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Quick strike Last April's draft pays early dividends as rookies post a strong season

A lot of fans and draft analysts scoffed last April when the Buffalo Bills took Ohio State strong safety Donte Whitner with the eighth overall pick.

All Whitner has done is become a fixture on the Bills' defense from Day One and is a shoo-in for NFL All-Rookie honors.

"We took some pretty good criticism for that pick," said Tom Modrak, Bills assistant general manager and chief college scout, who recalled the same second-guessing when Buffalo drafted an injured Willis McGahee instead of a defensive lineman in 2003.

"It happens and it goes with the territory. But fortunately those things go away in time if you're right. We liked Donte and we thought he could help us. He's proven to be a good assessment by the Bills."

Just like the rest of their draft. The contributions of the Bills' rookies have far exceeded expectations.

Buffalo is one of four NFL teams to start four or more rookies in a game. Seven of the Bills' nine draft picks have started at least once and rookies have made 48 total starts going into today's game against Tennessee. Only Green Bay (61 starts) and Houston (53) have used rookies more frequently.

Here's a closer look at the Bills' 10-man rookie class:

1. SS Donte Whitner (first round, eighth overall)

What we know: With 81 tackles (fifth on the team), Whitner made a smooth transition to the NFL. He is tough, aggressive and plays the run like a linebacker. He also has the speed to run with receivers and the range to play in deep coverage.

How he projects: Barring injury, Whitner has the tools to develop into an elite-level safety.

2. DT John McCargo (first round, 26th overall)

What we know: Not much. This selection was questioned by many and that seemed justified early on. But he was starting to find his way when he went down with a season-ending foot injury in Week Five.

How he projects: The Bills like McCargo's quickness and explosion off the snap. The injury set him back, but the team believes his upside is tremendous.

3. CB Ashton Youboty (third round, 70th overall)

What we know: Very little. The coaches were reluctant to use him early because he missed most of training camp due to the death of his mother. He made his first start two weeks ago against the New York Jets when the Bills opened in the nickel package. He handled his coverage responsibilities well.

How he projects: The Bills could afford to bring him along slowly this year, but all bets are off next season. With Nate Clements likely to leave via free agency, Youboty will be expected to compete for a starting job in 2007. He's a good athlete with good short-area quickness, but he needs to continue working on his technique and recognition skills.

4. FS Ko Simpson (fourth round, 105th overall)

What we know: Not much was expected early, but he stepped in for the injured Troy Vincent in the opener and has started since. Simpson is a confident player who is not overwhelmed by the pro game. The Bills haven't allowed many big pass plays because of his range.

How he projects: Simpson is still a raw talent, but he has the skills to be a star safety.

5. DT Kyle Williams (fifth round, 134th overall)

What we know: The star of training camp, Williams outplayed McCargo from Day One and earned more playing time early in the season. A starter at nose tackle since Week Six, Williams is a high-effort player who gets the most out of his ability.

How he projects: Even though Williams has played a lot, he may end up as a backup. Then again, he's proved a lot of people wrong so far.

6. OT Brad Butler (fifth round, 143rd overall)

What we know: The jury is still out because he has played in only one game.

How he projects: Butler looks like a right tackle project who could provide decent depth.

7. LB Keith Ellison (sixth round, 178th overall)

What we know: He had to step in at weakside linebacker when Angelo Crowell had to replace an injured Takeo Spikes on the strong side in the opener. Ellison started the next four games and returned to the lineup when Crowell suffered a broken leg two weeks ago. Ellison has shown outstanding quickness, instincts and the ability to make plays from sideline to sideline.

How he projects: Has a bright future as a full-time starter.

8. RT Terrance Pennington (seventh round, 216th overall)

What we know: Was thrown into the fire during the bye-week offensive line shake-up, but he doesn't appear to be in over his head. He has received a lot of help in pass protection from the tight ends and the running backs, but he has held his own for the most part.

How he projects: Pennington has been a pleasant surprise and flashes potential. But do the Bills like him enough to stick with him next year?

9. OG/C Aaron Merz (seventh round, 248th overall)

What we know: Started at home against New England and played well. His block sprung McGahee for a 56-yard gain on a shovel pass.

How he projects: A smart, tough guy, Merz is a solid backup whose chances of starting depend on whether LG Mike Gandy is re-signed.

10. MLB John DiGiorgio (undrafted free agent)

What we know: A surprise camp survivor who has played 10 games on special teams.

How he projects: He may never be more than a career backup but could have a future as a special teams player.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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