The Buffalo Bills have wasted little time in getting their rookie class on the field.
Through the first two weeks of the season, the Bills are one of only two teams in the NFL to have at least five rookies take 20 snaps or more in Weeks 1 and 2. The Oakland Raiders are the other.
The Raiders have seven rookies who are taking at least 25% of the offensive or defensive snaps through two games, which is just one more than the Bills. Miami, which has been accused of tanking, is third with five such players.
“It's trying to build and develop this roster,” coach Sean McDermott said. “We're getting a lot of young guys valuable snaps, and now we've got to continue to grow and learn from the scars that we get each and every week.”
There are multiple elements to the Bills getting so many contributions from rookies. It starts with General Manager Brandon Beane and his staff identifying them.
“That goes into all of our investigative stuff we do,” Beane said. “Starting with what we're doing now for next year's class. Getting details on these guys beyond what we see on the tape or the field. What is their DNA? What makes them tick? Do they have the want to, do they have the character to be good?”
The answer so far has been a resounding yes. Of the team’s eight draft picks, seven made the 53-man roster and the other, fifth-round linebacker Vosean Joseph – was put on injured reserve. That a team would keep so many rookies isn’t necessarily a surprise, but the willingness to play them in such meaningful roles this early in their professional careers is not the norm around the league, according to Beane.
“There's still a lot of coaches in the league that are hesitant to play those rookies,” Beane said. “Because it is an unknown. If a guy drops a ball, or misses a block, or misses a tackle or misses an assignment, that's going to happen, but in the long run you're going to grow this guy.”
The last part of the equation is obvious: The rookies must show they’re ready to be on the field. That means learning how to be a pro, grasping the playbook and understanding their assignments and being physically available. The Bills’ coaching staff doesn’t expect a rookie to come in with a full grasp of the playbook, which is why the team made a great effort in the offseason to make sure every position group had at least one veteran.
Frank Gore was signed to lead the running backs. Lee Smith was brought in to mentor the tight ends. Veterans Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse and Ty Nsekhe were added to the offensive line. Matt Barkley and Lorenzo Alexander were re-signed to provide guidance in the quarterback and linebacker rooms, respectively. The idea is that those veterans can model to the younger players what it means to be a professional.
For that to happen, those veterans have to have the same DNA the front office looks for in rookies. There is a selflessness that comes with a veteran mentoring a rookie who may one day take his job.
“Believe me, there are some guys on this team that I know want more snaps, and maybe believe they've earned it, but they're also not getting in the way of the team first,” Beane said. “There's never been any animosity. Lee Smith, you take him, depending on game plan – if it's more of a run plan, he might be in more, if it's more of a pass plan, he might not – he wants to see those two young guys (Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney) succeed as much as anybody. He's almost like, ‘This is my responsibility if they fail.’ ”
Here’s a look at how much the Bills’ rookies have played, and the impact they’ve had in the first two weeks:
DT Ed Oliver: The first-round draft pick not surprisingly leads the rookie class with 63% of the defensive snaps taken, 87 over two games. Oliver has four tackles, one quarterback hit and one pass defensed, but those numbers don’t tell the full story of his impact on the middle of the defensive line. His pass defensed, for example, led to a big interception by Trent Murphy against the Giants. Oliver has also consistently collapsed the pocket, which has led to sack opportunities for his teammates.
“Ed is playing with really good effort,” McDermott said. “He’s got a lot of work to do just in terms of the overall down in and down out execution, coordination with the rush plan. He’s a young player that is only going to continue to get better as he continues to get more and more time in and continue to understand the opponent and life in the NFL, which is naturally the case for most young players.”
Oliver in particular has benefitted from the veterans around him. With Star Lotulelei, Jordan Phillips, Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes, the Bills’ defensive line is loaded with experience.
“That’s what we were brought here to do,” Oliver said of contributing right away. “We need everybody in this locker room. You have to pull your own weight.”
OT Cody Ford: The team’s second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma has played exactly 50% of the snaps in a timeshare with Nsekhe at right tackle. Each of them have been on the field for 68 plays.
“However you fit into that role or fit into that description is what you've got to do,” Ford said. “For me, they let me play right tackle right away. That's my role. I've taken advantage of every opportunity I can. It just goes to show we came in and we were all focused on what we've got to do. I think it speaks also to the team as welcoming us in.
