Covering the Buffalo Bills in the offseason is an exercise in survival, wherein we use hype, rumor, series work, and that ever-loved Internet staple, the list, to occupy ourselves until meaningful things start to happen. It can be tiring and repetitive, and we're very sorry about that - especially since this post is, in fact, another list.
It is, at least, an attempt at a unique sort of list - one that we only visit bi-annually, as a sort of status check on the state of the Bills from a young, developing talent standpoint. We'll do this once before the NFL Draft each year - this is the 2015 version of that endeavor - and once during the summer doldrums, after two free agent signing periods and the addition of rookies has concluded.
For those who have seen this list before, a reminder: it is only comprised of Bills players that will turn 25 (or any age preceding it) during the 2015 season. That means that, for example, a current 25-year-old in Nigel Bradham, who will turn 26 in September, will not be included. It's an arbitrary cut-off point, but a necessary one; we wouldn't want to turn this into a "Good young Bills players" list, now, would we?
Yes, this is the Top 10 Bills Age 25 or Under list, and it's starting right now.
No. 10: EJ Manuel, QB
Turning 25 on March 19, Manuel enters the 2015 season at a critical juncture in his young career. A mediocre-at-best rookie season was followed up by a quick hook after four starts in 2014. Now the only viable NFL quarterback on the roster, it's likely that he'll at least have a shot at winning the starting job back this summer. A talented athlete that has yet to develop in any significant way as a NFL passer, Manuel sneaks onto the list thanks largely to the potential that made him an early pick two years ago - potential that, for the most part, remains untapped.
No. 9: Duke Williams, S
The Bills are bracing for the loss of starting safety Da'Norris Searcy in free agency, but Williams' presence will help the team absorb that blow. Williams spent the 2014 season - his second in the NFL - playing coverage foil to Searcy with the starting defense, to increasingly consistent (albeit mixed on the whole) results. A high-quality athlete, Williams appears primed to step into the starting lineup full-time if Searcy departs, where he'd give the Bills a second position-versatile safety in the starting lineup. He turns 25 on October 15.
No. 8: Nickell Robey, CB
Robey remains one of the youngest players on the roster despite being here for two seasons, having just turned 23 on January 17. He's coming off a down year in the Jim Schwartz defense, which is far more traditional than the Rex Ryan scheme, and which therefore does not play to Robey's strengths the way Mike Pettine did in 2013. That year, Robey quickly emerged as one of the better slot corners in football, equally adept blitzing off the edge as he was in coverage. It's fair to expect a return to his rookie-year form in Ryan's aggressive scheme next season.
No. 7: Robert Woods, WR
One gets the feeling, when watching Woods play, that he has the potential to become one of the league's most underrated No. 2 receivers if the team can ever find a quarterback. Woods has some minor durability issues, and needs to be more consistent, but is a smooth route-runner that plays a highly physical brand of football despite his smaller stature. He's capable of making big plays, and on paper is a terrific complement to Sammy Watkins. Were it not for the Bills' struggles as an offense on the whole, Woods - who will be 23 on April 10 - would probably rate much higher on this list.
No. 6: Preston Brown, LB
A major reason that the Bills were able to improve at the linebacker position in Kiko Alonso's absence last season was the play of Brown, who will turn 23 on October 27. This was especially true in pass coverage; no one was going to replace what Alonso offers, but Brown overcame some early-season issues and was a consistent and dependable defender on passing downs, which is not easy to pull off as a rookie. He's a three-down player that will continue to improve, and has a real chance to establish himself as a defensive fixture for years to come.
No. 5: Aaron Williams, S
Williams is another player, like Robey, whose performance dipped in 2014 in a more conventionally-structured defensive system. His strengths - namely, positional versatility - aren't as accentuated in a less creative defense, and as a result his performance dipped a bit from year to year. Moving back to that defense, Williams' importance increases as a safety with corner skills, and a corresponding increase in his productivity should be expected - especially if he can finally avoid the small, nagging injuries that have become his norm. Despite entering his fifth pro season, Williams will only turn 25 on April 23.
No. 4: Sammy Watkins, WR
Clearly, Watkins has the potential to rank much higher on this list, and probably will - even if the Bills are only able to tread water from a productivity standpoint at the quarterback position. One of the most talented wide receivers in the NFL, Watkins was able to put up some massive performances in his rookie season, despite playing at less than 100 percent health for essentially the entire season, and despite the massive imbalance in the offensive game plan. He ranks lower for the same reason as Woods - the talent is there, but the level of play hasn't quite lived up to the hype yet. He'll only be 22 on June 14, and you don't need me to tell you that expectations for Watkins will be enormous heading into his second season.
No. 3: Stephon Gilmore, CB
Seemingly from the moment that he accepted the Bills' head coaching position, Ryan has spent a lot of time building up Gilmore as the next big thing at cornerback. Gilmore, who will turn 25 on September 19, has had that label applied to him before, but still isn't considered one of the elite corners in the game. That's not to say he hasn't been very good; he is, in fact, coming off of his best season as a pro. His last two seasons, to varying degrees, have been derailed by injuries, and if he can stay healthy as he did in his rookie season, we should finally see Gilmore emerge as one of the league's better man corners - even with added responsibilities in Ryan's defense.
No. 2: Kiko Alonso, LB
You might not feel comfortable putting a guy fresh off of a missed season this high on a list, but it's an easy argument for me to make: Alonso was that good in 2013. That's especially true in coverage, where Alonso quickly established himself as one of the better pass defenders at his position in the pro game. Assuming he'll be back at full form following an ACL tear is risky, but given the Bills' new-found depth at linebacker, the team probably won't need him to play every single snap on defense, like they did in 2013. With a better supporting cast around him, Alonso may not only return to form following his injury; he might quickly exceed where he was when we last saw him.
No. 1: Marcell Dareus, DT
If you've been at all excited about the quality of the names on the list to this point, understand one thing: none of those other nine players are even remotely on the level with Dareus, who turns 25 on March 13, from a production standpoint. There's a lot of "what if" with the rest of the names, but Dareus is a known quantity: he is an elite interior defensive lineman in the NFL, one of the best run defenders in the game, and a genuine building block for the Bills defensively. He earned his first team All-Pro spot with his best season yet in 2014, and if he can maintain that level of play, it won't be his last. Dareus is a stud.