It’s a good thing Kyle Williams didn’t hear Zay Jones this week.
If he did, the Buffalo Bills’ veteran defensive tackle’s red beard probably would have turned gray.
“Yeah, man, I've never missed the playoffs!” Jones, the Bills’ rookie receiver, said with a smile at his locker.
His comment wasn’t meant to minimize the 17-year playoff drought that fans have endured – 12 of which Williams was a part of – but rather an expectation for what’s to come. All six of the Bills’ 2017 drafted rookies not only made the team, but played significant roles. Consider: The Bills landed players who have become a No. 1 cornerback, starting left tackle, top-three wide receiver, starting linebacker, backup quarterback and key member of special teams. That’s not a bad haul.
“Just building blocks, setting a foundation,” Jones said of his rookie class. “Obviously we don't want to look that far ahead because we have so much in front of us right now, but it's the truth, though.”
Starting with first-round cornerback Tre’Davious White, the Bills have reason to be optimistic. Drafted players represent the best value in the NFL because rookie contracts are so cost efficient. The better a team drafts, the easier it is to build depth.
“The foundation of what Brandon Beane is doing here, coach Sean McDermott is doing here … seeing this team really formulating for the future, and seeing these future leaders, it's just really awesome,” Jones said. “I'm so grateful to be a part of it, because there's something special here. ... It's a new team, a new vibe, it's a new energy, and I'm absolutely in love with it.”
Here’s a look at how each of the Bills’ six draft picks contributed during 2017.
• White: A leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year, White is looking like a steal with the 27th pick of the first round. That the Bills traded down to get him – netting an extra 2018 first-round pick in the process -- makes it even better.
He started all 16 games this season, finishing with 69 tackles, 18 passes defensed, four interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown. The analytics website Pro Football Focus gave White its rookie of the year award. According to PFF, White held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 68.2 when they targeted him in coverage, and was directly responsible for an incompletion on 23.4 percent of his targets, well above the league average of 15.0.
“I know what he does for us,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “I know down in and down out what he brings to the table. I’ve been thoroughly impressed. I don’t think there’s a guy that I’ve been around at that position, in particular, that has had that type of contribution to a team, to a defense as early as Tre’Davious has for us. The great part is, he continues to work on his craft every week to get better. I’ve been impressed overall with his maturity from a football standpoint, and then off the field, as well.”
White stepped into the starting role almost from the minute he was drafted.
“Starting at rookie minicamp, we put in a lot of work. Coaches told us we were going to play a big-time role on this team,” he said. “We really took that to heart. In order for this team to be successful, we knew we were going to have to do our part. I feel like the guys we have our good character guys. The coaches did a great job of drafting this class. They knew what type of guys they wanted to get.”
• Jones: It was a season of ups and downs for the rookie out of East Carolina. Jones finished with 27 catches for 316 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games (10 starts). While not overwhelming numbers, he tied for the team lead in both catches and touchdown receptions among wide receivers.
After a horrid start to the year that included a drop (his words) in Week 2 against Carolina that could have won the game, Jones rebounded in November to record 13 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns in three games.
He lost his way again in December, though, finishing the season with just four catches for 47 yards over the final five games of the season. He also saw a dip in playing time over the closing stretch.
“Zay just needs to continue to grow, just like he has throughout the entire season,” McDermott said. “He’s going to continue to only get better. … Our confidence in Zay has not changed.”
• Dion Dawkins: The second of Buffalo’s two second-round draft picks, Dawkins started 11 games at left tackle. PFF graded him as the 10th-best left tackle in the NFL. His performance could lead to the Bills moving Cordy Glenn this offseason, either by trade or release.
“Just knowing that the coaches put that much trust in us to give us the opportunity to be playing is something to be thankful for,” Dawkins said. “To protect a guy like Tyrod Taylor, block for a guy like LeSean McCoy is unreal. … Starting at left tackle is a huge role, and I fully embrace it.”
• Matt Milano: A fifth-round pick out of Boston College, Milano forced his way into the starting lineup over the final four games. Prior to that, he showed a knack for making the big play, intercepting a pass in the Week 7 win over Tampa Bay and returning a fumble for a touchdown the following week against Oakland.
“Smart player, and each game he gets a little bit better, which is important,” McDermott said. “The ability to self-correct within a game and the ability to make a jump from one game to the next in terms of the mental part of the game was big for us.”
Milano, who is questionable for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a hamstring injury, finished the regular season with 49 tackles, two passes defensed, one interception, one forced fumble and the fumble return for a score. Good things seemed to happen for the Bills when he was in the game.
"People will start scheming for him because obviously, he’s making a lot of plays,” veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said last month. “Offensive coordinators will be like, ‘Oh, this is the guy we have to look out for, put him on the big board at the beginning of the week.' I’m excited to see how he continues to handle that and grow through that process.”
• Nathan Peterman: Yes, he melted down against the Chargers. But it said something that the coaching staff was confident enough in Peterman’s development to give him the start in the first place.
Peterman put that disastrous first start behind him and was called on again against the Colts in Week 14, a game that will long be remembered for the massive amount of snow that came down. Peterman threw a nice touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin in the second quarter before leaving the game in the second half with a concussion.
“The great thing about Nathan, one of the great things, is he continues to be poised, composed, and has a great deal of balance in his life,” McDermott said before that start. “He’s steady, which is a little bit unusual for a young player, in particular at the quarterback position. When I say steady, I mean mentally.
“He’s been through things before over the course of his career, over the course of his life, that have equipped him to handle different things now in his life. We all know you get tested in this league. We’ve talked about it at the team level what happens. He’s done a good job up to this point, and I’m confident he’ll continue to do a good job in that area.”
At the very least, Peterman has established himself as an option next season for the Bills in the event the team cuts ties with starter Tyrod Taylor in the offseason.
“We’re just trying to get better all the time,” Peterman said. “We’ve all gotten a chance to play, and be a part of wins – and losses, too. We’re on this journey together, and we’re looking to keep it going.”
• Tanner Vallejo: The sixth-round linebacker out of Boise State has been a key contributor on special teams, playing 256 snaps, which is third most on the team behind Deon Lacey and Joe Webb. Vallejo has made five tackles on special teams.
Barring any trades, the Bills are set to build on their 2017 class with an even bigger one in 2018. The team currently holds eight picks, including five in the first three rounds, and might have a ninth depending on whether they have to give their seventh-round pick to the Green Bay Packers as part of a trade last year for linebacker Lerentee McCray.
“That’s why you do the research you do,” McDermott said. “Our scouts are out there now busting their tail trying to find the next group to add to this group. We just keep adding. We keep building with our type of guys – guys that have our type of DNA, as you’ve heard me say before. This is the foundation we’re building towards what we want to become and where we’re going. I’m very happy with the draft class this year in terms of their contributions and the way they’ve attacked this season.
This year’s team has also set a high bar.
“The standard is set for years to come,” White said. “If we don't go to the playoffs, it's going to be a disappointment, because we've gone our first year. I feel like in years to come, we're in a great spot.”