man we’ve got some tools,’ ” Manuel said. “I love our rookie class and I’m sure they’re only going to build from that. I think we blend in very well with the older guys we have.”
Marrone has shown he’s not afraid to depend on rookies. He started the season with Manuel and undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel as the only quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. He also awarded the nickel cornerback job to fellow undrafted player Nickell Robey, who has responded with 22 tackles, eight passes defended and an interception returned for a fumble.
“The best players play and they’ve been very productive for us,” Marrone said, speaking of his rookie class as a whole. “We also feel very fortunate and it’s added good depth at some positions.”