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Buffalo Bills rookie report: Final grades

The level of rookie participation during the Buffalo Bills’ 2018 season was rare. Out of the Bills’ eight draft selections, seven made the team and all of them saw offensive or defensive snaps. Not only that—four of the team’s undrafted free agents ended the season as contributors, either as starters or as key reserves. Most observers would see these high levels of rookie involvement and conclude that it was a sign the Bills lacked depth. That is certainly true, to an extent. However, while a lack of depth is what got these rookies on the field, most of them didn’t look out place, and some even proved that they deserve to remain as starters. In fact, it would be fair to say that at least a few of these rookies proved they will be the backbone of the team for years. More about the performance of each rookie during the season below.

QB Josh Allen

A tale of two seasons for the rookie from Wyoming, he was rushed onto the field much too fast to begin the season. After being inserted into the lineup during Week 1, Allen struggled navigating the pocket, keeping his mechanics under control, and knowing when to throw the ball away. This culminated in a dreadful, two-interception performance against the Green Bay Packers. Then, Allen injured his elbow against the Houston Texans in Week 6, spending the next five games sitting and biding his time. Surprisingly, that time on the bench may have been the best thing for Allen, as he emerged as a much more confident and effective pocket passer over the final six games. He began trusting his receivers, forming a connection with fellow rookie Robert Foster, and started using his legs when necessary, to great effect. Allen capped this period of growth with what was arguably his best game of the season, against the Miami Dolphins. Ending the season as the team’s leading passer and rusher, Allen demonstrated just enough of his amazing potential to keep Bills fans drooling over further development this offseason.

LB Tremaine Edmunds

Through the first few games of the season, it was clear Edmunds wasn’t a finished product against the run. He never seemed fully comfortable shedding blocks, reading plays, and blasting through gaps. It was an area in which he would display flashes of what he can be, but was never one in which he was able to display much comfort. On the other hand, the former Virginia Tech Hokie was dominant in coverage, ending the year with two interceptions and the second-most passes defensed for a linebacker. His massive size and speed proved to be an asset between the hashes, making life difficult for quarterbacks trying to find their favorite tight ends or slot receivers in the middle of the field. Still only 20 years of age, Edmunds will need to work on his instincts and tackling form, but he already has the look of an upper-echelon starter in today’s NFL.

DT Harrison Phillips

Despite coming into the season as a clear-cut backup, expectations for Phillips were surprisingly high. Immediately following the draft, he was hyped as a possible replacement for longtime stalwart Kyle Williams. After a full season of play, the early returns suggest that the rookie is just a different kind of player than his mentor Williams. Phillips was at his best when he was asked to hold his ground against double-teams in the A-gap, using his arms to mirror guards and centers just long enough for his teammates to make tackles. Where Phillips struggled was in his ability to make splash plays. Rarely was he seen penetrating the offensive line to secure a sack or a tackle-for-loss. Perhaps the rookie will improve with somewhat lowered expectations approaching his sophomore year.

CB Taron Johnson

Before ultimately succumbing to a shoulder injury he suffered against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener, Johnson was the valedictorian of the rookie class. Sticky enough in coverage between the hashes and super physical against the run, Johnson immediately established himself to begin the season. He also proved to be a reliable chess piece for Leslie Frazier, frequently crashing downhill on run blitzes or pressuring quarterbacks on regular slot blitzes.

OG Wyatt Teller

The coaches inserted Teller into the lineup during Week 9 against the Chicago Bears, and the fifth-round rookie ended up providing some stability at the left guard position through the rest of the season. Teller’s strength was his biggest asset, particularly in pass protection. Defensive tackles were rarely able to budge him off his spot with a bull rush. He did struggle with quicker defensive tackles—something that also plagued him in college. It’s premature for the team to declare him as the new long-term starter at left guard, but it was a positive freshman season for the rookie.

WR Ray-Ray McCloud III

It’s hard to be too disappointed by the play of a sixth-round wide receiver, but when the team was crying out for players to emerge at the position, McCloud was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t so much a lack of opportunity, he saw action in ten games throughout the season, he just did not seem to make much of a connection with Josh Allen to begin the season, and then was displaced by Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie. McCloud may not be long for this roster if he does not improve on this forgettable season.

S Siran Neal

Neal spent the year on special teams and, to his credit, there was some marked improvement in that area throughout the season. By the final games, Neal was a designated gunner on punt coverage, getting free to make a couple splash tackles in that role in Weeks 15 and 17. He saw only a handful of defensive snaps, so he’ll probably need to show improvement in that area during the offseason if he wants to make the team in 2019.

WR Robert Foster

Sometimes, a little motivation goes a long way. Aftermaking the intial 53-man roster, then getting cut, then being called up from the practice squad, Foster led NFL receivers with 20.44 yards-per-catch from Weeks 10 to 17. Coaches and Foster himself credited his release for providing extra motivation, and the game tape supports that account. Before getting cut, Foster’s hands were sub-par and his route running was lethargic. He evidently worked hard on both, because after the first New York Jets game Foster established himself as the team’s number-one receiver. His speed allowed him to threaten defenses deep, but it also allowed for comebacks and digs and opened up the middle of the field for teammates. The question is if Foster can remain motivated throughout the offseason, and what he will do for an encore.

CB Levi Wallace

After injuries and sudden retirements thrust the former undrafted free agent into the starting lineup in Week 10, he did not relinquish his hold on the position opposite Tre’Davious White. While the statistics were flattering (Wallace only allowed eight receptions on 14 targets across 138 coverage snaps in December), he wasn’t perfect. The tape shows a player who was largely protected by scheme and struggled locating the ball in the air. Still, he was a clear upgrade over the team’s previous options and will likely improve with more practice time.

OG Ike Boettger

Despite the abysmal play of the offensive line, the coaches were more hesitant giving Boettger snaps than they were with Wyatt Teller. When he was on the field, the former Iowa Hawkeye was on the opposite end of the spectrum stylistically from Teller. A much more flexible athlete, Boettger was at his best moving his feet: on zone runs or moving up to the second level to block linebackers. What he lacked was an anchor. It was much too easy for tackles to push him back into the lap of the quarterback. Regardless, his tape was good enough to prove that he deserves to compete for one of the starting guard positions this offseason.

LB Corey Thompson

Thompson was a severe downgrade at the position after Matt Milano broke his fibula in Week 14. The undrafted rookie wasn’t nearly as adept at anticipating and attacking rush lanes. He also didn’t provide any help in coverage, as the coaches chose to take him off the field in obvious passing situations in favor of Lorenzo Alexander or an extra safety.

DE Mike Love

The coaches seemed to appreciate what Love was doing in practice. After getting his feet wet in Week 9, Love saw 22 and 17 snaps on defense in the final two games of the season. The rookie didn’t make much noise on the stat sheet, but the tape shows a twitchy, speed rusher who managed to flash pressure despite a lack of snaps. Love will likely battle Eddie Yarbrough for a spot at defensive end next year, and Love may be the one to bet on.