The Buffalo Bills Overcome Injury Adversity Through Rookie Development

Kyle RichardsonCorrespondent IJuly 2, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 14:  Leon Washington #29 of The New York Jets scores a touchdown in the second quarter as Leodis McKelvin #28 of the Buffalo Bills attempts the tackle during their game on December 14, 2008 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Over the past few seasons, rookies have played a pivotal role in Buffalo’s success.

This year, one of the most promising looking squads for the Bills in years at this point in the offseason, will need them more than ever.

Not to be a pessimist, but what could hamper their success?

Ahh...the all-inevitable injuries.

They’ve plagued these Bills in recent years in key positions with 39 players showing up on the injury report or reserve in 2007, and 35 in 2008.

Over the past few years, rookies have had to step up and fill the void in key game situations.

Kevin Everett getting carted off the field in the season opener in '07 began a rash of injuries for a Bills squad that would see emerging leaders from likely and unlikely positions, for years to come.

Trent Edwards was forced to come in and play before the coaches had wished after J.P. Losman was injured. He came in and played nine games, more than any other rookie that season.

Edwards finished the season with decent numbers for a rookie who began his NFL career coming in midway through a game vs. the Patriots team that would go 16-0 in the regular season: 1,630 yards, seven touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 56 percent completion rate.

Marshawn Lynch came in and rushed for 1,115 yards and recorded seven touchdowns his rookie year, proving that the release of Willis McGahee in the 2007 offseason was not a mistake.

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Even unknown rookie running back from Coe College and NFL Europe, Fred Jackson, gained 490 yards from scrimmage in just eight games.

Paul Posluszny, set to take over as middle linebacker in Shane Conlan’s PSU to Buffalo footsteps, missed that year, his rookie season with a broken arm.

Second year middle linebacker John DiGiorgio replaced him and recorded 86 tackles, along with two sacks and one interception.

In 2008, they were without starting linebacker Angelo Crowell for the entire season, lost Aaron Schobel, Ashton Youboty and DiGiorgio for most of the season, and Josh Reed, James Hardy, Roscoe Parrish, and Donte Whitner in the final quarter of the season.

Three year veteran Keith Ellison only recorded 47 tackles in his Crowell’s absence, and the defense really missed Schobel’s ability to get to the quarterback, proving the need to sign more depth at those two positions.

Rookie Leodis McKelvin was the bright spot coming in and performing well on both the defensive end and special teams. He grabbed two interceptions (scoring on one), recovered a fumble, and broke Bills rookie and team records for kick return yards in a season with 1,468, as well as one more touchdown at that capacity.

So as the Bills may look young, they’ve been tested, and have learned to play at an NFL level early on.

This season the contributions they must get from rookies are glaring early on with two set to start on the offensive line: Eric Wood and Andy Levitre.

Hope is that their strength and intelligence helps both players to mature sooner rather than later.

What rookies may have to step up this year should the all-inevitable injuries occur?

The Bills offense will be improved, maybe as early as training camp with the competition that talented rookie tight end Shawn Nelson can bring, pushing Derek Fine and Derek Schouman to progress at that position.

On the defensive end, they will need contributions early on from rookie defensive end Aaron Maybin to improve a pass rush that ranked 29th last season.

Linebacker Nic Harris, who was selected in the fifth round this year by the Bills, should also help. Harris (6’3", 230) who played safety while at Oklahoma, is expected to backup Keith Ellison at outside linebacker, based on the Bills depth already at the safety position.

Harris' athleticism should prove to be valuable for the Bills depth chart and on special teams. He welcomes the challenge of facing a position change.

“I just want to come in and get the job done,” said Harris. “I’m just one of those guys that’s selfless. It doesn’t really matter where you play me.”

Then there is Alvin Bowen who missed his rookie season with a right-knee injury. He will fill the depth chart at outside linebacker as well, and according to he and Harris have looked well as legitimate competition for Ellison.

Rookie cornerback Cary Harris is deep on the depth chart and has been struggling during OTAs with apparent knee problems, getting burnt for a few touchdowns by the Bills tremendous receivers.

More focus in the secondary should be on rookie cornerback turned free safety: Jairus Byrd. The Bills saw enough talent in him before the draft to pick him up in the second round with the hope that he would push George Wilson and Ko Simpson.

He’s looked well in making the change in position already directing other defensive backs during 7-on-7's.

If they perform well in filling the role of injured players, this year’s picks will add to the drafting genius by the Bills the past few seasons and assure that the Bills don’t miss a beat on their road to the playoffs.