The Buffalo Bills finished off their last set of practices on Thursday afternoon before the team goes on a month-long hiatus leading up to summer training camp.
As expected, rookies have been the most interesting players to follow early on, as their production will directly impact the Bills' 2013 season—for better or for worse. EJ Manuel headlines a class of rookies that is expected to turn the tide of a franchise wallowing in mediocrity, but he may not be the most important first-year player for the Bills this season.
Let's take a quick look at the five rookies the Bills will need to produce at a high level for the team to compete for a playoff spot in the upcoming season.
Former Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg is in a unique spot for the Bills this season. Starting tight end Scott Chandler is still attempting a comeback from an ACL tear that happened in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins.
Following Chandler on the depth chart are Lee Smith, Mike Caussin and Dorin Dickerson—which made the lack of drafting a tight end in the middle of the draft a puzzling choice. However, the Bills coaching staff got their guy with their final pick of the draft in Gragg.
If Chandler is not ready to start the season, then it could be Gragg who could see the most time at tight end for the new-look Bills offense. Despite his seventh-round tag, Gragg is the most versatile player of the four players remaining on the depth chart.
Dickerson is purely a pass-catching tight end, while Smith and Caussin provide good value as in-line blockers.
Gragg has reliable hands and put up the best numbers in the 40-yard dash at the combine at his position with a 4.50 showing.
While straight-line speed is not the most important thing for a tight end, the evolution of the position rewards players who have solid height-speed combinations. Gragg combines his speed with a 6'3" frame and has the potential to add more muscle as the offseason progresses.
He is also a serviceable blocker, which should move him up the depth chart once training camp gets underway.
Da'Rick Rogers is the only undrafted player to make this list and with good reason. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but assuming Rogers can keep his head right, he has the opportunity to be the best Bills rookie receiver this season.
The talent oozes out of Rogers veins, but the formerly banned Volunteer player has plenty of things to learn before he is ready to contribute consistently. On the final day of OTAs two weeks ago, Rogers stood over a defender after making an impressive play, and coach Doug Marrone gave Rogers an earful following the play, per Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News.
"The thing that concerned me -- and I addressed it with him right after he made a very good catch, then he kind of stood there over a player, and that’s a 15-yard penalty -- that's not what being a pro is, and that's not playing like a Buffalo Bill." (The Buffalo News)
Rogers will have to learn to treat success with class, and he is an understudy of the right kind of player to teach him such a lesson. Stevie Johnson struggled with immaturity during his first few season in Orchard Park and dealt with the repercussions of his decisions on and off the field.
Rogers will likely have his name called upon early in the season, and it is solely up to him in terms of how good he will be during his rookie season.
If you have not read an article about EJ Manuel over the last two months, then you might be living underneath a rock.
It has been Manuel this and Manuel that since the Bills traded out of the top 10 to select the Florida State signal-caller in the middle of the first. He saw himself sitting behind Tarvaris Jackson and Kevin Kolb on the depth chart at OTAs, but he slid up a spot when Jackson was released by the team on Monday.
Whether Manuel starts the season as the starter or the backup to Kolb will ultimately decide his 2013 rookie stock, but for now, he remains firmly in the top-five rookies. If he starts from the beginning and the rest of the Bills offense comes together, Manuel could be in the running for an Offensive Rookie of the Year award come December.
While he may not officially be slotted so on the predicted Bills depth chart on Ourlads.com, Robert Woods is the most logical option to start opposite of Stevie Johnson this fall. He displayed polished route-running and a knack for getting open against the Bills' first-team defense during OTAs a few weeks ago.
Woods will be expected to put up solid numbers as the Bills' third option behind C.J. Spiller and Johnson after being drafted in the second round. The pressure of being a true No. 2 option in a fast-paced offense should be no problem for Woods after he played in such a role with USC.
The only other player I can see cutting into Woods' playing time is Rogers, with a combination of T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin rotating in the speed-receiver spot.
As important as EJ Manuel will be to the offense should he start, Kiko Alonso will have a similar effect on the Buffalo defense. Alonso has been thrown into the fire from day one as the "quarterback" of the defense—even more so after the team traded last year's starter Kelvin Sheppard to Indianapolis.
Alonso will be wearing the green dot on the back of his helmet when the Bills take the field in the season opener against the New England Patriots and is tasked to cover some of the best tight ends in the league. Such a responsibility is a tall order for a rookie—even one drafted as highly as Alonso—and can be a burden for a young player trying to learn a complex new defense.
Tim Graham and Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News commented in a webcast video following Thursday's minicamp wrap-up that Alonso has looked the part. Graham went as far as saying that he saw Alonso run "almost step for step" with C.J. Spiller on a couple of designed passes for the Bills star back.
If that type of athleticism can be showcased when the pads come on in July, Alonso will be on the short list of rookie-defender standouts during the 2013 season.