For reasons that don't need to be stated, NFL fans judge their favorite teams' offseason efforts largely based on perceived net gain or loss of a collection of coaching and personnel moves. Those discussions are focused predominantly on the tangible: coaching staff changes; free agency; and the NFL Draft.
Sometimes, however, growth comes from within. Why can't a guy that played zero snaps on offense or defense for the Buffalo Bills last season - but who isn't a recent free agent signing or drafted rookie, and who actually was with the team last year - emerge as a player with a significant role? These five Bills, by my eye, have the best chance to fulfill that particular destiny in 2014.
TE Tony Moeaki
The former third-round pick and starter in Kansas City washed out after three years due to a long list of injury issues. Buffalo signed him last December and effectively redshirted him for the season's final month; Moeaki dressed for games, but didn't play any snaps on offense. The Bills did not address their tight end position in any significant way this spring, meaning that the now-healthy Moeaki has a legitimate chance to unseat his fellow Iowa graduate, Scott Chandler, and become Buffalo's starting tight end. Moeaki offers more upside to the position than any other Bills tight end at the moment.
Thanks to an undisclosed illness, Hairston missed the entire 2013 season. Had he not, he may have emerged as the Bills' starting right tackle. He won't have that opportunity this summer - the Bills appear set for the long haul with Cordy Glenn and rookie Cyrus Kouandjio as bookend starters - but the depth situation is completely up in the air. Buffalo's best-case scenario would be for Hairston to lock down the third ("swing") tackle job, as he has experience on both the left and right side as a pro, and would make pricy veteran Erik Pears expendable.
Behind starters Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, the Bills' defensive end position is wide open, with plenty of random candidates from last year's defensive tackle and outside linebacker positions getting a crack at a role. Smith is a third-year player and former undrafted free agent out of Missouri; his career overlapped with Aldon Smith. This Smith is an undersized and not particularly explosive edge rusher; he's more quick than fast, and accumulated 10.5 sacks in his two seasons as a contributor in college. This position is so wide open, however, that Smith has a chance to land a roster spot.
Fellow 2013 mid-round draftee Duke Williams nearly makes the cut for this list, too, but he snuck in 34 snaps on defense early in the season, when Jairus Byrd was injured and Aaron Williams was forced to cover for injured players at cornerback. Byrd is no longer in town, and Meeks, a fifth-round pick out of Clemson, finds himself in a many-horse race to replace the two-time second team All-Pro. Meeks has an uphill climb to pass Duke Williams and Da'Norris Searcy in the race (not to mention a guy like Corey Graham, who may ultimately be involved), but he'll have a shot to lock down a role.
Buffalo dropped a sixth-round pick on this former Florida State kicker last spring, with an eye on making him the future of the kicking position and replacing veteran Rian Lindell. That plan worked for less than a month; after Hopkins hit every field goal try in preseason and Lindell was released, Hopkins was injured. The Bills signed Dan Carpenter to replace Hopkins for a time, and Carpenter went on to have a career season, scoring a four-year, $9 million contract after hitting 33-of-36 field goal tries. Hopkins may have a hard time unseating Carpenter given the Bills' offseason investment, but the team has also been open to the idea of keeping two kickers, and Hopkins has the leg to consistently put kickoffs through the end zone.