One of my favorite conversation-starting editorial pieces to write each year is my opinion piece on the ten best Buffalo Bills players age 25 or under. We typically have these discussions twice per year - once early in the year before free agency and the draft (when the cupboard can look a little bare), and once right after the draft (when the cupboard looks full to bursting and fans get perhaps a little over-excited).
This is the first of those two annual posts, and yeah - the cupboard is a little bare. There are 10 good prospects on this list, but there weren't a lot of names that were difficult to cut (the closest might have been Torell Troup). Once we hit May, this list will (hopefully) look much more impressive. That's how things work in the NFL.
Before we get to the list, please note that any player that is currently 25 years old, but will turn 26 later this calendar year - the prime example here would be C.J. Spiller - do not make the cut for this list. The 25-year-old rule is a line that I draw to exaggerate the turnover in talented youth on the roster each year; we don't cut the team's best player off of the list lightly, trust us. Go enjoy a record-setting prime to your career, Mr. Spiller.
On to the list! Leave your thoughts in the comments.
10. Kelvin Sheppard, linebacker (25): As a starting linebacker for roughly a year and a half of his first two pro seasons, Sheppard has racked up 150 tackles and two sacks while playing significantly less than 50 percent of all defensive snaps (2011 data is not available; he was at 46 percent in 2012). A two-down player only, Sheppard nonetheless could carve out a lengthy career as a run-down linebacker with a bit more impact and better consistency.
9. Da'Norris Searcy, safety (25 in November): Searcy became a part-time player at strong safety for the Bills last season, taking about 33 percent of total reps away from starter George Wilson at the peak of his playing time. Entering his third year out of North Carolina, Searcy may end up with an opportunity to win that starting job from Wilson this summer.
8. Chris Hairston, offensive tackle (24 in April): Through his first two seasons, Hairston has accumulated 15 starts between both left and right tackle, and has developed into a heady player that, though he struggles in pass protection at times, more than makes up for those efforts with above-average run blocking abilities. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that the 2011 fourth-round pick could start at right tackle for a long time.
7. Ron Brooks, cornerback (25 in October): I'm putting Brooks here based purely on athletic upside, because we haven't seen enough of Brooks on the field to accurately judge any sort of career trajectory he may be on. Brooks has plenty of natural cover talent, but will need coaching before he justifiably makes a push for serious playing time.
6. T.J. Graham, wide receiver (24 in July): Graham had more bad moments than good in his rookie season, but that was to be expected given his untimely ascent to the starting lineup despite his being a raw prospect entering the league. Graham has very good potential to be an explosive down-the-field threat, but must work on his hands this off-season.
5. Nigel Bradham, linebacker (24 in September): Bradham became a starter for a bad defense out of necessity early in the season, and took his lumps for a while before coming on in the last three to four games. Easily the Bills' most athletic linebacker, he has the potential to become a three-down defender; for now, he's a hard-hitting project with a bit of experience and a good deal of upside.
4. Aaron Williams, defensive back (23 in April): There's little doubt that Williams has struggled in his first two pro seasons - both on the field and with staying healthy. The injuries have hampered his development some, and teams routinely pick on him when he's on the field. Still, Williams is the defensive back prototype in many ways athletically; if he continues to struggle at cornerback, he still has a significant amount of upside as a safety.
3. Cordy Glenn, offensive tackle (24 in September): GM Buddy Nix believes he found his franchise left tackle in the second round of last April's draft, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest he's right. Glenn is massive, can be a devastating run blocker, and has enough foot speed to handle the edge far more often than not on his own. He'll only get better with more experience and working with new line coach Pat Morris and head coach Doug Marrone.
2. Stephon Gilmore, cornerback (23 in September): Thrust into a role wherein he covered No. 1 receivers almost from the get-go as a rookie, Gilmore acquitted himself very well, playing a consistent, competitive and physical brand of football throughout the year. He has top-notch coverage ability and will play in this league for a long time, all while looking to clean up some bad penalties and pick off a few more passes next season.
1. Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle (23 in March): Combine Kyle Williams' two best seasons with the Bills, and you have a player with 122 tackles and 11 sacks. Dareus has 82 tackles and 11 sacks in his first two pro seasons - plus, he's not even 23 years old yet - but has somehow disappointed a significant contingent of Bills fans. That's the level of expectation riding on the former No. 3 overall pick, yet he clearly has not yet delivered on his immense potential - particularly as a factor in the run game. Dareus will be a focal point for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine; with another tragedy and two years of development behind him, the expectation will be for Dareus to transcend good and become dominant in 2013.