Sometimes the guys you don't recognize could be the most valuable
The self-proclaimed “no-names” of the Buffalo Bills are gaining some recognition now that superstar Mario Williams has joined the team. Hot-splash defensive end Mark Anderson followed suit. The new guys in town have received a lot of recognition, and for good reason.
The Bills needed them.
Adding them to a talented core makes it easy to get excited about the playmakers now in Buffalo. Fred Jackson. C.J. Spiller. Nick Barnett. Kyle Williams. Marcell Dareus.
And who doesn’t love to see Steve Johnson whipping out studio tracks with rap artist Game?
But with a lot of hype bubbling out of the Bills volcano right now, it’s easy to lose track of some of the lesser-known players—at least to national media—that will be important contributors to the Bills in 2012.
Here are five players on Buffalo’s roster who will have a big impact on the outcome of next season.
In his third year, Marcus Easley hopes to finally stay on the field
I’m excited about Marcus Easley.
I know he’s had a tough go at things in his first two years in the NFL, but if he can get healthy, stay healthy and finally show what he can do on the field, I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised.
A favorite prospect projected to the Bills at 10 overall in this year’s draft is Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd. Floyd is 6’3”, 220 pounds, and he ran a 4.47 40-time at the combine.
Two years ago, the Bills spent a fourth-round draft choice on Connecticut WR Marcus Easley. Easley is listed at 6’2”, 217 pounds, and he ran a 4.46 40-time at the 2010 combine.
Clearly, measurements don’t tell the full story behind a player, nor do they speak to a player’s on-field skill set and abilities with certainty. However, Easley entered the draft as a big, physical prospect with above-average speed and strong hands, very similar to how scouts view Floyd. The difference is that Floyd had more experience and production in college.
Last year, Easley had a strong preseason and was “beginning to blossom,” according to Bills lead journalist Chris Brown on BuffaloBills.com.
I’m not saying Marcus Easley is the answer to the Bills’ question at the No. 2 wideout position. But I’m not saying he can’t be, either.
The former Huskies standout hasn’t had an opportunity to fully show what he can do in the NFL. If he can stay healthy next year he’ll be yet another weapon for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Bills GM Buddy Nix is anxious about what Easley can do with consistent playing time. Bills fans should be optimistic.
RT Erik Pears has quietly become a significant part of the Bills O-line
With so much attention this offseason on Buffalo’s left tackle situation, many folks are forgetting about Erik Pears on the right side.
The journeyman had a terrific season in 2011 and earned himself a three-year contract extension worth $9.3 million. Bills center Eric Wood called Pears “a stud” and head coach Chan Gailey said that Pears is the definition of stability on the team’s revamped offensive line.
Listed at 6’8” and 316 pounds, the mammoth tackle out of Colorado State has found a home in Buffalo.
He commented that with other teams along the way he had always been asked to play lighter for zone-blocking schemes. This may have hindered his abilities as a big-framed offensive tackle with tamed power.
However, once arriving to the Bills, the big guy was happy to hear that Buddy Nix wanted him to bulk up and play big, since “this game is for big players” (cue Nix’s southern drawl). Pears added between 15 and 20 pounds, and everyone—including Pears—has seen the benefits.
The hard work and dedication has paid off for the 29-year-old as he’s slotted to be the Bills’ starting right tackle next year and beyond. By demonstrating consistent production and durability, Pears will be an important cog in Buffalo’s offensive machine moving forward.
The versatile Kraig Urbik was a steal acquisition for the Bills
Another offensive lineman to note here is right guard Kraig Urbik. Drafted 79th overall in 2009 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Urbik fizzled in his time wearing black and gold. However, he now has a chance to show that he’s capable of being the long-term starting right guard for the Bills.
This offseason, Buffalo tendered him as a restricted free agent for original draft choice compensation (third round). The 26-year-old played for Wisconsin and is a great run-blocker, making him an ideal fit with the Bills and their power-blocking scheme.
