It happens every season.
Players who aren’t on everyone’s radar wind up breaking out for their respective team, making a name for themselves amongst NFL fan bases along the way.
In 2015, rookies Ronald Darby and Karlos Williams exceeded expectations for Buffalo during their first NFL season, with Darby establishing himself as a legitimate complement to fellow cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Williams proving he’s much better than scouts gave him credit for coming out of Tallahassee.
Darby, who finished last season with 68 tackles (61 solo, 7 assists), 21 pass breakups and two interceptions, and Williams, who registered 517 rushing yards (5.6 YPC), 96 receiving yards (8.7 YPR) and nine (7 rushing, 2 receiving) touchdowns, are now heading into the 2016 season with certain expectations on their shoulders.
That’s what happens when a player produces in the NFL — they’re expected to produce … again … and again.
What happens if they don’t?
Well, let’s just say that player won’t be with their respective team much longer.
General managers and scouts across the league continually scour the free agent market and incoming draft classes just for that reason.
In the NFL, the ‘next man up’ is the status quo, and someone will always be waiting in the wings to make their name known.
So, with OTAs over and training camp a little more than a month away, which players will step up for Buffalo this season?
Here are five players currently on the 90-man roster who could surprise the fans, coaches and possibly themselves this season:
S Robert Blanton
Blanton joined the Bills this offseason via free agency after the former Notre Dame Fighting Irishman signed a one-year contract with the team back on March 18.
Entering his fifth season, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound safety has spent the first four seasons of his career in Minnesota after being drafted by the Vikings in 2012.
Originally a cornerback in college, Blanton switched to safety once with the Vikings and has since made a home for himself at the position.
The 26-year-old has totaled 213 tackles (147 solo, 66 assists), five pass breakups and one interception thus far in his career, which included the 2014 season in which he started 13 games and racked up a career-high 106 tackles (72 solo, 34 assists), two pass breakups and one interception in Mike Zimmer’s first year as head coach.
Blanton comes to the Bills after spending last season in more of a reserve role, being passed up in Minnesota’s starting lineup for the likes of Andrew Sendejo and Antone Exum.
However, despite that fact, the North Carolina native provides plenty of experience on defense and special teams, and has seemingly already made his presence felt this offseason by being vocal on the field. Head coach Rex Ryan has also noted that he likes Blanton’s versatility, mentioning the veteran’s background at cornerback.
With the team implementing plenty of three-safety looks in practice, Blanton certainly has a chance to see a lot of time on the field this season as he’ll likely be a contributor on both defense and special teams.
Add in the fact that Aaron Williams’ health is still in question, and it’s clear to see that there is a major opportunity awaiting the safeties sitting behind Williams and Corey Graham on the current depth chart.
If Blanton can continue being a voice for the secondary during training camp and be dependable when his name is called upon, then the former Viking could be in line for a season similar to the one he had just two short years ago.
Another offseason addition, White comes to the Bills following previous stops with the New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals since entering the league as a fifth-round pick in 2012 out of Samford University.
During his first four seasons, White has racked up 132 tackles (123 solo, 9 assists), four interceptions and one sack, which included the 2014 season in which he tallied 53 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions in nine starts for the Saints at both safety and corner.
The Georgia native failed to improve on that performance last season after signing with Dallas and wound up bouncing between the Cowboys and Cardinals, appearing in nine games and totaling just six tackles and three pass breakups.
A free agent once again this offseason, White was recommended to the Bills by newly-hired coach Rob Ryan as the defensive back played under the Bills’ assistant head coach/defense for two seasons in 2013 and 2014 when Ryan was the defensive coordinator for New Orleans.
Standing at 6-foot-1, weighing 210 pounds and possessing nearly 32-inch arms, White was used all over the field during his time under Ryan.
“I can play pretty much any position: secondary, nickel, corner, free safety, dom,” White said in a recent interview with Andrew Kuczkowski of buffalobills.com. “That’s what we did with me in New Orleans when I was with Rob, so that’s what I’m here for.
“Just be the guy that can help out in any position.”
The lengthy defensive back has made his fair share of plays during OTAs and minicamp, spending a majority of his time working with the second-team defense at outside cornerback.
However, much like with Robert Blanton, White could also see time in three-safety subpackages due to his versatility and experience under Rob Ryan.
If he continues to display playmaking ability in practice, then there’s no reason why White shouldn’t make the 53-man roster given his size-speed combination for the position.
And, given the chance, the former Samford Bulldog could return to the level he was playing at in New Orleans during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
Dezmin “Dez” Lewis is entering his second season with the Bills after being drafted by the team in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Central Arkansas.
Spending all but two games of his rookie year on Buffalo’s practice squad, Lewis failed to make the jump from a small FCS school to the NFL in Year One.
However, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver appears ready to do so in year number two as he has consistently made plays this offseason, whether it be in rookie minicamp (which he was allowed to attend), OTAs or the team’s June mandatory minicamp.
Lewis has also been shining in the weight room, gaining praise from quarterback Tyrod Taylor, Rex Ryan and wide receiver coach Sanjay Lal for his efforts to add weight and use his physical ability to his advantage more often this upcoming season.
When asked which receiver has stood out the most behind starters Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, Ryan said, “For my money I think Dez Lewis, consistently, has done a great job.”
With that said, it’s obvious that the Texas native has done everything right to this point, and it appears there’s a big opportunity waiting for Lewis once training camp begins in late July.
There’s no denying that he has what you look for at the receiver position in terms of measurables: 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, 32.5-inch arms, 10-inch hands, 4.46 speed and a 37-inch vertical.
And, there’s no denying that the former UCA Bear has the talent: 197 receptions, 2,668 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns in four seasons at Central Arkansas.
The only thing that appears to be stopping Lewis is confidence.
However, if he can continue on this upward trend, then the former seventh-rounder could find himself not only making the 53-man roster, but playing a larger-than-expected role for the Bills this season, particularly in the red zone.
It will certainly be interesting to watch Lewis during training camp and the preseason.
DT Corbin Bryant
After entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Northwestern in 2011, Corbin Bryant has spent the past three seasons with Buffalo after spending the first two seasons of his career with the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Since joining the Bills, Bryant’s playing time and production have steadily increased despite him having to move around from defensive tackle in a 4-3 to a defensive end in a 3-4 over the course of those three years.
Standing at 6-foot-4 and weighing 300 pounds, the 28-year-old had the most productive season of his career under Rex Ryan in 2015 despite the defense underperforming as a whole.
Starting a total of 10 games as a result of Marcell Dareus’ suspension and Kyle Williams’ season-ending injury, Bryant managed to rack up a career-high 45 tackles (24 solo, 21 assists) along the way.
He wasn’t awarded a big contract following that performance, but Buffalo extended the restricted free agent a low-tender offer of $1.67 million to keep him in the fold for the 2016 season, which Bryant ultimately wound up signing.
The Bills drafted fellow defensive tackle/defensive end Adolphus Washington to start this season alongside Williams and Dareus, but fans shouldn’t count out Bryant.
Known for being dependable and technically-sound in the trenches, the veteran defensive lineman has consistently shown up to play during his three seasons in Buffalo, and that shouldn’t change in 2016.
If Adolphus Washington fails to live up to the bill (no pun intended) of being a Day 1 starter, then it’s likely that Bryant would be the next man up.
Even if that doesn’t happen, expect Bryant’s play to continue on an upward slope.
The Bills made a bit of a surprise pick in this year’s draft when they selected Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams in the fifth round at pick No. 156.
With three established running backs already on the roster in LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee, it appeared that Buffalo was set when it came to its backfield.
General manager Doug Whaley obviously thought otherwise as he opted to select Williams, who was forced to sit out his senior season in 2015 due to a foot injury suffered last August.
However, prior to his injury, Williams was one of the best backs in the SEC as he rushed for 1,190 yards (5.6 YPC) and 12 touchdowns on 211 carries during his junior season in 2014, while also making 11 receptions for 65 yards and two touchdowns. His 1,190 rushing yards were fourth-best in the conference behind only Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Mississippi State’s Josh Robinson.
What’s even more impressive is that Williams did so while splitting carries with fellow 2016 draftee Alex Collins (5th round, pick No. 171, Seattle Seahawks), who had 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns on 204 carries that season.
Taking that into consideration, Williams’ talent is undeniable.
At 6-foot, 223 pounds, Williams has exceptional feet, balance, power and quickness, which allows him to either sidestep or run over defenders once he’s through to the second level.
With loose hips and good instincts, the Arkansas product’s running style is seemingly a combination of both McCoy and Karlos Williams as he’s shifty enough in the open space to consistently make defenders miss (44 forced missed tackles in 2014) while also having the strength and willingness to breakthrough arm tackles and finish on runs, particularly in short-yardage situations.
Williams has been impressive thus far in OTAs and minicamp, consistently securing first- and second-team reps due to the team resting McCoy and getting Karlos Williams back into shape.
If the Bills continue to keep McCoy’s workload light going into training camp and Karlos Williams’ weight issues linger, expect Buffalo to continue giving the rookie running back action with the first group along with Gillislee.
It’s obvious that offensive coordinator Greg Roman and his staff like a lot about their new rookie runner, and it’s very possible he could carve out a bigger role for himself this season should he continue performing well in training camp.
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