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Inside the Bills: A closer look at Buffalo's youth movement

The Buffalo Bills’ season took a turn in Week 9.

A 41-9 loss to the Chicago Bears at New Era Field dropped the team to 2-7 and made it abundantly clear that a second straight trip to the postseason was highly unlikely. In the days that followed, the team’s focus shifted.

The plug was mercifully pulled on the Nathan Peterman Project. More than that, though, a youth movement was put into motion. Against the New York Jets in Week 10, rookie guard Wyatt Teller made his first career start. Veteran linebacker Ramon Humber was cut the day before that game, with rookie receiver Robert Foster rejoining the 53-man roster from the practice squad. The Bills made a commitment over the final seven weeks to get their young players more experience. That has only intensified in recent weeks, most recently with the release of veteran receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes on Tuesday.

First- and second-year players have taken 36 percent of Buffalo’s offensive or defensive snaps this season, which ranks as third most in the NFL. While the team does have some older players like Kyle Williams, Lorenzo Alexander and Derek Anderson who raise the average age of the roster — currently 25.9 years old — there’s good reason Sean McDermott has made frequent references to having a young roster.

The Bills have 24 players on their roster age 25 or younger. Here’s a look at them, in my order of the most important going forward.

1. Josh Allen, QB, age 22. The obvious choice. How Allen develops will be the biggest reason the current regime succeeds or fails. The good news is Allen has shown progress in the two games he’s played since missing four because of a sprained throwing elbow. There are no moral victories in the NFL, but Allen’s performance in Week 13 against Miami is as close to one as you’ll find.

“Josh was able to control the areas that he needed to control,” McDermott said. “When you’re hurt you only have so much at your disposal. You’re not out there. The way that he handled himself during the rehab, and when he was not under center, I thought really is what has led him to where he is today. We’re watching a young man grow and develop right in front of our eyes, and the same can be said for quite a few guys on our roster right now.”

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2. Tre’Davious White, CB, age 22. The second-year pro is developing into something every team desires, but doesn’t necessarily have — a shutdown cornerback. White has a good chance to make his first Pro Bowl and should be a rock in the secondary for years to come.

“He’s been very solid. I think he’s gaining some respect around the league by the number of balls each game that he’s faced this year,” McDermott said last month.

3. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, age 20. The youngest player on this list, Edmunds has started 11 of 12 games, missing one because of a concussion. He’s made 82 tackles, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one sack. While there have been some ups and downs (Edmunds has been charged with 13 missed tackles), there’s no reason to think he won’t be a key part of the defense for years to come.

4. Dion Dawkins, LT, age 24. The second-year left tackle has taken 99.8 percent of the offensive snaps this season. When the team traded Cordy Glenn to the Bengals last offseason, it was a sign they believe Dawkins can handle the line’s most important position for years to come. This year has not always been smooth sailing for Dawkins. He’s taken a team-high nine penalties. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks him 39th out of 50 offensive tackles who have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s offensive snaps. Dawkins has allowed six sacks and 21 hurries, according to PFF.

"It's all a part of the learning curve and of me growing into the player that I can be, or hopefully and one day, that I will be," Dawkins told The Buffalo News last month. "But I'm still growing. I'm still a young guy, Year Two, and day in and day out, I'm just trying to keep my head on straight and just do whatever I have to do to be one of those guys for Coach McDermott's family (to build around).”

5. Zay Jones, WR, age 23. Jones has made big strides the last three weeks, with 12 catches for 160 yards and three touchdowns. That comes after he had just 29 catches for 299 yards and one touchdown in the first nine games. It’s too soon to say Jones will develop into the team’s true No. 1 receiver, but if he can show he’s no worse than a No. 2, that’s one less hole to fill in 2019.

"Just to watch some of these young men make plays — again I know that the result on the scoreboard wasn’t the way we wanted to be — but to watch Zay Jones, again, have a big week for us, and the way he practices and how that translates to games,” McDermott said after the loss to Miami.

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6. Matt Milano, LB, age 24. Milano has quietly put together a Pro Bowl-worthy season, with 72 tackles, three interceptions, three fumble recoveries, seven passes defensed and one sack.

"It’s something I always talk about: Being around the ball, good things happen,” he said after a 24-21 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 12. “It might not happen this game or the next game, but if you consistently do it, good things are going to happen.”

7. Taron Johnson, CB, age 22. A good nickel cornerback is invaluable in today’s NFL. Johnson, whose season is likely over after shoulder surgery this week, has shown signs of becoming just that. He allowed a quarterback rating of 81.4 on 41 targets by opposing quarterbacks in the slot. That ranks fourth among 21 cornerbacks who have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s games in the slot. Provided he comes back healthy in 2019, Johnson will again be a big part of the defense.

