On the first day of May, with the 2016 NFL Draft in the books, the Buffalo Bills were receiving near-universal praise for their collection of picks. Eight months later, that sentence sounds awfully dubious, so read this for a refresher on the atmosphere after Doug Whaley’s latest rookie haul. Poised to see great contributions from almost the entire group, the team instead barely saw any rookies playing in 2016. A look back at this past season is a good reminder about the challenges with grading a draft as soon as it ends.
Injuries decimate Buffalo’s rookie class
The most significant reason holding back so many of this year’s rookies was a serious crop of injuries affecting the biggest names. Remember that Shaq Lawson’s shoulder was flagged for surgery before the draft, and that while initially Whaley indicated that Lawson would play through the injury, the parties eventually agreed to take it on before the season. Lawson missed six games in rehab, during which time (through no fault of his own) he was replaced in the lineup by a wildly successful Lorenzo Alexander. Rex Ryan stuck with his hot hand, and Lawson played sparingly through the rest of the season, picking up 13 tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble.
The most significant injury in Buffalo’s group of rookies ended up being mitigated thanks to a serendipitous signing. With a glaring lack of linebacker depth, the Bills signed Zach Brown to a one year contract before later drafting Reggie Ragland out of Alabama. Ragland had an excellent offseason and was playing well in training camp before tearing his ACL during practice. Thanks to advanced planning (or luck, if you will), the Bills were able to replace their second round pick with Brown, still getting high-level play out of the position.
One more name essentially redshirted this season. Kolby Listenbee spent the whole year on an injury designation with a sports hernia that required surgery to fix. He was one of the fastest receivers in the country even dealing with the hernia, but the Bills never saw that speed put to use during the 2016 season.
Players not expected to contribute
Another thing preventing Buffalo’s rookies from having an impact on the field was the lowered burden of expectations for this class. While Lawson and Ragland were both slated for big roles before their surgeries, the rest of these names were on the hook for depth assignments.
Adolphus Washington was Buffalo’s fourth defensive tackle, until a Dareus suspension and a Corbin Bryant injury pressed him into further action. Cardale Jones was treated with caution as a project quarterback, staying inactive until the final game of the season. Jonathan Williams was frequently inactive as the fourth running back on the roster, there was no urgency to have Listenbee see the field, and Kevon Seymour was behind a large contingent of veteran cornerbacks at the start of the preseason. Unlike other seasons, the Bills were content to rely upon a strong cast of veterans playing significant roles around the field.
The Bills also failed to identify any other rookies of note outside of their draft picks. Undrafted free agents Glenn Gronkowski and Erik Striker failed to stick (among other names), and they received a single reception from Gerald Christian, claimed off of waivers from the Arizona Cardinals.
Weak impact from the players that did play
The limited number of contributors from Buffalo’s rookie class wouldn’t be an issue if at least one of them had emerged as a significant playmaker, but that just didn’t happen. Seymour earned rave reviews in the preseason, but he spent the majority of this year as a dime corner and backup on the outside. He experienced the customary rookie burns, defended three passes, and collected twelve tackles.
Washington had the most snaps of any Buffalo rookie, but he spent each week bouncing between a rotational starter’s role and playing a handful of snaps, before being deactivated altogether for the season finale. He flashed great contain ability and collected two and a half sacks, but often struggled to disengage from blocks, counting 21 tackles for the year.
That pretty much sums up the disappointing first season for this year’s rookie class: exciting potential for a few, injuries holding back most of the group, and weak results (and a low quantity of players) coming from the back of the draft and the undrafted ranks. The trajectory arrow is still pointing upward for this group, but Whaley and the scouting staff deserve more oversight toward their optimistic drafting strategy.