Even NFL teams with bleak 2010 outlooks have young players that, if developed properly, can emerge as veritable stars at their respective positions. Most of you realize that whether or not you're a fan of the Buffalo Bills' decisions in the 2010 NFL Draft, this team probably isn't going to be very good next season. No one here is truly delusional. That said, while the team's outlook isn't optimistic, I'm high on the chances of a lot of the Bills' young players.
Six players, in fact, come immediately to mind as not only possessing the talent to become outstanding professionals with established vital roles, but with an incredible opportunity in front of them to realize that potential as soon as next season. We'll start with the quarterback, and then move on to five more names after the jump.
QB Brian Brohm. Buffalo's going to have an open competition for the starting quarterback job, and while Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick are probably the early favorites, no QB currently on Buffalo's roster was as highly-touted coming out of college as Brohm. Clearly the most naturally talented of Buffalo's four signal-callers, we've heard various people - ESPN's Chris Mortensen chief among them - that head coach Chan Gailey is intrigued by Brohm's physical tools. If he wins the quarterback competition - and to be quite honest, I'm pulling for him - and subsequently starts 16 games, the team might finally be onto something at this position. Don't expect much, but consistency would be nice.
WR Steve Johnson. Between Johnson, James Hardy, Chad Jackson and Marcus Easley, the Bills have a lot of young, intriguing receiving options - and one or two of them have a shot to see significant playing time. Of those four, Johnson's game is the most polished, and Johnson has the best knack at finding holes in zones and getting himself open. We may be looking at the next possibly-improved version of Josh Reed here - a slot option, a possession receiver, and a guy who may not score a bunch of touchdowns. We can live without scores from Stevie for now, but the team really needs a short-area possession receiver that can move the chains to emerge, and I like Johnson's chances there. It wouldn't surprise me if he caught 60 balls next year.
TE Shawn Nelson. He had a shaky rookie season - one in which he dealt with injuries, which is a concern - but this kid has a lot of talent, and he won't be competing with established veterans for looks this season, either. By far the most talented tight end on the roster, Nelson has an opportunity to emerge as a favorite receiving option of whichever quarterback becomes the starter, and the Bills could really use some production from this position for once. Chan Gailey's offenses typically don't use tight ends predominantly, so don't be surprised if he tries Nelson in the slot or perhaps even out of the backfield on occasion, as well.
LG Andy Levitre. Here's the guy that I'm most excited about - I almost dedicated an entire article to just how awesome I think Andy Levitre is going to be. I thought he was Buffalo's best lineman a year ago, and the improvements he made from the beginning of the season to the end were tremendous. People talk about moving him to left tackle, but he wouldn't stand the test of time at that position, and he is potentially elite at left guard. Yes - potentially elite, as in one of the best left guards in the business. I love his playing style, I love his demeanor, I love his attitude and work ethic, and I think he's just going to get better and better. With the rest of the line in flux, count your blessings, Bills fans, and understand that the Bills do have at least one lineman that could turn out to be excellent.
DE Alex Carrington. If there was one draft pick from this past weekend that I absolutely loved, it was Arkansas State's Carrington. Big, strong, athletic and with very solid potential, I wouldn't necessarily call Carrington a project player because of where he went to school, because he's got an NFL body and will contribute on a rotational basis as a rookie. I also wouldn't necessarily call him a future star, either, because really, when are 3-4 defensive ends ever stars? Carrington is going to have a long, productive NFL career as a starter, and I wouldn't be shocked if he puts in a strong rookie campaign and makes Marcus Stroud expendable after next season.
OLB Aaron Maybin. I loved Maybin when he was entering the league as a pass-rushing prospect, and remain high on him despite his rookie holdout and unproductive (to say the least) freshman season. I'm not certain Maybin is any better a fit for the 3-4 than he is for the 4-3; yes, he's less of a liability against the run in the team's new defensive scheme, but now he's just a coverage liability. Really, there's no difference. Maybin is ready to become a solid pass rusher this season if George Edwards can find ways to limit those liabilities and get him advantageous blocking matchups. I expect 6-8 sacks out of Maybin this year (more would be nice), and truly believe he'll hit the ground running in this scheme. He's still only 22 years old, and his potential remains extremely high.