Niagara Gazette

September 12, 2008

SCHMITT: Bills finally beyond counting on rookies

By Tim Schmitt<br><a href="">E-mail Tim</a>

At 6-foot-5 and a smidge over 200 pounds, James Hardy comes at you all knees and elbows, a gangly kid that looks more giraffe than grizzly.

The Bills didn’t draft him to block.

Yet that’s exactly what the Indiana product did in about half of the handful of plays he saw during the Bills’ 34-10 opening day victory over Seattle. Hardy had trouble getting on the field, even though he hauled in a touchdown during his first-ever preseason game. And the few times he did get to stick his nose in the huddle it was to give someone a spell while Marshawn Lynch ate some clock.

Hardy is raw. From all his teammates’ accounts, there’s no problem with his work ethic and his talent is unmistakable. But like many other newbies, Hardy is still adjusting to life as a pro — meaning he can’t beat NFL corners by simply running faster or jumping higher.

Leodis McKelvin was another who saw very little action in Sunday’s win. In fact, his presence was less obvious than Hardy’s. Terrence McGee returned to his familiar post as kick returner and Ashton Youboty filled in admirably when called on in nickel packages. No need to get No. 28 in the game just yet.

And while the contributions of Hardy and McKelvin were disappointing, they’re more the by-product of a roster that’s adequately stocked then an indictment on their NFL readiness.

Let’s face it — the Bills heaved rookies into duty the past few seasons largely because they were the only ones with cleats on. Remember Terrence Pennington? The seventh-round draft choice from New Mexico went from a bubble roster decision to starting nine games.

Not one. Nine.

He’s now a free agent.

The only Bills’ selection below Pennington in that class, Aaron Merz, also saw action in seven games that season. He was the 248th pick in the draft. Pennington was taken at 216.

And those weren’t flukes. Rookies Donte Whitner, Ko Simpson, Brad Butler and Keith Ellison also started games that season. In 2007, Marshawn Lynch was in the opening day lineup, as was Paul Posluszny. It wasn’t long until Trent Edwards joined them.

But this year, rookies made virtually no impact on opening day. Outside of Hardy, it’s doubtful they will. McKelvin might be a dynamic return man, but he’s nowhere near ready to play corner in the NFL, as his faux pas in the Indy preseason game clearly demonstrated.

Chris Ellis, Reggie Corner and Demetrius Bell were inactive for week one. Alvin Bowen is out for the season. Derek Fine is back in practice, but he’s not more than a special teamer this season.

Is this a sign of poor drafting?

Maybe, although I’m not buying it. I’m guessing it’s the handiwork of gone-but-not-forgotten Marv Levy starting to pay off. The Bills needed to start by rebuilding their offensive and defensive lines, and have done so. They desperately needed depth and found that, too.

And they’ve raised the expectations for each and every one of their 53 roster spots along the way.

Good teams don’t play guys who’ve yet to sell their books back to the bookstore.

It remains to be seen if the Bills are indeed a good team. But a lack of inexperience in the starting lineup proves they’re heading in the right direction.

Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.