Two games remain to be played for the 2013 Buffalo Bills, but we're getting a jump on the new year by reviving one of our more popular bi-annual features: a look at the top Bills players at or under the age of 25.
Every time this article is written, someone asks why we establish the cutoff the way we do - only players that don't turn 26 or older during the 2014 calendar year will appear on this list. (The only players that method discounted this time around were Jerry Hughes and Da'Norris Searcy, for the record.) The reason is simple: without it, we're merely accounting for all of the good young players on this team, which is a considerably deeper list than the one you see below. Think of this more as the team's farm system; this is the foundation for the future, whereas in-their-prime players are more about the present.
On to the list!
10. LB Nigel Bradham (25 on 9/4/14)
For much of last summer, it looked like Bradham - entering his second season as a former fourth-round pick out of Florida State - would be a starter for the Bills, lining up at an inside linebacker position in Mike Pettine's new defense. That didn't come to fruition; he began the season behind Arthur Moats on the depth chart, and had a marijuana citation over the summer to boot. A core special teamer, Bradham has seen an increased role over the last couple of weeks, and has done nice things with the added playing time. He's a valuable player for this team, even if he may not be starting material.
9. CB Nickell Robey (22 on 1/17/14)
It's not often that an early entrant goes undrafted, but that's what happened with Robey coming out of USC last year, and it had everything to do with his stature. He quickly established himself as a quality signing over the summer, and when Ron Brooks was injured early in the season, Robey grabbed hold of the nickel corner job and hasn't let go. His size will always be a problem - we've seen it cost him in key situations as a rookie - but he's also proven to be a highly athletic player capable of sniffing out screens, blitzing and playing tight man coverage. Robey has been one of the more surprising story lines of the 2013 season.
8. QB EJ Manuel (24 on 3/19/14)
Three knee injuries - one in his second preseason game, another on a Thursday Night Football appearance in Cleveland, and a third last week - have cost Manuel a total of seven games (including two preseason contests). It'll be eight if he can't suit up in Week 17. When he's been on the field, Manuel has shown off some of the things that got him drafted early despite his being a project - a strong arm, mobility, good command of the offense and some late-game flair for the dramatic. He has also struggled mightily under duress, has very serious mechanical issues that affect his accuracy to correct, and needs to develop a better comfort level with the offense and with his skill players. Manuel needs to channel his inner Scott Bakula and make a quantum leap this off-season if the Bills want to seriously contend for the post-season in 2014.
7. WR Marquise Goodwin (24 on 11/19/14)
A fractured hand cost him nearly five full games to start his rookie season, and in the nine weeks since he's battled through minor elbow, hamstring and calf ailments. Durability may be the reason that the rookie speedster has not been able to surpass the much-maligned T.J. Graham on the depth chart, but it's no secret that Goodwin has flashed more in nine weeks more than Graham has in two seasons. Goodwin may never be more than a bit player in this league, but he has the potential to be more than that - and even if he's sequestered to that smaller role, he still has elite deep threat written all over him. Big things will be expected of Goodwin in 2014.
6. S Aaron Williams (24 on 4/23/14)
After being miscast as a starting-caliber pro cornerback in his first two pro seasons, Buffalo's new coaching staff wisely switched him to safety, and the change has been obvious - even after injuries forced Williams to switch back to cornerback for several weeks early in the season. Now playing downhill, the way he was meant to play, Williams has responded with a very strong season, and is currently tied for the team lead with four interceptions. His versatility, physicality and ball skills are finally showing up on a weekly basis this season, and he should only continue to get better. Injuries, however, are a minor concern; he's been routinely beat up through his first three seasons.
5. WR Robert Woods (22 on 4/10/14)
The numbers don't bear it out - Woods has just 36 receptions this season, and has been a non-factor when Manuel has been sidelined - but it's hard not to be impressed by Woods. The youngest player on Buffalo's team has still only been of legal drinking age for eight months, yet he slid into the NFL and started running routes like a veteran almost instantly. Woods is a fantastic fit in Nathaniel Hackett's West Coast-themed passing attack, and it won't be long before he emerges as Manuel's go-to guy - if he hasn't done so already. With more experience, Woods will become more polished and savvy, and he'll be a productive player on an every-week basis.
4. OT Cordy Glenn (25 on 9/18/14)
Buffalo has had its share of problems along the offensive line this season, and Glenn has not been immune from bouts of frustrating, inconsistent play in his second season. For the most part, though, Glenn has been a steady performer at left tackle - and being honest here, how many teams would take a steady, talented 24-year-old left tackle in a heartbeat? Fans fed up by the team's left guard woes that toy with the idea of sliding Glenn inside are missing the point here: the Bills have their left tackle, and they're going to keep him there for a very long time.
3. CB Stephon Gilmore (24 on 9/19/14)
Remember when 2013 was going to be the year that Gilmore, he of the late-rookie season surge in 2012, emerged as one of the NFL's best young cornerbacks? That did not come close to happening, thanks almost exclusively to a broken wrist that cost him the preseason finale, the first five games of the regular season, and left him playing with an enormous club on his hand for another two weeks beyond that. Only in the last couple of weeks has Gilmore looked more like his usual self; now, he has a chance to close this lost season with a solid month of football, which should re-establish those lofty expectations heading into his third year.
2. LB Kiko Alonso (24 on 8/14/14)
What more could the Bills and their fans expected out of this second-round pick out of Oregon? The Bills needed an every-down linebacker; Alonso has yet to miss a snap this season. The Bills needed athleticism and versatility at linebacker; we've seen Alonso make instinctive, highly athletic places all over the field and from several positions this season. It's looking like a very safe bet that Alonso will become the first Bills rookie to make the Pro Bowl since Jairus Byrd in 2009, and he has a legitimate chance at Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, as well. Buffalo fans have a linebacker's mentality, and this ultra-productive, highly talented rookie quickly emerged as a fan favorite.
1. DL Marcell Dareus (24 on 3/13/14)
This past summer, we were pointing out that despite the fact that Dareus had had two solid-if-inconsistent seasons in Buffalo, the tremendous expectations of being a Top 5 pick were beginning to take their toll. That notorious b-word - bust - was being readied to loose at Dareus if he didn't take that next step in his third season, with his third defensive coordinator. He's done that. Dareus has set career highs with 7.5 sacks and 42 solo tackles. Teams routinely double-team him, as he's become increasingly dominant against one blocker. Dareus, still just 23 years old today, is only now scratching the surface of his potential. He's having a Pro Bowl caliber season, and may very well stop being the only Top 7 draft pick from 2011 that hadn't yet made the league's all-star game. In 2014, Dareus has a chance to establish himself as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in football. He's not there yet, but that's his ceiling.