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Buffalo Bills 2017 rookies largely exceeded expectations

Most of the Bills rookie class made significant contributions 

After the 2017 NFL draft was over, Buffalo Rumblings readers quickly voted, with the majority deciding that Sean McDermott’s first draft deserved a “B” grade. That grade may deserve some reconsideration after four of the six players the Buffalo Bills drafted earned significant playing time and one of those four under consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year. While its well-known folly to judge a draft class after only a single year, fans have to feel good about the contributions they’ve already seen from this group.

Tre’Davious White
Cornerback, LSU
Round 1, 27th overall

Coming into the 2017 NFL draft, analysts saw Tre’Davious White as the quintessential “high floor, low ceiling prospect.” He could be an immediate starter, but his upside is limited, due to his lack of straight line speed. The Bills were able to scoop him up at the end of the first round for that very reason. The rookie came in to the 2017 regular season with massive expectations, and, to the surprise of many, ended up exceeding them. He was second among rookies in passes defensed (22), interceptions (4), and defensive snaps (1042). All the traits that allowed him to excel in college — his agility and refined technique — translated exceptionally well into the team’s zone-heavy scheme. White’s weaknesses can be exposed by certain elite competition, as A.J. Green demonstrated in Week 5, but White was always able to bounce back from poor plays. Provided that the Bills stick with this defensive scheme, the team will have a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback for some time.

Zay Jones,
Wide receiver, ECU
Round 2, 37th overall

Well-known in college primarily for his route-running skills and his hands, it was surprising to see Jones struggle throughout the 2017 season. While it’s rare to see wide receivers do well in their first year, Jones was considered the most pro-ready wideout in the rookie class. His disappointing season was a combination of factors. One week he’d be getting decent separation but the quarterback never looked his way, the next he was getting blanketed and used more as a decoy on certain routes. As we recently learned, some of Jones’ catching problems may be pinned on a torn labrum he suffered at some point during the season. Regardless, Jones finished the season with only 27 receptions on 74 targets. That is offensive futility. I’d expect Jones to move to a slot receiver role, and to contribute from there, next season.

Dion Dawkins
Offensive tackle, Temple
Round 2, 63rd overall

It was expected that Dion Dawkins would transition to a new role on the offensive line once he was drafted. It was thought by many that he didn’t have the foot speed and quickness to play left tackle full time in the NFL. But after Cordy Glenn’s foot injury worsened, Dawkins was forced to step in and start the next eleven games at left tackle where he performed admirably, particularly in the run game, where his huge size and length allowed him to push around smaller defensive ends. Regardless of what the team decides to do with Cordy Glenn, Dawkins will be a starter somewhere on the offensive line, in the 2018 season.

Matt Milano,
Linebacker, Boston College
Round 5, 163rd overall

Not much was expected of the fifth-round linebacker after he failed to standout in training camp. The scouting report on him was that he could run and he could hit. But when Ramon Humber injured his thumb in Week 4, Milano quickly proved that he had a knack for big plays. He had a beautiful interception in the game against Tampa Bay and forced two fumbles in the game after that against Oakland. By Week 13 he’d earned a starting role at weak side linebacker. Now, that’s not to say that the rookie linebacker was a revelation — he struggled with eye discipline and misdirection in more than a few games — but he was an upgrade over Humber whenever he saw the field. With both Humber and Preston Brown as free agents entering the offseason, Milano should be penciled in as a starting linebacker in 2018.

Nathan Peterman,
Quarterback, Pittsburgh
Round 5, 171st overall

Drafted for his pro-readiness and his intelligence, it was somewhat surprising to see Peterman earn his first NFL start this season. What was even more surprising, and unfortunate, was that it was among the worst debuts in NFL history. The rookie signal caller threw five interceptions, in the first half against the Chargers before getting pulled. Luckily he acquitted himself much better in the Snow Bowl against the Colts by finishing 5-for-10 for 57 yards and a touchdown before he left with a concussion. From his limited playing time, it’s clear that Peterman desperately needs to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, something most rookie quarterbacks struggle to do. It’s likely that Bills Brass have their eyes set on drafting a quarterback this offseason, so Peterman will likely find himself jockeying for position with a rookie next year.

Tanner Vallejo
Linebacker, Boise State
Round 6, 195th overall

A special teams stalwart for the entire season, Vallejo never managed to break into the starting lineup. Due to the absolute dearth of talent currently at the position, Vallejo can be expected to make the 2018 roster, but needs to have a strong offseason if he wants to become a starter.