Take a few minutes this morning and transport yourself back to the weeks leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft. The Buffalo Bills, coming off of a 4-12 season, held the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, and were widely expected to select an elite prospect in one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory.
Sometimes, pre-draft rhetoric bears out. The 2011 draft class has now been in the NFL for four seasons. In those four years, 23 different players have appeared in the Pro Bowl, and including multiple invitees, they've appeared in the all-star game 45 times. More pertinently: 10 members of that draft class have already been named a first team All-Pro at least once.
That list of All-Pro players includes J.J. Watt, Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Tyron Smith, Robert Quinn, Justin Houston, DeMarco Murray... and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, the player that the Bills ultimately ended up choosing at No. 3 overall. (Dareus has earned two of those Pro Bowl invites, as well.)
It was not the easiest of rides for Dareus, now 25, to arrive as one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. Following a solid rookie season, Dareus suffered through off-field tragedies and made multiple mistakes; it led to a mediocre run in 2012, a rough offseason prior to the 2014 season, and a one-game suspension that he'll be serving in this year's season opener. It's still not clear if the off-field issues are behind Dareus or not - only time can prove that one way or the other - but he has most definitely matured on the field.
His on-field maturation started in 2013, following that down year, when he earned his first Pro Bowl bid. According to Pro Football Focus metrics, after posting positive grades of 7.0 and 3.9 in his first two years in the league, Dareus jumped up to plus-25, which ranked second on the Bills that season behind only fellow defensive lineman Kyle Williams. Last season, Dareus continued to climb, posting a plus-25.6 grade, which was the highest grade PFF gave to any Bills player.
People tend to focus on sack numbers with star defensive tackles, mostly because one can't earn star defensive tackle status without solid sack numbers. Dareus has them; his 28.5 sacks in four seasons looks particularly impressive when juxtaposed with the universally-respected Williams, who in nine NFL seasons has accumulated 34.5 of his own. Dareus has more sacks among any 2011 draft class defensive lineman than Watt, who is in a class of his own, and Cameron Jordan of New Orleans. He does well in this department.
Where Dareus really shines, however, is as a run defender. This is where he has had the biggest effect on Buffalo's improving defense; the team has managed Top 10 finishes in each of the past two seasons largely because of their improvements defending the run, and Dareus has spearheaded those efforts. Again using PFF metrics, Dareus graded out as the ninth-best run-defending defensive lineman in the NFL in 2013. Last season, he vaulted all the way up to No. 1 in that category. The Bills finished 11th in the league against the run, their highest ranking since a No. 7 finish in 2004, and Dareus pitched in 10 sacks for the Bills' league-leading 54 as a team, as well.
In short, Dareus is arguably the most important player on the Bills' defense - easily their strongest unit - and quite possibly the biggest reason that they have elevated into discussions of the league's best defenses over the last two years. Dareus is a stud. Everyone knows it - including the Bills, who are now faced with the possibility of paying him a nine-figure contract as he heads into the final year of his rookie contract.
For the purposes of the 2015 Bills season - one in which the team will rely on a steady running game, excellent special teams, and elite play from its defense - Dareus is the Bills' best, and therefore most important, player. If he can maintain that status for another year, he'll earn a monster pay day, and perhaps a lot more recognition league-wide.