The Buffalo Bills are set to wrap up 2009 training camp at St. John Fisher College when their 9:30 AM practice is finished this morning. After roughly three and a half weeks' worth of practices, walk-throughs, meetings and two pre-season games, the Bills will head back to Orchard Park later today to continue their preparations for the regular season.
We'll be recapping the big stories to emerge from camp for you later on this afternoon (as well as covering the final practice), but for now, we want to focus on the rookies. The Bills drafted eight players in late April; while only six of them have seen extensive field action, there have been positive signs from the group as a whole.
Round 1, Pick 11: Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State. Nothing to report. Maybin remains a holdout, and once practice wraps up this morning, he'll have missed the entirety of his rookie training camp. Though progress was made towards a new deal late last week, a signing is not imminent. Signs point to Maybin not being ready to play in the team's regular season opener on September 14 in New England.
Round 1, Pick 28: Eric Wood, OG, Louisville. Maybin may be making himself unpopular to a portion of the Bills fanbase; any fan of football that likes grit, toughness and a killer work ethic, however, would appreciate Wood. He missed practices early in camp, but has caused a ruckus - quite literally - when he's been on it. Wood has taken virtually every rep at right guard with the first team offense since signing his contract, and the results, while inconsistent, have been very positive.
Wood is exactly the type of player that personifies everything that Bills fans appreciate in a player. He's smart, tough, and plays football the way it's supposed to be played - with zero regard for the welfare of the man lining up across from him. He has made his share of mistakes to this point, but he's also showed why he was a first-round pick, playing more consistently than one might have expected from a college center making a position switch. This year, he has a chance to be Buffalo's best run blocker. Next year, he might be an offensive captain. This guy's got a future.
Round 2, Pick 42: Jairus Byrd, FS, Oregon. He missed several workouts without a contract, then promptly missed several more while recovering from sports hernia surgery. Only this week did Byrd finally make it onto the practice field at Fisher, working with the third-unit defense at free safety. Byrd will play in at least two pre-season games - it's still unclear if the coaches will let him onto the field this weekend in Green Bay - and, as far as we can tell, that gives Byrd an outside shot at being able to contribute in the safety rotation starting in Week 1. But there's no denying that he, too, is behind.
Byrd got a bad rep in pre-draft workouts when he ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash on a bum leg. Working out in individual drills, however, it's plain that Byrd is a gifted, natural athlete with tremendous hands for a DB. If he can catch up on the mental side of things, he'll be just fine as a rookie - i.e., he'll contribute.
Round 2, Pick 51: Andy Levitre, OG, Oregon State. Folks forgot pretty quickly that Levitre, too, is making a position switch after he struggled early in his first-ever NFL pre-season game. Moving inside to left guard from tackle, which he played in college, Levitre has made significant strides as well. He's already beaten out Kirk Chambers for the starting left guard slot, and his impressive improvement between the Hall of Fame Game and the Bills' second pre-season game left a lot of fans encouraged.
Levitre is every bit as tough as his draft classmate, Wood. He might even be a bit more outspoken. Levitre is undoubtedly a bit rougher around the edges - he wasn't drafted as high as Wood for a reason, after all - but both players seem to be progressing at roughly the same rate. It helps to have a veteran on each side of them, but don't discredit Levitre (or Wood) - he's a good football player.
Round 4, Pick 121: Shawn Nelson, TE, Southern Mississippi. Though he has missed and left practices with various ailments, Nelson has shown the type of raw athleticism that makes him such an intriguing mid-round prospect. There's no question that his potential is through the roof. His touchdown reception against Chicago was a thing of beauty, and exactly how the Bills plan to use him as a rookie.
Nelson has been working predominantly with lower units as a pure tight end, but he's also seen a significant amount of first-team reps as a slot receiver, particularly during red zone work. This is the right approach for Nelson - he's not the type of player to pick up an entire playbook immediately, but if the coaches can put him in the right situations, his athleticism will allow him to contribute. Once he has full control of his body and the offense, there's no telling just how good Nelson can become.
Round 5, Pick 147: Nic Harris, LB, Oklahoma. Harris closes his first NFL camp firmly entrenched as Keith Ellison's top understudy at SAM Linebacker. Though there is quite literally no chance that he'll start right away, Harris has shown the abilities that made him an intriguing fit, even while making a position switch from college safety to NFL linebacker - he is very active, tough enough in the box, and instinctual in coverage. He now plays a position where his limited athleticism does not impact his play. He'll be a good pro linebacker, but right now, he looks like strictly a specialist while he continues to learn the nuances of the position.
Round 6, Pick 183: Cary Harris, CB, USC. Though he had trouble getting reps early in camp, Harris has started to show signs of life in recent practice sessions. When I saw Harris at camp a little over a week ago, he looked completely lost; he has improved to the point, however, that he's now making plays on the ball. He was always a good fit for Buffalo's zone-based scheme, and though he's not exactly a playmaker, he has a shot to develop into a nice depth player in this system. Buffalo is so deep at cornerback, however, that Harris isn't anywhere near likely to make the final roster. He'll have to stick on the practice squad.
Round 7, Pick 220: Ellis Lankster, CB, West Virginia. From the moment that Lankster began intercepting passes and stealing reps from vets in the mini-camp setting, it was apparent that the Bills had found themselves a late-round gem. Lankster's flair for the dramatic has remained prevalent in the camp setting, and his two-interception performance against Chicago made him a household name. Lankster is tough, smart, athletic, and most importantly, he has a playmaking knack - something that the vast majority of the team's defensive backs lack. There is no way Lankster doesn't make the roster, making him one of the few seventh-round roster locks league-wide at this point. He clearly needs more polish, but right now, he looks like he could end up being Buffalo's fifth corner heading into the season - ahead of veteran Ashton Youboty.