Like Pears, Urbik couldn’t quite shine with his former team since he didn’t fit so well with the zone-blocking system that was in place in Pittsburgh. His physicality was compromised, which ultimately led to his availability on waivers.
Bills Assistant GM and Director of Player Personnel Doug Whaley formerly worked with the Pittsburgh Steelers organization. One of his first fingerprints on the Bills was bringing Urbik to Buffalo.
Urbik, who is 6’5” and 324 pounds, proved not only his value but also his versatility to the starting unit last year. He manned the center position nicely in Eric Wood’s absence. Having an interior lineman who can play both guard spots and play center is a clear asset.
Urbik is a power blocker who will only continue to shine in Buffalo’s offense that features two dynamic running backs. And in case anyone forgot, Bills GM Buddy Nix stated in 2009, when Nix first arrived in Buffalo, that they had Eric Wood, Andy Levitre and Kraig Urbik ranked as the top three guards in the entire NFL draft class.
Now the Bills have all three in their starting lineup.
Justin Rogers figures to have more return chances next year
Cornerback Justin Rogers jumped unexpectedly onto the scene last season as a seventh-round draft choice.
Not many people thought he’d have any significant contributions in his rookie season. Considering he’s only 5’10” and 181 pounds, it was unclear whether or not he could hold his own against NFL receivers.
Amidst skepticism and general disinterest, Rogers impressed in his first year.
He did a great job returning kicks for the Bills in 2011, logging 373 kick return yards on 13 attempts, good enough for just under 30 yards per return. In college, the speedy Rogers set a Richmond school record for career return yards, and he carried that over into his rookie campaign.
Rogers also recorded the first interception of his NFL career last season in limited action. Despite his smaller stature, he’s actually a very good cover corner. He looked increasingly comfortable in man-to-man coverage, and he could be in for an increased role in 2012.
Reggie Corner is a free agent, Terrence McGee will be 32 in October and Leodis McKelvin is a bit of a wild card right now. With a small window of opportunity on the horizon, Rogers will be prepared to make the most of it.
Prior to Rogers’ rookie campaign, Bills secondary coach George Catavolos, who is well-respected around the league, praised Rogers for his intelligence and physical skills at the cornerback position, suggesting that the young defensive back would be an immediate contributor to the Bills’ secondary.
Rogers has the potential to continue the successful string of Bills returners that have emerged in recent seasons. In addition, he could carve out a role in the secondary with his combination of elite speed, intelligence and cover abilities.
Veteran LB Kirk Morrison offers both leadership and production
Kirk Morrison is a tackling machine. Plain and simple.
He has started 95 of 110 career games. Between 2005 and 2010 with the Oakland Raiders, Morrison played every game each season and averaged nearly 127 tackles per season.
When the Bills first signed Morrison last offseason, Rotoworld.com acknowledged that the veteran has “long been under-appreciated by the NFL.” At 6’2” and 245 pounds, Morrison has good range for a linebacker and has consistently excelled against the run.
His experience playing inside linebacker may have initially appealed to the Bills, but it now appears that Morrison is the favorite to start at the strong outside linebacker position in the 4-3 defense.
"As last season progressed we learned a lot about Kirk as a person and a player and he learned a lot about us as an organization and a team. We feel like he’s a good fit for our defense. Personally, I am excited because this is a great opportunity for him with us going to the 4-3."
Having played most of his career in a 4-3 defense, Morrison is now set up for success in 2012. He’s currently the favorite to start as the Sam backer for the Bills defense, and he’ll have an opportunity to showcase his skills next year behind a talented, newly revamped defensive line.
Morrison may be 30 years old, but he’s been extremely durable in his seven-year career. His age doesn’t necessarily match the youthful upside as other players on this list. However, Morrison has proven to be a reliable linebacker in the NFL, and his performance has been vastly underrated thus far in his career.
In 2012, he’ll show why he is yet another player the Bills were wise to snatch up at a bargain.
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