With the 2011 NFL regular season coming to a close - and with the 2011 calendar year set to expire in just a few short days - I thought it'd be a good time to update a column I wrote in May. That piece detailed my opinions on the 10 best Buffalo Bills prospects aged 25 or below.
Now that 16 more games have been played, I thought it was high time to re-assess that list - which we'll then reference back once free agency and the 2012 NFL Draft have come and gone. This list contains players that, when they celebrate their birthday in the 2012 calendar year, will be 25 years old or under.
You can find the list after the jump - but if you're looking for names like Stevie Johnson, David Nelson, Eric Wood, Jairus Byrd, and Andy Levitre, you need to re-read the criteria in the previous paragraph. All five of those players will turn 26 next year. On to the list!
1. Marcell Dareus (23 on 11/18/12). With one game left to play this season, Dareus paces the Bills with 5.5 sacks. He does so despite being the focal point of opposing blocking schemes, playing several different positions, with marginal-to-poor talent surrounding him, and through various physical dings. Dareus has had an excellent rookie season, and has the look of a player that, if supported properly, can be the good-to-dominant centerpiece of an excellent defense.
2. Aaron Williams (22 on 4/23/12). He took his lumps early in the season, but other than Byrd, no Bills defensive back has looked as consistently good as Williams this season. The youngest player on Buffalo's roster has had to step into a starting role almost by default, but appears prepared to hold down that role heading into 2012. He has the athletic chops to become a top-level starter at his position with continued improvement.
3. C.J. Spiller (25 on 8/5/12). Finally, mercifully, Spiller is showing why he was a coveted commodity in the top half of the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. In five games since losing Fred Jackson for the season, Spiller has averaged 5.3 yards per rush and scored four touchdowns. He has shown the ability to rip off a big chunk of yardage at any point in time, and can hurt defenses as a receiver. Time will tell if the team ever changes its thinking on whether he can be an every-down back, but it's clear that C.J. can play.
4. Chris Hairston (23 on 4/26/12). Coming in as a raw big man with a future at right tackle, Hairston adjusted remarkably well not just to the speed of the NFL, but to the responsibility of playing on the left side. He had his ups and downs, and regressed slightly as the year wore on, but Hairston obviously has a future in this league - and could finally be the long-term left tackle the team has been seeking since trading Jason Peters.
5. Justin Rogers (24 on 1/16/12). Rogers first emerged this season as a kick returner, where he's averaged 30.1 yards per return since taking over for Brad Smith in that capacity. Then he cracked the lineup as a sub-package cornerback (where he took reps ahead of 2008 first-round pick Leodis McKelvin), and has performed well there. The seventh-round gem out of Richmond looks to have a future, but it's still unclear whether or not he can become a starting-level corner. He may get the opportunity to become just that.
6. Kelvin Sheppard (24 on 1/2/12). Even though he missed most of his rookie pre-season with a hamstring injury, it didn't take long for Sheppard to crack Buffalo's starting lineup. He oozes leadership qualities, and is currently fourth on the team with 64 tackles playing as a run-down inside linebacker. Struggles in coverage, however, may prevent Sheppard from ever becoming an every-down linebacker in the mold of Nick Barnett; hence his not ranking slightly higher on this list.
7. Da'Norris Searcy (24 on 11/16/12). The 2011 fourth-round pick was asked to start at strong safety for a few weeks - replacing the injured George Wilson - and though he made mental mistakes, he also showed some explosion and that he belongs athletically. The Bills appear set at safety heading into 2012, but Searcy has the potential to push Wilson for his job down the line.
8. Alex Carrington (25 on 6/19/12). I placed big expectations on Carrington entering the season, and he didn't deliver. The big man from Arkansas State emerged as a starter only after Kyle Williams' season-ending injury, and hasn't done much to differentiate himself from other Bills players in the trenches. That said, he's a proven kick-blocking asset on special teams and has (very rarely) flashed dominance, so some hope remains that he can become a more consistent performer in his third season.
9. Marcus Easley (25 on 11/2/12). It's tough to put a player that's never appeared in a regular season game on a list like this, let alone one with a well-publicized heart condition. Easley, however, has been cleared by doctors to resume his football career, and he put together a very good 2011 pre-season in which he flashed the potential to emerge as the No. 2 receiver had he played this year. That talent hasn't gone anywhere. Maybe the third time is the charm for the UConn product.
10. Donald Jones (25 on 12/17/12). Handed the No. 2 receiver job after the Lee Evans trade, Jones struggled to assimilate to his new role while dealing with a recurring (and ultimately season-ending) ankle injury. Jones showed inconsistent hands in hauling in just 23 passes this season, and never really appeared to be on the same page with Ryan Fitzpatrick. The team is still high on Jones, and he's proven in two years that he belongs in the NFL, but his peak may come as a sub-package receiver and special teams ace.