As the mind-numbing last part of the offseason heads ever so slowly towards training camp, the Bills' rookie class has begun to show signs of being field-worthy.
With only T.J. Graham not inked for a deal as of yet, Buffalo has a derth of talented rookies looking for spots on the final roster and will be competing for room on a deep roster come training camp.
Here, then, is a look at three rookies and the veterans they are trying to supplant in Buffalo come September, for as there's no drama or news currently coming out of Western New York, we'll just have to create some.
Cornerback Battle: Stephon Gilmore vs. Leodis McKelvin
You could say young Gilmore is battling Terrence McGee or Aaron Williams here, but with the nine years of seniority McGee has and with Williams entering just his second season, the real player who should be watchful is McKelvin.
Approaching his fifth year in Buffalo, McKelvin is a 2008 first round pick for the Bills who hasn't quite found his rhythm... in four years. Though 2010 saw his highest career numbers (67 tackles, 11 pass deflections, 2 INTs), that's almost half of his total stats.
In fact, Aaron Williams was drafted in the second round last year as competition to further light a fire under Leodis' game, to build on his successes in 2010, but it resulted in McKelvin playing even worse (39 tackles, 8 deflections, and an INT), spending ten games as a backup rather than a starter and largely only being utilized in nickel/dime sets (even with McGee injured all but six games).
With a projected $1.58 million owed to him in 2012, McKelvin just hasn't looked to be worth the investment anymore, especially with first round pick Gilmore making his presence known in training camp. In Stephon's time at South Carolina, he had numerous experiences with NFL level defenses in the hybrid schemes that Coach Spurrier ran there and should be comfortable taking the next step with relative ease.
Gilmore is the player Buffalo wanted in the first round, the kind of immediate impact guy who can compete as a starter and he should be on the field, especially if McGee can't stay healthy.
Add to that the pro level competition/coaching he regularly faced and the fact that 4th round pick Ron Brooks seems just as capable playing a nickel/dime corner as McKelvin, and the youth movement in Buffalo might be enough to push McKelvin out before the season starts.
If McGee can't get healthy, he might be next...
Left Tackle: Cordy Glenn vs. Chris Hairston
Chris Hairston never got a chance to really shine with Buffalo his first season in 2011, robbed of a preseason by the lockout, and thrown into the starter deep end when the Bills faced an almost decimated offensive line by midseason and began shuffling big men.
With the departure of Demetress Bell (a three-year constant at left tackle), Hairston may have thought he had a smooth path to starting in 2012 (Buddy Nix even proclaimed they could "win with him at left tackle" back in January), but then the Bills became smitten with Cordy Glenn and, by bringing him in, started the most intense two-man competition in camp.
Hairston came out of Clemson as a fourth-round project in 2011, adequate enough to play backup immediatly, but with the potential to grow into a decent starter with some work and attention. Unfortunately, Chris didn't get that opportunity after the players' strike gave him next to no work with the staff previous to the start of the season.
He played decently in relief last year, but this offseason has seen Glenn getting all the work at left tackle, while Hairston has thus far been forced to transition to right tackle, filling in for the injured Erik Pears (hernia surgery, though he will be ready come the season). Hairston may have gotten some vital experience last year against some of the NFL's top defensive linemen, but it may not have been enough come the season.
Meanwhile, Glenn has shown no reason to pull him from the starting left tackle spot. The work he's put in during minicamp and OTAs has helped reinforce the faith Buffalo had in him pre-Draft. Cordy was a steal when he dropped to the second round and though he largely played guard at Georgia, his wingspan (35 3/4" arm length) and speed (5.15 40-yard dash, 5th among linemen at the Combine) give him some of the unteachable, natural attributes needed to anchor the left tackle spot.
Even Nix had averred that they "feel pretty good about [Cordy]... he's taken every snap... he hasn't done anything but impress us," so unless adding pads to the equation somehow mucks things up or Hairston does some major impressing himself come training camp, it looks like Glenn will be pencilled as the starter at left tackle.
That means Chris will likely be backing up Glenn or Pears... unless Zebrie Sanders starts surpassing him that is.
Wide Receiver: T.J. Graham vs. Donald Jones/Marcus Easley/Derek Hagan/ Naaman Roosevelt... Kamar Aiken... Ruvell Martin...
There's a glut of options at receiver right now in Buffalo, with a lot of talk about numbers. Who will be No. 2? Will that No. 2 be a slot receiver or a speedster? What does No. 2 mean in Buffalo, really?
Apart from Steve Johnson and, surprisingly, David Nelson (61 rec, 658 yds, 5 TDs playing largely in the slot), no Bills receiver put up any significant yardage in 2011 with three of the above options (Easley, Aiken, and Graham) having zero career yards to their name.
Even experienced NFLers like Hagan (seven seasons, 1221 yds, 6 TDs) and Martin (six seasons, 1088 yds, 7 TDs) only have total numbers about equivalent to either one of Johnson's last two seasons, so experience and stats don't seem to figure into the decision.
Though Donald Jones seems to be the clear second option in Buffalo (if he remains healthy), Coach Gailey's offense... muddies what it means to be a No. 2 or No. 3 option. In 2011, the Bills used alot of three and four receiver sets (percentage wise, the most in the NFL), with receivers Nos. 2, 3, and all the rest playing all over the field opposite Johnson.
Add TE Scott Chandler into the mix, an overgrown receiver in the end, and you don't have many receivers playing traditional roles, keeping them malleable and allowing them to go from slot to flanker effortlessly. It's not so much a question of who fits the descriptions of a No. 2 or 3, but who are the best receivers, the best overall athletes.
In that respect, you've got to think Graham has an edge over several other options. Stevie's not going anywhere, so apart from Jones and Nelson, who seem entirely safe as starters, there isn't another player on the field with the speed of Graham.
The NC State standout ran a 4.39 at the Combine (he also set several track records in college), utilizing those wheels to get free for major chunks of yardage in games last year (led his team in 2011 with 757 yards on 46 catches, as well as scoring 9 TDs), something the Bills have seen glimpses of in camp so far. Graham's value goes even higher as he also holds the ACC record for kick returns, with 3,103 yards and 4 return TDs.
That kind of speed and return production pretty much secures T.J.'s spot on the roster (even if he's just a deep threat decoy to free up Johnson or Jones), giving him the spot Roscoe Parrish vacated on the team, but who is dropped as a result?
Do you keep veterans like Hagan and Martin, or do you give a chance to youngsters like Aiken or Easley (a possible star who just can't seem to catch a break)? Unlike the other matchups, who gets left behind is a thought for another piece, when we've seen what they can do in pads at training camp, but the upside of Graham will defintely see him getting a spot on the roster in 2012 (once he signs a deal that is).
That's three rookies who should be starters barring any missteps or injuries (always a concern for the Bills), but it also means that three more established players, names fans know, may find themselves looking for real estate in some other market come season's start.
Too bad, but that's business, folks, and Buffalo's looking to be in the business of winning this season. To do it, they need the right roster and fans are starting to believe the Bills might have it... as long as they can stay relatively healthy.