In their attempt to end a 15-season-long playoff drought, the Buffalo Bills have fashioned themselves a run-first, defense-oriented identity headlined by a veteran coaching staff and veteran players in highly important areas. The true allure of this (and any rising) team, however, is their up-and-coming talent - and the Bills will be highly reliant on plenty of that this season, as well. This list attempts to identify the 10 most important Bills players age 25 and under for the team heading into the 2015 season.
Here, I attempted to factor in not just overall talent, but importance to the team in 2015, as well as past production. That's not always easy to do, especially in that third category, and it will serve as the biggest point of contention, I'm sure, for people who like to argue about lists. In the name of transparency, however, those three factors were behind the names included here.
Since an age-25 cutoff is already arbitrary enough, I thought I'd add a second layer of arbitrariness into the mix by removing players that will turn 26 during the calendar year 2015. Really, that only amounted to the exclusion of two players that will turn 26 during the first month of the regular season: linebacker Nigel Bradham and tackle Cordy Glenn. If you want to feel better about this list for some reason, just pretend those two are on it.
Here's the full list, headlined by a few quality players and including several more that the Bills really, really need to be good this season.
10. QB EJ Manuel (25 on 3/19)
No one has any idea right now what is going to happen at quarterback for the Bills this summer - as in, which of their three options will win the starting job for Week 1 - but it's a pretty safe bet that we'll see at least two of them under center during regular season action. The Bills, after all, are trying to make the playoffs, and there's no reason for them to stick with the initial competition winner if the production isn't there. Manuel will play quarterback for the Bills this season, and when he does, he will be the most important player on the field simply because of the position he plays.
9. CB Ronald Darby (21 on 1/2)
When the Bills selected Darby in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, the predominant expectation was that he'd play a depth role as a rookie and project as a replacement starter in 2016 or beyond. Since then, however, the Bills have moved veteran Corey Graham to safety on a seemingly full-time basis, and more importantly, Darby has impressed in spring workouts. No one is yet ready to claim that he'll take a job away from, say, slot cornerback Nickell Robey, but it's entirely possible that happens. Add in his world-class speed and solid upside, and Darby's an easy addition to this list.
8. S Duke Williams (25 on 10/15)
While he may no longer be counted on as a starter in 2015, given Graham's position switch, there's little question that Williams will still have a significant role to play for the Bills this season. He showed quite well in a part-time role last season, supplementing the departed Da'Norris Searcy, and he has the required athleticism and physicality to play multiple roles as a sub-package defender in a new scheme. Williams is likely to continue in rotation with Graham and the No. 5 name on this list, but part-time defensive backs are still highly important players in today's NFL. His arrow is pointing up.
7. OG John Miller (22 on 8/12)
He hasn't even put pads on yet, and already, this third-round pick out of Louisville has established himself as a likely starter for the Bills in 2015. Miller has made the most of his opportunity in Buffalo; he was very clearly drafted to start, and all of the glowing rhetoric surrounding him this spring (it's coming from Bills coaches, by the way) has only bolstered that notion. Buffalo's run-first offense will require significantly better and more physical blocking than their overmatched 2014 guards were able to muster, and the big, physical Miller will be asked to spearhead those efforts.
6. WR Robert Woods (23 on 4/10)
It's hard to figure out how much the Bills will be using Woods in 2015, given the coaching staff's perceived predilection for heavy formations and running the football, plus the presence of snap-stealers like Percy Harvin and Chris Hogan. Inconsistent quarterback play has hampered Woods' production through his first two seasons, but he has also struggled with inconsistencies of his own. He has the talent to be a full-time NFL starter, but 2015 has a bit of a make-or-break feel for him on that front. If he can hold off Harvin in training camp, it'll be a good start.
5. S Aaron Williams (25 on 4/23)
Durability has been an issue throughout Williams' four-year career. He has yet to play in 16 games in a single season, though last year's one missed game was a career low, as well. Williams' strength as a coverage defender is in his versatility; he is more useful to game planners as a guy that can drop and cover receivers or stay over the top on any given snap. He is the Bills' best safety, and if he can improve the consistency of his tackling technique, he has a good chance to emerge as a top safety in a diversely-schemed defense.
4. LB Preston Brown (23 on 10/27)
Brown logged the most snaps of any Bills linebacker thanks to surprisingly competent coverage skills, and enjoyed a solid, 109-tackle freshman campaign. His responsibility (and as a result, his importance) will grow significantly in his second season as the top linebacker for Rex Ryan and his complicated scheme. Ryan's defense asks a lot of its linebackers, and while Bradham has more star potential, it'll be Brown serving as the proverbial quarterback of Buffalo's defense in 2015. He needs to continue his upward trajectory if the Bills' defense is to reach elite status.
3. WR Sammy Watkins (22 on 6/14)
It can be argued that Watkins is the Bills' most singularly talented player on the roster. You may not win that argument, but you'll at least do okay for yourself. That's what Watkins did as a rookie, too: despite severely lackluster quarterback and offensive line play, Watkins battled through injuries to play in all 16 games and nearly eclipse 1,000 receiving yards. He slides a bit on this list because of his quarterback contingency, but if he's fully healthy this season, he should be much better on tape and on the stat sheet, regardless of the philosophy of Greg Roman's offense. He's that good.
2. CB Stephon Gilmore (25 on 9/19)
Gilmore is coming off of his best season as a pro, albeit one where he still missed two games due to injury and suffered some up-and-down performances early in the season. When he's on, Gilmore looks like he can be one of the best in the business, but the consistency (and durability) are not quite there yet. People have been whispering about his elite potential since the end of his rookie season; now, entering his fourth year as a pro, it's time for him to realize those expectations.
1. DT Marcell Dareus (25 on 3/13)
A first team All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowl player before he even turned 25, Dareus has emerged as one of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL - and he can still play better football. That's especially true as a pass rusher, where he's been merely good, despite his 10-sack outburst last season; he is genuinely great as a run defender. Dareus was the Bills' best individual player last season, and the odds are quite good that he'll do it again this season. When he does, he'll demand a highly lucrative contract extension next offseason - unless the Bills can take care of that within the next month.