It’s time for an old Buffalo Rumblings tradition: evaluating the young core of the Buffalo Bills’ roster. For almost every year of the past decade, we’ve looked at the top players in the “25 and under” category. These are almost exclusively players in their first three years in the league, still playing on their rookie contracts. A strong nucleus of youth can be the high-energy, low-cost power source of a championship contender franchise. The youth pipeline can also be a sign of a team’s impending struggles, if their draft picks start failing to meet expectations.
We’ll rate the top ten, but before we start that process, we have a few honorable mentions. When building up this list, these four players fell into a clear grouping just outside of the top ten. There’s no denying that each of these young men has NFL-caliber talent, but they haven’t had a consistent impact on the field, (or had a high enough rookie potential to dream on) relative to their peers.
- RB Zack Moss (turns 24 on December 15)
- TE Dawson Knox (turns 25 on November 14)
- DE A.J. Epenesa (turns 23 on September 15)
- OT Spencer Brown (turns 23 on February 28)
Moss, a third-round pick in 2020, showed flashes of a starting-caliber running back as a rookie. His adjustment to the NFL was rocky, and hampered by a toe injury, but he started finding his footing late in the year. This was highlighted by a three-game stretch where he carried the ball 38 times for 181 yards and a touchdown in wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, and New England Patriots. Moss suffered an ankle injury in the playoffs and had to undergo surgery as a result. He didn’t make the cut here because of his injury history (which dates back to college), his low positional value, and the fact that most of his 2020 performance was replacement-level in nature. If you think I rated Moss too lowly, consider that 16 rookies had more yards from scrimmage than Moss last year, including another player higher up on the list.
In two seasons with the Bills, Knox has been the picture of inconsistency. He has some of the most blood-pumping highlights of any player on the team, and pairs that with way too many mediocre lowlights of dropped passes or weak blocks. During the 2020 season, he only played in 12 games thanks to a concussion, a calf injury, and a stint on the COVID-19 reserve list. A glaring problem is his catch rate, which sits at 55 percent through his first two years. He improved his drop rate, but needs to improve his route running and become a threat at all levels of the field—not just as a safety valve out of the backfield.
Epenesa was always going to be burdened with high expectations, as the Bills’ top pick in a year where they didn’t have a first-round selection. Even so, the defensive end’s rookie year was a disappointment. He only played 27 percent of snaps in the defensive line rotation, starting the year as a healthy scratch. From that, he came away with 14 tackles and a single sack. The Bills’ coaches have suggested that weight management was the culprit; Epenesa was asked to drop more than 20 pounds from his college playing weight, and it affected his ability to generate any power in his pass rush. Having addressed that in the offseason, he did earn positive reviews in OTAs. For now, it remains to be seen if Epenesa will find his footing and jump up the list in year two.
Brown lands here as one of the new Bills rookies, the definition of unproven. He’s a small-school offensive tackle with incredible athletic ability, but plenty of work needed to build up his technique and adjust to the high level of competition. Unlike the players above him, there’s no easy path to playing time this year. Still, he’ll remain on the watchlist as we see if he can scratch out some reps as a swing tackle on gameday.