8. Shaq Lawson, DE, age 24. It’s a tribute to Lawson that he lands here on this list after being prominently mentioned in the offseason as a player the Bills could move on from, either by trade or release. Lawson probably isn’t ever going into a 10-sack player — which you’d like from a first-round defensive end — but he’s carved out a role. With Trent Murphy being unable to stay healthy, Lawson has been an important part of the defensive line. The Bills have to decide by May about picking up Lawson’s fifth-year contract option. That’s unlikely from this corner, but Lawson has firmly established himself as an NFL player.

9. Levi Wallace, CB, age 23. This would have been hard to predict a month ago, but Wallace has jumped from the practice squad to active roster with barely a hiccup. In three starts, he’s given up three catches for 40 yards. If he can keep that up, he’ll be in the mix to start opposite White in 2019. That would be a huge find for the team.

10. Wyatt Teller, G, age 24. We're firmly in "he could be a starter next season" territory. Teller had a tough game in Week 12 against Miami with three penalties, but he has done a nice job in pass blocking. His run blocking grades aren’t great, but there’s reason to hope he can put himself in the mix for a starting job next season.

11. Robert Foster, WR, age 24. With 226 receiving yards and a touchdown in three games since getting called up from the practice squad, Foster has made the most of his second chance, providing a much-needed vertical threat to the offense.

“He’s been through a lot, and that’s a sign of a mentally tough person to be able to fight through adversity,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said last month.

12. John Miller, G, age 25. A season-long starter in his fourth season might be thought of being higher on this list, but it’s hard to predict Miller’s future with the team. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in March and the analytics haven’t been overly kind to his play. Miller ranks 31st among 59 guards who have played at least 50 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, according to PFF. He’s allowed 17 hurries and one sack. The current front office has made quick work of moving on from Doug Whaley draft picks. Only Miller and Lawson are left.

13. Isaiah McKenzie, WR, age 23. He’s shown some versatility in three games since coming to the Bills off waivers from the Broncos, rushing five times for 40 yards and a touchdown and making seven catches for 71 yards. He’s also mixed in as a punt returner, which could be his ticket to a roster spot in 2019.

14. Harrison Phillips, DT, age 22. A steady contributor along the defensive line all year with 24 tackles, it’s still too early to know whether Phillips can be the long-term replacement for Williams, who shows no signs of slowing down. At the least, Phillips should have a very similar role in 2019.

15. Eddie Yarbrough, DE, age 25. Yarbrough is on pace to match his production from last year, when he finished with 34 tackles, one sack and two passes defensed. So far this year he’s got 28 tackles, but has yet to make a sack.

16. Jason Croom, TE, age 24. The backup tight end is fifth on the team with 15 catches, which have gone for 147 yards and one touchdown. He could have a much bigger role in 2019 if the team moves on from starter Charles Clay.

17. Reid Ferguson, LS, age 24. The nature of his position makes it hard to put Ferguson higher on this list, but he’s done what any good long snapper should: Gone unnoticed. That means he’s not making mistakes.

18. Ray-Ray McCloud, WR, age 22. It’s been a tough rookie season for McCloud, who lost his job as the team’s primary punt returner and has just four catches for 31 yards. He’ll need to show something over the final month now that Benjamin and Holmes are gone.

19. Ryan Lewis, CB, age 24. He started the two games after Vontae Davis’ surprise Week 2 retirement at halftime, but was benched in Week 5 against Tennessee and has played sparingly since. With Johnson out, Lewis might once again get an opportunity.

20. Siran Neal, S, age 24. The Bills have carried the rookie on their 53-man roster all season, but he has only taken 15 defensive snaps. His primary role has come on special teams, where he’s played 55 percent of the snaps. That figures to be his primary role for the foreseeable future, barring an injury to starters Micah Hyde or Jordan Poyer.

21. Ike Boettger, G, age 24. The undrafted rookie saw his first action of the season last week against Miami, playing eight offensive snaps and three on special teams.

22. Corey Thompson, LB, age 24. The undrafted rookie has played 31 snaps on special teams since being called up from the practice squad.

“He’s worked hard. He’s shown he’s with the game plan every week, even though he was on the practice squad,” McDermott said late last month when Thompson was called up.

23. Mike Love, DE, age 24. The undrafted rookie was called up to the 53-man roster this week from the practice squad after Benjamin and Holmes were released.

“When you look at the practice squad and the way we use the practice squad most of the time, it’s to develop players,” McDermott said. “It’s certainly a part of what the job description is to give them a look during the week, but at the same time, we expect those players to work while they wait. Mike’s another guy that’s done that. He’s worked his butt off, he’s earned his opportunity and we’re excited to see what he can do during the week and then if he’s active for the game as well.”

24. Denzel Rice, CB, age 25. The Coastal Carolina product was called up to the 53-man roster this week after Benjamin and Holmes were released.

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