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Cyrus Kouandjio, Preston Brown face big expectations as Bills rookies

Sammy Watkins was the highlight of Buffalo's 2014 draft class. But two other rookies will challenge for starting spots this season. Can Cyrus Kouandjio and Preston Brown rise to the occasion?

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

While the first round pick is the marquee member of each draft class, the success or failure of a team's draft usually hinges on the players selected in the second and third rounds of the draft, and whether or not they can break into starting roles on the team. For evidence of that, look at the Buffalo Bills' 2009 draft class, which combined one of the biggest busts in franchise history (Aaron Maybin) with several successful starters (Eric Wood, Andy Levitre, and Jairus Byrd).

When the Bills traded up to draft Sammy Watkins, they made sure to swing a deal that kept their early-round picks this season. The players they drafted with those picks could each emerge as starters - and may even be expected to.

Cyrus Kouandjio

With their second round pick, the Bills drafted Kouandjio, a 6'7", 322-pound offensive tackle from Alabama. Kouandjio played left tackle for the Crimson Tide, but with Cordy Glenn firmly entrenched as the left tackle in Buffalo, he'll switch to right tackle in the NFL.

The first thing to keep in mind when evaluating Kouandjio is that he's still a work in progress. He's only 20 years old (he turns 21 this coming Monday), and his technique can be inconsistent at times on film. His arm work can get lazy, allowing defenders to cross over the front of him and turn a routine block into a hold. He'll stand too tall, which leads to a defender gaining leverage underneath him and pushing him away. Other times, he'll bend at the waist, which moves his center of gravity and also reduces his leverage. That being said, every one of those flaws is mechanical, and something that can be fixed with coaching the longer he plays the sport. And he wasn't picked No. 44 overall because of his flaws.

The upside with Kouandjio starts with his mammoth size. At a quarter-inch shy of 6'7", Kouandjio was the fourth-tallest tackle in the class. Add to that the longest arms of any lineman at the Combine (35.6 inches) and 10.3-inch hands, and you have a guy with a serious blocking radius. Much like Glenn, even if Kouandjio has a sloppy start to the play, his sheer size means that a defender needs to take extra steps to get around him, and he can use those long arms to more easily hold a defender at bay away from his pads.

Athletically, he's no slouch either. He has a strong core that allows him to anchor against a defender and even re-anchor when he has a bad start on a play. He has a very fast first step, and his short area quickness is more than enough for a right tackle in the NFL. He does seriously lack in long speed, as his slow 40 time would suggest.

As far as intangibles go, Kouandjio is a good kid and has no issues with motivation or intensity on the field. He takes pride in "taking a man against his will in a direction that he does not choose." The only red flag is a report that has circulated for several months: that Kouandjio has an arthritic knee which could limit his future career. While Buffalo's medical staff and Dr. James Andrews cleared him, this should be monitored in the future, as it's the sort of thing that could eventually cause an early retirement if it does become a problem.

Preston Brown

In the third round, the Bills picked Brown, a 6'1", 251-pound middle linebacker out of Louisville. Originally, Brown may have backed up Brandon Spikes in the middle or fought for playing time as an outside linebacker opposite Kiko Alonso, but with Alonso's injury, Brown stands a much better chance of breaking into the lineup sooner rather than later.

What stands out about Brown's game is his work defending the run. He explodes forward from his stance after the snap, quickly finding the man with the ball and chasing him down. He has great vision, rarely choosing the incorrect gap to attack, and doesn't get fooled by the read option or misdirection plays. He has long arms for his size, which he effectively uses to bounce off of blocks by the offensive line. When Brown was on the field, runners had a tough time finding daylight.

The question mark with Brown is his coverage ability. While he was a middle linebacker at Louisville, he didn't have a large amount of snaps in coverage on his game tape, and he was often used as a blitzer during passing downs. When he did drop into coverage, Brown showed a good general awareness of the field, anticipating passes well. However, he had trouble dropping deep into coverage, allowing tight ends to get behind him and separate more than a few times. Whether that was by design, with a star safety (first-round pick Calvin Pryor) backing him up, or because Brown isn't as fast while backpedaling, is hard to say, because of the lack of film for that area of his game.

Off the field, Brown is another high motor, coachable athlete who will fit well into any locker room. He had 36 career starts and no injury issues to speak of, and no personal concerns, either.

2014 projections

Both of these rookies have a strong chance to be opening day starters, and have the skills to earn a job and be quite good at it. Kouandjio's competition to start is twofold, with Erik Pears the returning starter and Chris Hairston coming back from injury looking to compete for playing time. While Pears has started at right tackle for 39 games in the last three seasons, he's in the last year of his contract, had a below average season in 2013, and could be cut once Kouandjio shows he's ready. Hairston's situation is more nebulous, since he only recently began participating in football practices again after a long hiatus. For now, it looks like Kouandjio's path to the starting job is fairly straightforward - perform well in the preseason, and he'll win it. There may be growing pains along the way as he refines his technique, but he should be able to hold down that position as an above average starter for years to come, based on the college tape and athletic profile.

With Alonso out of the lineup, Brown's chances of earning a starting role in the base defense have improved. Spikes should hold down the middle linebacker role for this year, and Nigel Bradham and Keith Rivers look to be Brown's main competition for a starting job. As is the case with Kouandjio, Brown will probably find himself with a starting role if he plays well in camp. His long term upside ultimately depends on how well he acquits himself in coverage. If he doesn't have the athleticism to stick with tight ends in man coverage, he should at least be a more effective version of Kelvin Sheppard - a solid run defender who is adequate in coverage with a great all-around linebacker beside him. If he shows coverage competency, then the Bills will have a seriously impressive linebacker corps for years to come.