“I mean, Ty, you know, we have a rotation thing, but it's not like whenever he's out there I'm wishing anything bad on him or hating or anything, or vice versa. When I come off the field and I know it's his series, I tell him what I've been seeing, what they're doing, what rush moves he's giving me. Same thing for Ty when he comes off the field.”
RB Devin Singletary: The team’s third-round pick has flashed in playing the same number of snaps as Ford: 68. Singletary leads the team with 127 rushing yards on just 10 carries – an average of 12.7 yards per rush. His snap counts might go down this week, though, if he’s unable to play because of a hamstring injury.
TE Dawson Knox: The team’s other third-round draft pick, Knox has played 74 snaps, 54% of the team’s offensive total. He has two catches for 19 yards. His most impressive play didn’t show up on the stat sheet. On Isaiah McKenzie’s touchdown reception in Week 2, Knox sealed off his man for a good 10 yards, allowing McKenzie to get to the end zone.
“All the work that we've put in, to finally be able to see it kind of start developing on the field, that's just fun for us,” Knox said. “We're really just thankful for the opportunity whenever our number is called, to go out there and do whatever they ask us. That's all we can do, is just take it play by play. Whether it's one snap a game or 50, just do your best on that play.”
Knox praised the job done by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and tight ends coach Rob Boras did in getting him up to speed, particularly after he missed a big stretch of time in training camp with a hamstring injury.
“They've done an incredible job of getting us prepared,” he said. “I felt as prepared for our first game as I did any game in college. Having Lee Smith and Tyler Kroft in the room, too, has been spectacular. They've been able to kind of get our minds ready for what's coming. So, I think, just having that type of support system around us, it's hard to go wrong with that.”
S Jaquan Johnson: The only rookie not to see the field yet, Joseph has been inactive for each of the first two weeks.
DE Darryl Johnson Jr.: The seventh-round draft pick turned his preseason production into the fourth defensive end job. He’s played 30 snaps, 28% of the defensive total.
“The coaches just believe in us. They see a lot in us,” he said. “We just come out and work, try to learn every day. That's going to help us get acclimated to the game faster. This team, it's a brotherhood, so everybody kind of takes each other in, wants the best for everyone. I guess that's why you see a lot of us playing like that.”
TE Tommy Sweeney: The team’s final draft pick, Sweeney has been the beneficiary of injuries at the position in front of him. Both Tyler Kroft (foot) and Jason Croom (hand) have been out, which opened up the opportunity for Sweeney. To his credit, he seized it. He’s played 42 snaps – 31% of the offensive total – and made two catches for 35 yards.
“That starts with management and coaches, who they wanted to bring in and keep in this program,” Sweeney said. “Across the board, it's just great guys. All those different phases have contributed to this great atmosphere to come into as a rookie. I couldn't have asked for anything more.”
Added up, that’s 369 meaningful snaps in two weeks for six drafted rookies.
“The growth you can get from playing live snaps when everyone on this team is counting on you is big,” Beane said.
“I mean, I'm not surprised. We have great, young rookies,” third-year veteran receiver Zay Jones said. “Someone asked me a few weeks ago who's going to be a breakout player for this team, and I said collectively I think the rookie class would be.”
Jones was impressed by the rookie class’ collective preparation over the summer.
“In training camp, it's not always a huge telltale of who's going to be great, but you could see some of the plays these guys were making,” he said.
The speed picks up from when the shoulder pads go on in training camp to the preseason and then hits another gear in the regular season. The Bills’ rookies, though, haven’t been left behind.
“That's what you want. We've said it all along. We want to draft, develop, and grow and re-sign our guys. That's the formula that we're trying to execute here,” Beane said. “It takes time. … They've got to earn it. We're trying to win games. But if it's close, sometimes you do want to give that young guy the benefit of the doubt, because you know he's only going to improve with reps.”
Story topics: Brandon Beane/ cody ford/ Darryl Johnson Jr./ Dawson Knox/ Devin Singletary/ Ed Oliver/ Frank Gore/ Jaquan Johnson/ Jerry Hughes/ Jon Feliciano/ Lee Smith/ Mitch Morse/ Sean McDermott/ Star Lotulelei/ Tommy Sweeney/ Trent Murphy/ Ty Nsekhe/ Vosean Joseph