Bills' rookies can turn around misfortune

The Bills are hoping the future is bright for rookies Robert Woods, EJ Manuel and Marquise Goodwin. Getty Images

Longtime readers of the AFC East blog know I detest grading drafts before rookies play their first NFL game. But there is nothing wrong with examining potential.

The “P” word is exactly what I see when I look at the Buffalo Bills‘ 2013 draft. I see a potential franchise quarterback in first-round pick EJ Manuel. I see potentially two or three good NFL receivers in second-round pick Robert Woods, third-round pick Marquise Goodwin and talented rookie free agent Da’Rick Rogers. I also see an aggressive, potential starting linebacker in Kiko Alonso.

The Bills haven’t tasted the playoffs since the Music City Miracle in the 1999 season. For the past 13 years, the Bills and their fans have been sent home packing after Week 17. They’ve had just one winning season since 2000.

Potentially, Buffalo’s rookie class could lay the foundation for ending the NFL’s longest playoff drought.

“Down the road I think the strength of this draft is going to be in the second round,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl said. “I really like the Woods pick. I liked him on tape a lot. I think Robert Woods is really one of the more underrated players in this draft. ... Alonso is a guy who is an intense football player and a guy who makes a lot of plays. He flies around the field with sideline-to-sideline range, I thought.”

However, Manuel is the centerpiece of this group. The Bills shocked a lot of people by making him the first quarterback off the board with the No. 16 overall pick. ESPN draft expert Todd McShay was among the biggest critics, calling it a mistake and a wasted pick. Most agreed Buffalo took Manuel earlier than it needed to.

However, the Bills fell in love with Manuel’s size, accuracy and athleticism. The rookie has a lot of tools to work with and will compete with veterans Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job in training camp. Manuel can silence his critics by winning the job this year and playing well.

I caught up with Manuel and Goodwin at this week's NFLPA Rookie Premiere event in Los Angeles, which taught first-year players on the business of football and promoted giving back to the community. Count Goodwin among those who believe Manuel will develop into a franchise quarterback with the Bills.

“If I can describe him in one word, he’s A1,” Goodwin said. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks I’ve been surrounded by, and he’s an even better person. He’s my roommate right now, and I’ve definitely got to know him on a personal level. It’s been great. I text him every day. I talk to him every day. So it’s been great.”

Weidl says Manuel has a lot of physical tools to succeed but still plenty to learn.

“The wild card in this mix is EJ Manuel, and the focus of this draft class will always be EJ Manuel,” Weidl said. “Manuel, when you look at him, he’s everything you want in a quarterback in terms of physically. He’s got size, above average arm strength, he’s got mobility, and when you see how he carries himself, he’s a true professional.

“But the questions I had is on the field off his tape. He wasn’t always naturally accurate and he forces his receivers to adjust at times. And when the bullets are flying, especially under pressure, he didn’t always show the poise I’d like to see at quarterback. He didn’t always get deep in his progressions.”

The Bills have struggled in recent years making big plays in the passing game. Former starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick did not have the arm strength to successfully throw deep, and Buffalo lacked big-play receivers.

Enter rookies Woods, Goodwin and Rogers, who all have big-play capability to go with Manuel’s size and arm strength. If Manuel can grow over the next couple of years with his athletic and talented rookie receivers, the Bills could have a dangerous passing offense to go with dynamic running back C.J. Spiller.

“They are great receivers who run great routes,” Manuel said. “The best thing about Robert is he always wins [one-on-one battles]. Marquise, a lot of people talk about his speed, but he runs good routes too.”

New Bills general manager Doug Whaley told the AFC East blog this week that he’s excited about his rookie class — and for good reason. But the team also took on some character risks.

Alonso, Rogers and safety Duke Williams, who will compete for a starting role, all had off-field issues in college. Alonso had multiple alcohol-related incidents while at Oregon and also was arrested for burglary and criminal mischief in 2011. Rogers’ long list of issues include an arrest, a suspension and a failed drug test that resulted in him being kicked out of the University of Tennessee. Williams was suspended three times at the University of Nevada for various incidents. He reportedly got into a fight with a teammate in 2010, which led to one suspension. He also was arrested for theft in 2009.

The Bills said they examined those players’ backgrounds and believe their issues are behind them. That remains to be seen. Buffalo was willing to add good talent in exchange for character concerns.

The Bills also could have their kicker of the future in sixth-round pick Dustin Hopkins, who was a teammate of Manuel at Florida State and set the NCAA record for points scored. Hopkins will compete with longtime kicker Rian Lindell, who is 36 and entering his 15th season. According to Weidl, Hopkins is a good kicking prospect who has a chance to unseat the veteran.

If everything falls into place, the Bills could have a franchise quarterback, a starting linebacker, at least two contributing receivers and a kicker from one draft class. Rarely does everything go according to plan in the NFL, but the Bills appear to have more hits than misses in this draft, which was not always the case for this struggling franchise.

The Bills will not erase 13 years of losing overnight. But in the near future, we may look back at this 2013 draft class as the tipping point for when Buffalo finally started changing its losing ways.