Aside from monetary compensation, there's very little that's fair about being a Top 5 draft pick in the NFL. Expectations are through the roof, scrutiny is intense and constant, and more often than not, these college kids just aren't ready to contribute right away. The vast majority are not.
Given what has transpired in the league this off-season, it's even more unfair than usual for me to pump up the expectations for Buffalo Bills defensive end Marcell Dareus by putting him third on a list like this. His exposure to the team has been limited to a few weightlifting sessions in the Buffalo area. He hasn't yet been coached by NFL coaches, yet he's the clear focal point of the Bills' efforts to improve their league-worst run defense.
Mentally, I don't think there's any doubt that Dareus can handle the pressure. And yes, the fact that the Crimson Elephant, as Stevie Johnson would like us to call him, ranks this high is more symbolic than anything. Here's the thing, though: the Bills need Dareus to be really, really good this season.
I don't think many Bills fans saw Dareus drafted in April and immediately figured that the run defense was fixed. If you did, you're in for a rude awakening. Run defense is a team effort. One player can't play 11 positions simultaneously. Yet when we talk about the Bills improving their run defense from its pathetic finish over the last two seasons, Dareus is the first player that jumps to mind.
In reality, I'm placing "improved run defense" at No. 3 on this list. No player can help Buffalo do that better than Dareus. The massive run stuffer from Alabama is a great fit schematically for the hybrid Bills; the odds are still strong, despite the lockout, that he'll be an opening day starter as a 3-4 defensive end that could play inside if the Bills use 4-3 looks. Teamed up with Kyle Williams, Dareus gives the Bills two defensive linemen that opponents will need to think about.
I'm going to say this one more time, just to hammer home the point: Dareus doesn't fix the run defense. That's true if he struggles as a rookie, of course, but it's also true if he's a world-beater. It all starts up front, however, and the Bills need Dareus to be solid as a rookie. They're counting on way more than him in the run defense department, to be sure, but Dareus is a No. 3 overall pick, and a centerpiece to the team's re-building efforts. He needs to be good right out of the gate; if that happens, the rest of the run defense could fall into place. Dareus, to my eye, is the key to fielding a sufficiently good run defense to make a push for the post-season.
We're up to the two most important players on the team, with No. 2 airing tomorrow. Many of you have correctly guessed his name at this point, but I'll give you a clue anyway: he's not a wide receiver.