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Buffalo Bills getting major contributions from under-25 contingent

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The 5-3 Buffalo Bills are squarely in the AFC playoff chase - and they're there thanks in large part to contributions from a promising crew of under-25 players.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Twice each offseason, in one of my favorite biannual exercises of the spring months, we take a look at the ten best Buffalo Bills prospects under age 25. At the midway point of the 2014 season, one of the more encouraging signs about the long-term prognosis for the Bills is that they're making a playoff push with major contributions from under-25 talent.

Let's take a look at the ten best under-25 performers on the Bills so far this season. The list is teeming with quality performers, and includes some guys that have flashed upside, as well.

10. OG Cyril Richardson (23; 24 on 12/27/14)

The rookie out of Baylor is very raw, as exhibited by his many fundamental errors in pass protection during his four-game stretch as the Bills' starting left guard. The hope is that, now that he's back in a reserve role with a bit of game experience under his belt, he'll learn to better recognize how pass rushers are trying to attack him and respond accordingly. For now, he flashed enough promise as a run blocker to maintain his status as a worthwhile long-term project.

9. S Duke Williams (24; 25 on 10/15/15)

Defensive backs have a tendency to be remembered only for the plays they make and allow, and a very poor outing against New England has many down on the second-year safety out of Nevada. Williams, however, is a quality athlete that has grown into a matchup-safety role, complementing what Da'Norris Searcy brings to the table and playing 55.6 percent of defensive snaps. He's had a few solid performances, and is still settling into the role. Williams is also one of the team's most-used players on special teams.

8. CB Nickell Robey (22; 23 on 1/17/15)

Not at all the playmaking presence he was as a rookie, and still a matchup liability in specific kinds of coverage, Robey is nonetheless giving the Bills quality reps at a highly-valued position, and is generally a net positive player for the defense. A sound tackler with excellent agility and coverage skills, Robey is playing 57.2 percent of defensive snaps and has logged five defended passes - second on the team behind Leodis McKelvin and Corey Graham - and recovered a fumble, as well. He's also taking on a much larger special teams role than he did as a rookie.

7. RT Seantrel Henderson (22; 23 on 1/21/15)

Uneven play at the start of the season had some down on him, but the seventh-round rookie out of Miami has made strides in the past couple of weeks in pass protection. Henderson is still more liability than asset, but he is the least of the offensive line's problems at the moment, particularly with his recent surge. Couple his more consistent play with his top-notch athleticism and upside, and the Bills' project tackle is starting to look like an even more promising long-term fixture. He has played every snap on offense so far this season.

6. WR Robert Woods (22; 23 on 4/10/15)

Overshadowed by a much higher-profile teammate at his position, and much more prone to inconsistency based on the level of quarterback play, Woods has nonetheless emerged as a mainstay in the Bills' passing game. He is one of only two Bills receivers to have scored multiple touchdowns so far this season, and ranks second on the team in both targets (51) and receiving yards (294) while playing over 90 percent of snaps when healthy. The flashes are there; if at some point he puts it all together, he's going to be a high-quality No. 2 receiving option.

5. CB Stephon Gilmore (24; 25 on 9/19/15)

Again: defensive backs develop reputations, colloquially, based on the plays they make and surrender. It's easy to watch a game, see Gilmore look ugly on a few plays and give up some catches, and assume that he's the next in a long line of Bills Top 10 busts. (I've even see people refer to him as their "most-hated Bill," which is laughably short-sighted and frankly very irritating.) Gilmore may not be the shutdown corner he was touted to become during his rookie season, but he is far better than most people give him credit for, and a key figure in the Bills' improving, young defense.

4. S Aaron Williams (24; 25 on 4/23/15)

Taking over as the top safety in the rotation, Williams has not alleviated any concerns about his durability, having missed a game and part of another with wrist and neck injuries. But he is easily Buffalo's most complete safety - the rotation between Duke Williams and Searcy next to him belies that - and when healthy, he has proven to be an effective run stopper and matchup coverage player. Like Gilmore, it feels a bit like Williams is still only scratching the surface of his potential.

3. LB Preston Brown (22; 23 on 10/27/15)

This guy sort of came out of nowhere, didn't he? Particularly since he was not the most popular third-round pick the Bills could have made. Now a full-time starter in the Jim Schwartz defense, Brown has played 90 percent of snaps this season, and is playing well enough to be the quality three-down linebacker that the team desperately needed after the season-ending injury to Kiko Alonso. Brown is coming off of his best game of the season in last weekend's thumping of the Jets, and is not only a critical member of the 2014 Bills defense, but is clearly emerging as a long-term fixture for the team, as well.

2. WR Sammy Watkins (21; 22 on 6/14/15)

His embarrassing early touchdown celebration aside, Watkins has been as advertised in the first half of his rookie season, playing 96.9 percent of snaps and hauling in 38 passes for 590 yards and five touchdowns. The stat line has put him at or near the forefront of Rookie of the Year conversations, but far more importantly, the Bills are starting to look his way more frequently as the top passing game target - and that decision is paying off handsomely. Buffalo is going to need plenty more big plays from their No. 1 wideout over the back stretch if they're going to make the playoffs. Watkins seems up to the task.

1. DT Marcell Dareus (24; 25 on 3/13/15)

Dareus is the Bills' best player right now, and if he isn't a first-team All-Pro this season, something very wrong will have happened in his last eight games - or there is something very wrong with the voting process. No Bills defensive lineman sees as many double teams, yet he's already recorded seven sacks, a half-sack off of a career high set last season. Dareus is also the lynchpin of the Bills' run defense, routinely eating up multiple blockers - and sometimes even beating them - to make stops and free up teammates for a much-improved run outfit. He doesn't get the publicity he deserves as one of the best defensive tackles in football.