One of my favorite things to do at each end of the NFL's off-season is to take stock of the best under-25 talent on the Buffalo Bills. Now that the 2013 NFL Draft is behind us, my version of this list - you're welcome to contribute your own in the comments section below - looks quite a bit different from the one I posted back in February.
To qualify this list, a player can't be over the age of 25 at any point in this calendar year. I do it this way so that obvious and established names (like C.J. Spiller, who will turn 26 in August) don't give us an inflated sense of the young talent on hand. Think of this list as more geared towards the idea of baseball's "farm system," rather than a simple accounting of the good young players in Buffalo. On to the list!
10. S Duke Williams (23 in October)
Versatility is the name of the game for the Bills on defense, and Williams brings exactly that - with the added bonus of a high degree of physicality to his game, which is something that Buffalo's secondary lacks. He may not ever be an elite playmaker, but Williams plays the game with an edge and can run, hit and cover from several different positions.
9. LB Nigel Bradham (24 in September)
An excellent athlete, Bradham showed flashes of competence near the end of his rookie season. With the potential to become a three-down linebacker, Bradham has a big opportunity sitting in front of him with a starting weak-side job his for the taking in 2013.
8. WR Da'Rick Rogers (22 in June)
I set character concerns aside for this exercise; without those very serious off-field issues, Rogers was a first- or second-round talent last weekend. Receivers with his size, strength and speed are not particularly easy to find, and he has the talent to start and excel at this level. He just needs to stay on the straight and narrow.
7. LB Kiko Alonso (23 in August)
Though not an elite athlete, Alonso does everything well. He's a playmaker, equally adept at knifing into the backfield to make tackles for a loss and at affecting throws (and catching a few) in pass coverage. Alonso's instincts are excellent and he plays the game with reckless abandon. He just needs to get a little bigger.
6. S Aaron Williams (23)
I had him at No. 4 in my list pre-draft, and I remain high on the 23-year-old Williams - particularly after his move to safety. He's got serious competition at that position, but in a role where he won't be asked to turn and run as much, his physicality, versatility and ball skills should begin to pay dividends on the field.
5. QB EJ Manuel (23)
From a physical tools standpoint, Manuel has a lot to work with. From an intangibles standpoint, I think it's pretty clear at this point that Manuel is close to exactly what you look for. It's on the coaching staff to transform him from an athlete playing quarterback into an athletic quarterback. If that happens, watch out.
4. WR Robert Woods (21)
It takes a high degree of polish to be able to walk from the college gridiron into an NFL starting lineup, but that's probably what the second-youngest player on Buffalo's roster (behind undrafted cornerback Nickell Robey) will end up doing. The smooth, playmaking Woods is a perfect fit for the Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett offense.
3. OT Cordy Glenn (24 in September)
Glenn had an excellent rookie season, and should take a big leap forward in 2013 under the tutelage of Marrone and veteran line coach Pat Morris. A rare athlete that doesn't fit the body prototype of an NFL left tackle, Glenn is able to play there because of his quick feet and long arms. He could use a better nasty streak.
2. CB Stephon Gilmore (23 in September)
The unquestioned top corner on Buffalo's depth chart struggled with penalties as a rookie, but a big step forward is expected in year two. If he eliminates the yellow flags, Gilmore has the size and athleticism to match up with just about anybody. Consistency and more plays on the ball are the big goals for Gilmore in 2013.
1. DT Marcell Dareus (23)
It's time, big man. Dareus has simultaneously been underrated (as a pass rusher) and overrated (as a run defender) in his first two years in the league. Mike Pettine and his attack-first defense is in town, Dareus still has the makings of a centerpiece player, and the time is now for him to emerge as the elite defensive lineman that he is capable of being.