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Which Bills rookies made the grade?

A look at the playing time for the Buffalo Bills in their playoff loss to the Houston Texans provides a reason to believe the team’s future is bright.

The team’s first four drafted rookies from 2019 all played key roles. That was true not only against the Texans, but throughout the regular season.

“I think this rookie class overall probably progressed quicker than the year before’s class,” coach Sean McDermott said. “That’s a credit to them and it’s a credit to (General Manager) Brandon (Beane) and his staff, and then also our development team and the way they got these young guys in a short amount of time (to learn) what habits need to look like in the NFL if you want to play and perform at a high level. The players took the rest of it upon themselves to contribute at a high level, which bodes well for the future.”

While the players picked on the first two days of the draft back in April became immediate contributors, the jury is still out on what the Bills will get from their day three picks, which is to be expected. Here’s a closer look at the contributions the Bills got from their rookies in 2019:

DT Ed Oliver, first round (ninth overall)

Key stats: 16 games (seven starts), 43 tackles, five sacks, eight quarterback hits, two passes defensed, one forced fumble.
Playing time: 556 defensive snaps (53.7%).

Analysis: Oliver’s five sacks were the most in the NFL among any rookie interior defensive lineman. He was named to the Pro Football Writers of America all-rookie team.

“I thought Ed did a really good job in his first year. He came out and I thought he had a really good camp,” Beane said. “When we got into games, maybe early on, he was swimming a bit.”

The Bills asked Oliver to change positions coming out of college. At Houston, he played nose tackle, but at the NFL level he’s not big enough for that. He’s best suited for three-technique defensive tackle, which is where the Bills lined him up.

Adjusting to a new position meant Oliver got off to a bit of a slow start. He didn’t make his first sack until Week 7 against the Dolphins.

At the same time, Jordan Phillips was elevating his game.

Bills' Ed Oliver named to Pro Football Writers All-Rookie Team

“I think the best thing that happened was he had Jordan Phillips here and Jordan had stepped up his game,” Beane said. “We play who's earned it. Ed could have sulked, he could have moped. He took it in stride and I was very impressed. He picked his game up and I thought that he ended the season playing well. I'm hoping this will be a very good offseason for him entering next year."

Oliver had four of his five sacks between Weeks 11 and 13, including two on Thanksgiving Day in a win over the Cowboys.

Phillips is a pending unrestricted free agent coming off a 9.5-sack season. That means there is a good chance he gets a big deal on the open market.

With or without Phillips, Oliver is clearly the future of the position.

RT Cody Ford, second round (38th overall)

Key stats: 16 games (15 starts).
Playing time: 739 offensive snaps (69.1%).

Analysis: Ford started the season in a rotation with veteran Ty Nsekhe that saw both players getting roughly an equal amount of playing time. That likely would have continued all year, but Nsekhe suffered an ankle injury in Week 11 at Miami, leaving Ford to hold down the fort the rest of the regular season.

The results were mixed. Ford allowed seven sacks, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, which was tied for ninth most in the league. He was also penalized eight times. Speed rushers seemed to give Ford the most trouble off the edge.

The Bills face a decision in 2020. Nsekhe is under contract for one more year. The Bills tried Ford inside during training camp, and could have an opening on the interior if left guard Quinton Spain departs in free agency.

Bills tackle Cody Ford has shoulder surgery

RB Devin Singletary, third round (74th overall)

Key stats: 12 games (eight starts), 151 carries, 775 yards, 2 TDs, 29 catches, 194 yards, 2 TDs, four fumbles.
Playing time: 530 offensive snaps (49.6%).

Analysis: How good was Singletary as a rookie? He convinced the Bills to cut ties with a potential future Hall of Fame running back in LeSean McCoy. Not only that, he relegated a sure-fire future Hall of Famer in Frank Gore to a backup role by the end of the regular season.

Not too shabby.

Singletary’s average of 5.1 yards per carry tied for fourth in the league among qualifying running backs. The biggest complaint surrounding Singletary was his usage, which was out of his control.

Bills' offense didn't beat itself in 2019 but has loads of room to grow

“I thought Devin had a really good year. I hate he had the hamstring setback, I think that hurt us a little bit and slowed his development,” Beane said. “You saw it as the year went on, he began to get more and more touches in the games --whether it was the pass game or the run game."

