Evans should revert to his '06 form in '08 (Photo Source)
The Buffalo Bills, as far as we can tell to this point, have been built the right way. When head coach Dick Jauron was hired and Buffalo's front office came under the leadership of Marv Levy (and later the Brandon/Modrak/Guy trio), the team-builders chose to add young talent to its defense and to let its offense mature at its own pace. The results to date haven't yielded great results, but promise remains.
As such, the Bills - despite entering the third year of Jauron and company's building phase - remain one of the NFL's youngest outfits. That means that if the team is to approach its lofty expectations of ending its nearly decade-long playoff drought, some of Buffalo's younger players will need to become household names. There are certainly more than just three Bills players with the potential to break out in 2008, but here are the three names we believe are most likely to have stellar seasons in what is expected to be a strong playoff push year for Buffalo.
WR Lee Evans - No, I'm not exactly going out on a limb here, because Evans is already one of Buffalo's team captains and its most lethal offensive threat. What Evans isn't, however - at least at this point in time - is an elite receiver in the league. The 27-year old, entering his fifth NFL season, has enjoyed a productive start to his career, scoring 29 touchdowns over his first four years. We're all aware, however, that his production slipped dramatically after a 2006 season in which his 82 receptions, 1,292 yards and eight scores nearly landed him in the Pro Bowl.
Things are different for Evans this year, however. For the first time in his career, Evans will be working in an offense that is both competent and plays to his strengths. Turk Schonert has found ways to get Evans open throughout the pre-season, and that will continue in the regular season. Evans' route-running is on the verge of perfect, and he's smart with the ball in his hands, so he'll stay healthy. If his quarterback stays healthy - and admittedly, that's a big "if" at this point - Evans is on his way to becoming one of the better receivers in the league. Don't forget it's his contract year, either - he hasn't signed that rumored extension yet, so for now, he's still playing for that big deal.
DT Kyle Williams - No one will benefit more from playing defense with new DT Marcus Stroud than his running mate, Williams. Lots of folks - including yours truly - have underestimated Williams' athleticism in the past. The truth is, Williams is an excellent athlete made better by his insatiably thirsty motor. We just haven't noticed yet because Williams spent his first two seasons manning the nose tackle position in Buffalo's Tampa 2 scheme.
With Stroud on board, Williams will now spend most of his time at the 3-technique tackle position, where he'll be asked to do more penetrating and more pass rushing. Williams recorded the first two sacks of his career in 2007, a number he should easily surpass this season. He's been one of Buffalo's most productive defensive lineman since setting foot here as a fifth-round draft pick in '06, and with less pressure and more opportunity, Williams has a shot to open a lot of eyes.
SS Donte Whitner - The man behind this year's Bills playoff guarantee, Whitner enters his third season in the league poised to assert himself as one of the league's best safeties. He's been solid, yet largely unspectacular, in his first two NFL seasons - while he's amassed 194 total tackles and has emerged as the leader of not just the defense, but perhaps the entire team, his big-play impact has been minimal. Whitner recorded an interception in his first NFL game (off of Tom Brady, no less), but has only nabbed one more since the '06 season opener.
If Buffalo's defense is going to take its expected giant leap forward in 2008 - as they're in their third year together and in the system, it's not an unreasonable expectation - you can bet Whitner, as a playmaker, will be the centerpiece. He's healthy, he's supremely confident, and he's got the talent in front of him to finally have the big-play impact that made him the eighth overall pick in the draft. This is a huge year for Buffalo's strong safety.