The NFL offseason is a time for hope. Buffalo Bills fans are hoping that their favorite team, in the midst an angst-filled summer and fall in which the team will be sold, can end a 14-year playoff drought. If that happens, they'll be doing so behind one of the youngest rosters in the league, particularly at the game's most vital positions. Which brings us to my favorite bi-annual production here at Buffalo Rumblings: a list of the team's 10 best prospects age 25 and under.
The only rule to qualify for the list is this: the player must be 25 years old or younger this calendar year. If a player is currently 25, but will turn 26 later this year - like defensive end Jerry Hughes and safety Da'Norris Searcy will be doing, for instance - then they're scratched.
As with any list posted on the Internet, you'll have disagreements, and you should note those in the comments section below. What we can all agree on, I believe, is this: the Bills have an abundance of under-25 talent on their roster, and it's therefore difficult not to feel bullish about the team's long-term prospects.
10. WR Marquise Goodwin (24 on 11/19)
Goodwin is not the biggest guy in the world, and it therefore seems unlikely that he'll develop into a full-time starting receiver in the NFL. Add in concerns about his durability, and that becomes doubly true. Goodwin, however, has a chance to establish himself as a legitimate game-breaking threat, both as a limited-use receiver and as a return man. He flashed the ability to consistently take the top off a defense as a rookie in 2013.
9. QB EJ Manuel (24 on 3/19)
You'd rather see your first-round quarterback a bit higher on this list, to be certain. We have already discussed Manuel's game in-depth and ad nauseam this offseason, so we have a good idea of where he needs to improve, and what his current strengths are. He needs to stay healthy. If he can do that, and if he can simply be more comfortable and mechanically consistent in his second season, then he is absolutely talented enough to develop into a playoff-caliber quarterback.
8. OT Cyrus Kouandjio (21 on 7/21)
This, Bills fans, is the youngest player on the team; the 6'7", 322-pound rookie right tackle will be legally allowed to drink alcohol about a week before his first NFL training camp. There are concerns about his knees, which is troubling for any young player, but he received a clean bill of health from Buffalo's medical staff. Kouandjio is the type of power-oriented blocker that the Bills have lacked, and if all goes well, he'll start here for a decade.
7. DB Aaron Williams (24 on 4/23)
Buffalo awarded a strong 2013 season from Williams with a four-year, $26 million contract extension back in March. The team is clearly banking on Williams, a 2011 second-round pick, reaching his full potential soon now that he has settled in at safety. Williams needs to stay healthy - he has missed 14 games in his first three seasons (including two last year) - but if he can swing that, he's the type of matchup-coverage defensive back with ball skills that is in vogue in the league today.
6. WR Robert Woods (22 on 4/10)
He has been overshadowed by bigger-name players at his position this offseason, but there is a very real chance that Woods emerges as Buffalo's most productive receiver in 2014. He has a better rapport with Manuel than any other receiver on the roster, and the smooth route-runner is a snug fit in the Bills' West Coast flavored passing attack. Defenses will be paying attention to those bigger names, and Woods should reap the benefits.
5. OT Cordy Glenn (25 on 9/18)
In his two years as the Bills' starting left tackle, Glenn has grown more consistent, quelled some lingering doubts about his durability, and has made the team comfortable enough in his efforts at the position that they believe they've settled this area for the long term. With even a slight improvement on his 2013 campaign (he allowed just 1.5 sacks, according to the team), Glenn could begin to garner some Pro Bowl consideration. At minimum, he's a dependable long-term starter at a premium position.
4. CB Stephon Gilmore (24 on 9/19)
A broken wrist thwarted Gilmore's planned ascent to the upper echelon of cover corners in the NFL last season, and now he's playing in his third defensive system in as many seasons. He was looking much more like his usual self at the end of the 2013 season, however, and now that he's fully healthy, that planned ascent to elite status should be back in place. Gilmore has the size and movement skills to match up with any type of receiver in the league, and is now the most important figure in Buffalo's defensive backfield.
3. LB Kiko Alonso (24 on 8/14)
Every-down linebackers are an increasingly rare commodity in the evolving NFL. In order to pull that off, a player has to be at least above-average in every phase of the game. Finding an every-down linebacker that can hold down that role as a rookie, and that wasn't drafted in the first round, is rarer still. Alonso stuffed his stat sheet with 159 tackles, four interceptions, two sacks and two fumble recoveries as a rookie, and now he'll be moving to the weak side, where he'll deal with less traffic. Another year like last year could put Alonso into consideration as one of the league's elite linebackers.
2. WR Sammy Watkins (21 on 6/14)
It's not easy for receivers to come into the league and immediately establish themselves as go-to targets - and those that do still don't put up eye-popping numbers, so expectations for Watkins as a rookie should be tempered a bit. Watkins, however, is an elite talent at receiver despite fairly average size; he's able to attack any area of the field as a receiver, and has game-breaking ability once the ball is in his hands. If the quarterback play is there, it shouldn't be long before Watkins becomes a household name.
1. DT Marcell Dareus (24 on 3/13)
It's sort of hard to believe that a player entering his fourth season can still only be 24 years old. Dareus has his share of off-field hurdles to clear, most prominently including an early May arrest and felony charges for possession of an illegal substance. That bears watching. On the field, however, Dareus is already considered one of the best young players in the game at his position. He made the Pro Bowl in 2013, and in three seasons has consistently improved as a run defender while adding 18.5 sacks. Dareus is already a one-on-one mismatch for opposing offenses, and if he can keep himself focused on football, he has All-Pro potential.
- RB Bryce Brown (23 on 5/14): Not many third-year backs are this young with such a low mileage count. Add in the fact that he's 6'0", 223 pounds with 4.48-second 40-yard dash speed, and you see a prospect with high upside, even if he may not be used much in 2014.
- OT Seantrel Henderson (22 on 1/21): Yes, he has off-field issues to overcome, and his goal for 2014 should simply be to make the team. In terms of talent, the 6'7", 331-pound athlete has enough upside to land him in the Top 5 of a list like this in a couple of years if he can keep himself together.
- LB Nigel Bradham (25 on 9/4): If Bradham could ever earn a larger role in the defense, which he failed to do last summer and might not this summer, he has the athletic chops to develop into a quality starter.
- CB Ross Cockrell (23 on 8/6): Size, smarts and ball skills is a great combination to have for a defensive back. Don't sleep on this guy. He has eventual starter written all over him.
- CB Nickell Robey (22 on 1/17): It's unclear if he'll have the same role he did a year ago, and he may not offer much more than what we saw from him as a rookie, but the 5'7" slot corner has already proven himself to be a quality addition to the defensive backfield.