The Buffalo Bills found some great value on their 2011 roster. Waiver wire additions dotted the offensive line, while late-round draft choices and rookies contributed on both offense and defense.
Players on the list are rated based on their contributions on the field in relation to their salary. They are generally outperforming their contracts, and most are young players on their first deals. For comparison's sake, we will use each player's cap hit for the season - using information from Spotrac.com. We'll start off with three folks who just missed the cut:
Honorable Mentions: Demetrius Bell ($569k), Da'Norris Searcy ($496k), Chris Hairston ($479k) Honestly, the hardest spot to peg was the tenth and final spot. All three of these players made cases to be on the list. Bell and Hairston started six and seven games at left tackle, respectively, on an offensive line that gave up the fewest sacks in the NFL. I wouldn't call either of them great, but both certainly earned their salaries in 2011. Searcy's play was good in 2011, and in most seasons would have made the list. He had 22 tackles and a game-clinching interception in extensive time during his rookie campaign.
10. Justin Rogers ($392k) Rogers squeaks into the top ten over Searcy thanks to his lower salary and special teams work. He was drafted three rounds after his defensive backfield comrade and had 12 tackles, one interception, and four passes defended. When he was inserted as the kickoff returner, he gave the Bills' special teams a spark, averaging a healthy 28.7 yards per return.
9. George Wilson ($1.7M) Wilson was much higher on this list last season before signing his contract extension in the off-season. Despite that new salary figure, Wilson had a strong season in his first full year as a starter, ranking second on the team in tackles while playing in only 13 games. He also had four picks, six passes defended, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery.
8. Erik Pears ($1.2M) During the off-season the Bills tried to add Tyson Clabo because they weren't sure if Pears could handle the job. Now Pears will be in Buffalo for the foreseeable future after signing a new contract extension. He manned the right side of the line for every snap of the 2011 season, and his consistency helped the Bills offense to thrive (at times).
7. Kelvin Sheppard ($578k) Buffalo's third-round selection in 2011 contributed right away in his rookie season, stepping in to start the final nine games. He was fifth on the team in tackles with 42, and recorded a safety and fumble recovery. His size and speed will make him a vital cog in the Bills defense in 2012.
6. Fred Jackson ($2.1M) It's very likely Jackson would have topped this list had his season not been cut short by injury despite being the highest-paid player in the top ten. The running back was on pace for an MVP-type season before a broken leg shut him down after only 10 games. Extrapolating his numbers over 16 games, he was in line for 1,500 rushing yards, another 700 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns.
5. Kraig Urbik ($678k) Urbik was much-maligned in training camp, including by yours truly, but was consistent in the middle of Buffalo's offensive line during the 2011 season. He started 13 games at right guard and center for the Bills, manning the pivot until his season was cut short by a knee injury. Urbik enters the off-season as a restricted free agent, and will get a nice raise.
4. Andy Levitre ($830k) The only blemish on Levitre's 2011 resume is his one start at center, where his erratic shotgun snaps threw off the rhythm of the whole offense. He started games at three different offensive line positions, and was Buffalo's best offensive lineman for 16 games. The team may be eying a contract extension for Levitre as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
3. Stevie Johnson ($1.2M) No matter where I put Stevie on this list, I'm going to get grief because he's not number one. (He was at the top last season.) He became the first receiver in team history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, eclipsing the total on his final catch of 2011. His 76 catches and seven touchdowns as the team's No. 1 receiver definitely put him in line for a nice contract as he enters unrestricted free agency.
2. David Nelson ($409k) Nelson made just over a third of Johnson's cap figure in 2011, but his production was right behind the boisterous leader of the wide receiver corps. Nelson had 61 catches for 658 yards, both second on the team, and five touchdown catches to rank third. I don't think Nelson is as valuable or as talented as Johnson, but 70 percent of Johnson's production for 34 percent of his pay moves him into second place on our list.
1. Jairus Byrd ($935k) Byrd's play has gone largely unrecognized by the national media, but his 2011 campaign was an all-around excellent performance. He was third on the team with 75 tackles, defended eight passes, and tied for second with three interceptions, one of which he returned for a score. Byrd's ability to be successful in the box is really what has elevated his game during his third NFL season. He forced three fumbles, recovered one, and had a sack as his game has gone from playing centerfield and picking off errant passes to making plays all over the field. He is what Donte Whitner was supposed to be for the Bills defense, and he made less than a million bucks in 2011.