One of the more difficult factors to evaluate when it comes to shaping the back end of a NFL roster is weighting the value of a player's special teams ability against the depth of his primary position and that of the overall roster.
When it comes to the 2015 Buffalo Bills, it's a bit easier to figure this out: they have had the same special teams coordinator (Danny Crossman) in place for going on three seasons now, which has allowed the proverbial cream to rise. We therefore have a good grasp on the players that are already established special teams stars for the Bills - and there's even some insight out there as to which players might be next in line for that honor.
These five players are the most-established special teams contributors that the Bills have fielded over the past two seasons, and all five have strong arguments to make for roster inclusion based on that fact alone. (Note that the list doesn't include kickers, punters, or long snappers, because this is about skill players playing special teams).
CB Ron Brooks
Reserve defensive backs are expected to play special teams, and that's exactly what Brooks has done over the past two seasons: played more special teams snaps than all but three players on the team (Duke Williams plus two names on this list). While not necessarily a standout performer here, Brooks nonetheless has had his moments covering kicks and punts, and is a player that the special teams coaches are undoubtedly comfortable with at this juncture.
WR Chris Hogan
His 41-catch, 426-yard, four-touchdown 2014 campaign brought Hogan to the forefront, but prior to that, he had earned his keep as a roster reserve thanks to a growing role on special teams. Again, while not necessarily a standout performer, Hogan's ability to contribute heavily on kick and punt coverage teams adds considerably to his roster value, particularly at a position where teams ability is not a given. His 470 special teams snaps played over the last two years ranks third on the team.
LB Ty Powell
Powell is making waves for different reasons this offseason - head coach Rex Ryan has repeatedly praised his play as the team's top reserve linebacker during spring workouts - but he is also one of the Bills' most valuable special teams performers. He played 102 teams snaps in just five games with the Bills in 2013, then led the team in teams snaps played last season (278) despite missing two games due to injury. Powell is extremely well-regarded in the organization, and his special teams ability has a lot to do with that.
RB Anthony Dixon
There's a prevailing notion out there that Dixon's spot on the 53-man roster might be in jeopardy, thanks to the Bills' depth at running back and some political factors (i.e. the fact that Doug Whaley traded for Bryce Brown) that might come into play. Not many running backs can contribute 261 special teams snaps in a season, however; fewer still can block two punts in a year, something Dixon did in 2014 (and that no Bill had accomplished since the great Steve Tasker did it in 1990). Dixon is far more valuable on special teams, and in the locker room, than many are willing to admit.
WR Marcus Easley
Easley established himself as a top-level special teams ace during the 2013 season, in which he exhibited Pro Bowl caliber play, and continued that trend when healthy during the 2014 season. He ranks among the best punt gunners in the NFL, and has a knack for slipping through blocks to make tackles on return men. Easley is such a standout on teams, in fact, that the Bills signed him to a rather lucrative four-year, $7 million contract extension this offseason. That's a contract for a guy that might not play a single snap on offense this season, by the way.
Those are the five most established, non-kicker special teams players on Buffalo's roster. But who are the players that haven't had large roles before, but may earn one in 2015? Glad you asked.
TE MarQueis Gray
Coaches love reserves that can offer value to a roster beyond what their primary position calls for, and Gray was a prime example in the latter half of the 2014 season: in five games played with the Bills last year, he accumulated 54 special teams snaps, on top of earning a small role on offense. Compare that to the 20 teams snaps that the similarly-skilled Chris Gragg played in 10 games, and you begin to understand why Gragg was a healthy scratch behind Gray in last year's season finale. Gray's ability on teams should come into play as tight end cuts are made this summer.
ER Michael Buchanan
The Bills signed Buchanan on June 2, after New England released him following an injury-shortened 2014 campaign. In 2013, Buchanan, then a rookie, ranked eighth on the Patriots' roster in terms of special teams snaps played, logging 201 in 15 games (only seven Bills played more in 2014) while contributing a bit as an edge rusher for Bill Belichick, as well. A long, lanky end-linebacker hybrid with good athleticism, Buchanan's bid to make the roster under Ryan should be bolstered by his ability to contribute on teams.
LB Randell Johnson
Among the Bills' intriguing and unknown linebacker depth players, who will all be vying for roster spots this summer, perhaps none are more intriguing than the highly athletic Johnson. Something of a positional hybrid, Johnson - an end in college who played linebacker for Jim Schwartz - has a real opportunity to affect the strong-side linebacker race this summer. But in the five games Johnson appeared in during the 2014 season (he was a healthy scratch in the final eight games), Johnson averaged 16 special teams snaps per contest, and recovered a fumble in a Week 2 win over Miami. He should receive a longer look on special teams this summer.
RB Karlos Williams
Once upon a time, Williams was a defensive back at Florida State - a highly athletic and well-recruited one, at that. His transition to running back was a successful one, to the point that the Bills used a fifth-round pick on him in May, but that background on defense doesn't just go away. It's expected that the 6'1", 230-pound athlete with 4.48-second 40-yard dash speed will have a significant impact on the shape of the Bills' special teams units this season - and by extension, the roster as a whole.
S Jonathan Meeks
Meeks was a fifth-round draft pick out of Clemson in 2013, but in two years in the NFL he has appeared in just seven games for the Bills, missing huge chunks of time due to injury. Those concerns could prevent him from making the team this season, but he's still a talented athlete with this special teams nugget working in his favor: at the outset of his rookie season in 2013, Meeks logged 96 teams snaps in the first five games of the season, before succumbing to a foot injury. The coaches liked him on teams then, and it's entirely possible that those same coaches will like him there again in 2015.