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.
Graduating from last year’s list are a couple heavy hitters: Josh Allen and Taron Johnson will both be 26 years old this year. Both have earned well-deserved contract extensions with the team.
We’ll rate the top ten for this year, 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.
- Boogie Basham (Turns 25 on December 16)
- A.J. Epenesa (Turns 24 on September 15)
- Zack Moss (Turns 25 on December 15)
- James Cook (Turns 23 on September 25)
It just happened to work out that this grouping had two DEs and two RBs in it, so let’s talk through them!
Boogie Basham, a 2021 second-round pick, spent the early parts of his rookie season as a healthy non-participant on gameday. He went in and out of the lineup, effectively based on the week-to-week defensive strategy, and played in eight games. With 2.5 sacks and 18 tackles, his rookie season wasn’t an outright disappointment, but he’ll need to step up in a big way as a 25-year-old second-year pro. The Bills are counting on him or the next guy to develop into the team’s first end off the bench.
A.J. Epenesa, through two years of his career, has really struggled to find a footing. The body transformation work he went through, dropping 25 lbs to become more of a speed rusher, failed to pay off in his sophomore season. He looked like he’d turned the corner in a Week 2 win over the Miami Dolphins, pressuring the QB a half dozen times, and then he barely contributed anything over the rest of the season. He’s become a rotational defender and special teams player, but if he can’t unlock a new level of potential this season, the team might start sitting him in favor of Basham and Shaq Lawson.
2021 didn’t work out in Zack Moss’s favor. It started with a high ankle sprain in the opening game of the 2020 playoffs, then it saw him as a healthy scratch in the first game of the season as the Bills prioritized the faster alternative in Matt Breida. Moss saw moderate success Week 3 and Week 4, with a combined 27 carries for 121 yards and two TDs. But when 4.5 yards per carry is your season highlight, you’re in trouble.
Following the Week 5 win against the Kansas City Chiefs, Moss touched the ball 66 times over the remainder of the season—and exactly one of those touches gained 15 yards. He was deactivated for three more regular-season games later in the year. The Bills ultimately settled on Devin Singletary as their primary back down the stretch. There’s still a chance for Moss to break into the lineup, but the former third-round pick might not do it with this team.
If Zack Moss ends up playing for another team this season, expect James Cook to be the reason for it. The rookie second rounder has plenty of speed and receiving ability—something that might appeal to the new Bills offense. Overall, he could have a sizable impact as a rookie or he might hit a wall pretty quickly.
One sign of concern for Cook was his limited productivity at Georgia; he didn’t have more than 528 yards from scrimmage until his senior year, and he topped out with 140 touches for 1,012 yards and 11 TDs. Some might argue, though, that Cook comes into the NFL with very little wear on his tires and without showing off his true potential. That could be used with hindsight to explain a strong rookie season. At any rate, Cook lands in this spot not for the same reasons as the other three. He lands here because the players who were ranked on the list are more proven in their roles. Don’t be shocked if he leaps up the list next year.