Early returns look good for the Buffalo Bills' draft class of 2011.
The Bills enter today's season-finale in New England with four rookies in the starting lineup, and all four are locks or near-locks to be starters entering next season.
Third overall draft pick Marcell Dareus has been everything the Bills expected when they picked him third overall out of the University of Alabama. Second-round pick Aaron Williams will make his sixth start of the season today at cornerback. Third-round pick Kelvin Sheppard will start his 10th straight game at inside linebacker. Fourth-round pick Chris Hairston will start for the seventh time at left tackle.
Obvious essential disclaimer: Early returns can be deceiving. A year after the 2007 class was chosen, hopes soared for Marshawn Lynch, Paul Posluszny and Trent Edwards. Lynch quickly wore out his welcome at running back, and Edwards proved he did not have the right stuff at quarterback.
Nevertheless, if this season's top four rookies all pan out as long-term starters, this would shape up as the Bills' best draft in the past 10 years.
There's not a lot of competition for that distinction.
The 2009 class was solid, even though it's overshadowed by the bust of top pick Aaron Maybin. Eric Wood, Jairus Byrd and Andy Levitre all are mainstays in the Bills' lineup from that crop. The 2003 class -- with Willis McGahee, Chris Kelsay, Angelo Crowell and Terrence McGee -- was good, even though McGahee "shot his way out of town" after just three years on the field.
Keeping in mind the full story will not be written for several years, here's a look at how the 2011 picks have fared as rookies:
1. Dareus: The big defensive tackle has 5.5 sacks, equal to Kyle Williams' total of 2010. No other Bills defensive tackle has had that many since 1992. It's clear Dareus makes things happen along the line of scrimmage. He has 12 tackles for loss. Dareus had dominant games against the Giants and Washington, had a lull in November and has come back with strong games against the Chargers, Dolphins and Broncos.
"It's been a great progression for him," said 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 a rookie -- I think he has a chance to be even more dominant as time goes on."
2. Williams: He has taken a starting job at the expense of former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin. Williams got his first interception against Denver last week. He should get a bunch more in his career. He shows excellent hands and ball skills in practice. Williams' big asset is his size. At 6-foot and 200 pounds, he can play physical receivers and does not shy away in run support. He missed six games with a collarbone injury. Today will be his fifth start in the last six games.
"He's got a lot of upside," said Bills cornerback Drayton Florence. "He has all the physical tools you want in a corner, aggressive, big, tall, fast, ball skills. Being a young guy in this league most guys don't have the mental part of it down yet. He's a guy that wants to learn, asks the right questions in the film room. He's got the right mind-set to play the position. Everybody can't play corner because of the mental toughness you've got to have to be able to forget one play and go to the next. He's got that."
3. Sheppard: Like Williams, Sheppard brings a physical style to his position. He's 6-2, 248, but he has been mobile enough to stay on the field alongside Nick Barnett, the Bills' coverage linebacker, on some third downs.
Sheppard ranks sixth among all NFL rookies in tackles.
"He's a very smart, intelligent guy," said linebacker Andra Davis. "He's got all the physical attributes. He's definitely held it down. From day one he's been very humble. He's been very easy to work with. You want to pour all your knowledge into him because he's a great kid."
Davis says intelligence and instincts are Sheppard's best attributes. It's a big transition to the NFL for an inside linebacker. Learning when to hit the holes hard and how not to overrun the play vs. the run is a challenge.
"His instincts will take him a long ways," Davis said. "He's just got to believe in himself more. Once he gets down the overall understanding of the games within the games he's going to be something. Sometimes you're like a pitcher, going against those fullbacks. You have to be able to change it up. You can't give them the same thing all the time. Sometimes they want to cut you. Sometimes you have to go in there and thump them, but you also have to go in and make them miss -- keep them off balance. Don't let them dictate what they want you to do. Understanding the opposing offense is a chess match. You have to try to get in the head of the offensive coordinator as well as the quarterback."
4. Da'Norris Searcy. He figures to be behind George Wilson at strong safety again next season. Searcy started three games in place of Wilson this season and has been a mainstay on special teams. Searcy is a solid 5-11, 218. His best chance to get on the field more next season would be to progress enough in his knowledge of the game to replace veteran Bryan Scott (a free agent) as a hybrid safety-linebacker in the nickel defense.
4. Hairston. While Hairston played left tackle in college at Clemson, many draft analysts rated him a right tackle in the NFL. The Bills didn't agree with that. Hairston did surprisingly well at left tackle in place of Demetrius Bell against Philadelphia and the Giants. Then he hurt his ankle and missed two games. He came back and started the next four until Bell came back. The sore ankle hindered him against Tennessee and San Diego.
Hairston may be the key to this draft class being great or not. Bell's contract is up, and it's likely Hairston will be the prospective starter at left tackle entering 2012.
"I have to make a statement that I'm good enough to stay around here," he said. "Whether he [Bell] is re-signed or not, I want to be a part of this team for the long haul, and hopefully my play can show that."
"He has gone through some growing pains and really gotten better," said Bills line coach Joe D'Alessandris. "When I say growing pains I mean injuries. He was injured in preseason camp, injured during the season, but the kid keeps fighting and working. He's got good athleticism, good football knowledge. He's competitive. With time and development, he's 22 years of age, who knows what happens with him? The good thing about Chris is he can play both. He can be a right tackle or a left tackle. He has a bright future. I'm anxious to see how he continues to develop as a pro."
5. Johnny White: The running back from North Carolina has had only 12 carries behind Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. The Bills have used veteran Tashard Choice ahead of him since Jackson's injury because they trust him more to block and make the right decisions on third down.
6. Chris White: The inside linebacker from Mississippi State was lost for the year to a torn knee ligament after nine games. If healthy, he could be the backup to Sheppard next season.
7. Justin Rogers: He has given the Bills a big spark on kickoff returns, averaging 30 yards on 11 tries over the past three games. Rogers also has played about 25 snaps a game at cornerback in passing situations the past five weeks.
7. Michael Jasper: The Bills converted the 383-pound college defensive tackle to guard, and he has spent the season on the practice squad. He was added to the 53-man roster for today's game.