Singletary showed an ability to play on all three downs. He figures to be the Bills’ primary running back in 2020 and beyond.

TE Dawson Knox, third round (96th overall)

Key stats: 15 games (11 starts), 28 catches, 388 yards, 2 TDs.
Playing time: 646 offensive snaps (60.4%).

Analysis: Knox was thought to be a project when drafted out of Ole Miss. He did not make any touchdown catches in college. His physical traits, however, were appealing. The Bills never had the luxury of bringing Knox along slowly.

Fellow tight end Tyler Kroft, who figured to be the starter, broke his foot in the spring, keeping him out all summer. When Kroft looked ready to return in Week 3, an ankle injury forced him to miss three more games.

That meant, ready or not, Knox was the guy at the position.

Bills' Dawson Knox keeps opening eyes with attention-grabbing plays

“Dawson, I thought he did a nice job being thrown in as a rookie,” Beane said. “For him, it's probably a blessing that Tyler got hurt, so he got more reps. Not all of those reps came out the way he wanted, but again, he got experience. He made some big plays for us -- I think we'll all remember the Cincinnati play he made when we were down in that game and needed a big one. I think he'll be the first to tell you he left a few out there but we like where he's at."

Knox ranked second in receiving yards among rookie tight ends with 388. He was also second in catches of 20-plus yards, with seven. His big issue was with drops. He had nine of them, which tied for fourth most in the NFL, according to PFF. Knox’s drop percentage of 24.3% was the highest in the league among receivers with at least 36 targets.

LB Vosean Joseph, fifth round (147th overall)

Key stats: N/A.
Playing time: N/A.

Analysis: Joseph spent his rookie year on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. As such, he’s an unknown heading into 2020. There could be a good deal of turnover at linebacker next year following the retirement of Lorenzo Alexander and the potential departures of Julian Stanford and Maurice Alexander as free agents. That means Joseph will have a chance to earn a roster spot next year.

S Jaquan Johnson, sixth round (181st overall)

Key stats: 13 games, three tackles.
Playing time: 53 defensive snaps (5.1%), 181 snaps on special teams (43.7%).

Analysis: Johnson’s only real playing time on defense came in the meaningless season finale against the Jets. He had a would-be interception of Sam Darnold called back after a penalty on Kurt Coleman.

Johnson’s primary role was on special teams. That figures to be the case again next year, considering the Bills have one of the best safety duos in the league in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.

“Jaquan did a really good job on teams, got a chance to play in the Jets game and did some good things,” Beane said.

DE Darryl Johnson Jr., seventh round (225th overall)

Key stats: 16 games, 11 tackles, one sack, two quarterback hits.
Playing time: 225 defensive snaps (21.7%), 277 snaps on special teams (69.1%).

Analysis: An impressive training camp earned Johnson the fourth defensive end spot. He played a good deal in the early going, averaging 20 snaps per game through the first eight weeks of the season. Johnson made his first career sack in a Week 5 win over Tennessee. At 6-foot-6 and 253 pounds, Williams has the ideal frame for an edge rusher.

It’s clear, though, that he’s got a long way to go. From Week 8 through Week 16, Johnson did not take more than five defensive snaps in any game. Edge rusher figures to be a big priority for the Bills in the offseason, starting with what the team decides to do with impending free agent Shaq Lawson. If Lawson stays and the Bills make a high-profile addition, Johnson’s roster spot could be in jeopardy.

TE Tommy Sweeney, seventh round (228th overall)

Key stats: Six games (one start), eight catches, 114 yards.
Playing time: 129 offensive snaps (12.1%).

Analysis: Sweeney played an average of 18 snaps per game the first five weeks while Kroft was out. When Kroft returned, however, Sweeney sat until the season finale against the Jets.

Despite playing just six games, he finished seventh among rookie tight ends with 114 receiving yards. Three of his eight catches went for 20-plus yards.

“It was a tough decision, whether we would activate him each week, even … going into Houston, Beane said.

Sweeney had five catches for 76 yards in the season finale against the Jets’ starting defense. If the Bills decide not to bring Kroft back – a very real possibility given that he’s got a salary-cap charge of $6.4 million in 2020 – Sweeney stands a real chance at not just making the Bills’ roster next year, but contributing.

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