Rarely do you see an NFL team suffer as deeply and thoroughly in the injury department as the Buffalo Bills have this season. Not only has the team been forced to place fourteen of its players on Injured Reserve, but one of those, tight end Kevin Everett, suffered a critical injury that ended his playing career and left him fighting for his ability to walk.
Yet through it all, the Bills have managed to cling to playoff hopes through the final weeks of the season. There is, the Bills have found, an upside to having so many players go down with injury - they have stumbled upon a few surprises this season, and when they get their injured players back for 2008, this Bills team has the makings of being not only more talented, but deep and experienced as well.
The list of players who have benefited from unexpected playing time is long. Here's the rundown:
QB Trent Edwards: Dick Jauron is not one to switch quarterbacks - he's never once pulled a starter from a game for reason other than injury - so it's likely we would not have seen Edwards this season without J.P. Losman's knee injury factoring into the Week 3 loss in New England. Now, Edwards is 5-2 as a starter and has the inside track to be the club's "quarterback of the future".
RB Fred Jackson: When Marshawn Lynch went down with an ankle injury, the Bills turned to Anthony Thomas. When the A-Train went down with an injury of his own, the Bills were forced to turn to Jackson - and they've got themselves a diamond in the rough. Jackson now factors into the long-term offensive plans of this team, as he and Lynch provide the team with a formidable, versatile rushing attack.
WR Justin Jenkins: Jenkins was not called up to the active roster until Peerless Price was put on IR and Sam Aiken went down. The rookie has turned into one of Buffalo's best special teams performers, and is especially effective as a gunner on the punt coverage units.
LB John DiGiorgio: Filling in for injured rookie Paul Posluszny, Digiorgio has been one of Buffalo's best defenders this season. The second-year undrafted free agent is second on the club with 97 tackles and has added a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery to boot. He has flaws to his game and probably shouldn't be a full-time starter, but he provides excellent depth and special teams ability for next year's roster.
CB Jabari Greer: Forced into the starting role after injuries to Jason Webster and Ashton Youboty, the surprising Greer has held tight to his starting spot - even after Youboty, drafted to replace Nate Clements, regained his health. Greer has always been an excellent special teamer; his starting experience will likely land him some nickel work in '08 - if the Bills look to replace him at all.
SS Donte Whitner: Whitner makes this list not because he's been forced into action, but because he's been forced to assume the "jack of all trades" role due to injury. When Kiwaukee Thomas went on IR, Whitner saw some nickel work, giving him a bit more coverage experience. He's also seen snaps at free safety. Whitner can do it all; when he's asked to do less and just play next year, he may become far more explosive for this defense.
FS George Wilson: Wilson himself is on IR at this point, but the converted wideout was so stellar at free safety (scoring two touchdowns this season) that Jauron may end up opening up the free safety spot to a competition in training camp next year - letting Wilson battle the injured Ko Simpson for the starting role.
DB Jim Leonhard: "Mini-Whitner" has been on and off the injured list himself, but Leonhard has gained so much trust from the coaching staff that he's used in many of the same ways Whitner has been - at both safety slots, as well as in the slot on nickel downs. He'll never be a full-time starter, but he's got a lot of experience in this defense, and he's valuable on special teams to boot.
Anybody else you care to add to the list, Bills fans?