Hardy will get his chance to contribute (Associated Press)
It's been a strange sight for fans of the Buffalo Bills through the first three weeks of the 2008 regular season. No, not just because the Bills have jumped out to a 3-0 start; that's certainly strange around these parts, but not the point here.
The point here is that for the first time in quite a long while, the Bills are playing winning football - rather, they're playing any kind of football - without large contributions from their rookies. Sure, second-round pick WR James Hardy made an outstanding game-winning touchdown catch in the team's win over Jacksonville; yes, top pick Leodis McKelvin has made an impact as a kick returner, registering a 56-yard jaunt in this past Sunday's win over Oakland.
But the Bills' two most prominent rookies have barely played. McKelvin has seen a handful of snaps - almost literally - as a dime back, but he hasn't recorded a stat defensively. Hardy has two receptions for 12 yards and a score through three games, has dropped some passes, and hasn't seen a lot of field time overall. Now, one injury - a thumb that will keep WR Roscoe Parrish out of action for 4-6 weeks - bizarrely forces the Bills to rely on both of their top draft picks to fill the void left by Parrish.
McKelvin to be primary return man
Don't be fooled by head coach Dick Jauron, who yesterday said that punt return duties could be handled by either McKelvin, running back Fred Jackson or receiver Josh Reed. It was McKelvin who handled first-team punt return duties during the pre-season, when Parrish saw no action in that role. It was McKelvin who, despite making a few bad decisions - one leading to a turnover in the pre-season win over Pittsburgh - also made some big plays in that role. It was McKelvin who returned seven career punts at Troy for touchdowns. The kid's explosive, and his forte is returning the punt.
There may be a circumstance or two where the Bills put Jackson back as more of a "punt catcher" (remember Chris Watson?), but McKelvin should and will see most of the work. He's one of the most explosive return men to enter the league since, well, Devin Hester, and it would be a crime if the Bills kept him on the sideline. They won't. McKelvin's style is clearly a bit different than that of Parrish, but they're both effective, dynamic return men. The drop-off will be minimal, but we should be wary of the rookie's decision-making back there. (Of course, Parrish has made some questionable decisions himself.)
Hardy's role likely to expand offensively
It's Hardy, the 6'5" rookie receiver out of Indiana, that has more pressure placed squarely on his shoulders. The team's offensive coordinator, Turk Schonert, has slowly been working Hardy into more and more offensive packages as the team has progressed through its first three games. But we all know the history of rookie receivers - rarely do they make an impact in their first seasons.
But Hardy's not expected to carry the offense by any means. The team will still rely on Lee Evans and Josh Reed as its two main receiving threats (just as they did when Parrish was healthy), and players such as Jackson, Robert Royal and Marshawn Lynch will likely see their roles expand in the passing game as well. Hardy clearly won't need to fill the void alone - but when the ball comes his way, he needs to grab the opportunity. He's got a chance to show that he can be more than a spot contributor and a red zone threat. It'd be nice to see the rook make an impact in the middle of the field, where the Bills haven't been particularly effective throwing the ball to date.
A new era of Buffalo football
The Parrish injury, and his two young replacements, are indicative of a new era of Buffalo football. Gone are the days when Bills rookies were thrust immediately into the starting lineup and expected to play like veterans. Now, Buffalo's most talented youngsters are relied on as depth - something the Bills haven't had much of in recent years. It's time for the rooks to contribute - even if it's only for a few weeks. The Bills are fortunate that their first major injury occurred before the bye week, as it slightly lessens the impact.
So let's go, Leodis and James. We've been anxious to see the kids get some playing time. Now their time has arrived.