The Patriots aren’t the only team in the NFL relying on rookies to make big contributions in 2013. The Patriots opponent in their season opener, the Buffalo Bills, will be relying on rookies to fill key roles on both sides of the football this season. Of course, the fact that the Bills are starting a rookie quarterback in their opener in first-round draft pick E.J. Manuel is well documented, but there are also other rookies on the Bills roster who Patriots fans will likely come to know well on Sunday and as the season progresses. Two of those players are rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso and rookie wide receiver Robert Woods. Let’s take a closer look at these two players that will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact against the Patriots on Sunday.
The Bills organization and their fans are high on rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, a second-round draft pick out of Oregon. Alonso (6-4, 240 lbs) is an athletic inside linebacker who was known at Oregon for his high motor and his ability to make plays on the ball and behind the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, he was also known for his off the field issues. He was suspended for an entire season for a DUI and missed additional time for other alcohol related incidents. The Bills think those issues were due to youth, not character, however, and believe he’s matured. If his play on the field is any indication, that’s accurate. Alonso has looked solid in preseason, both at stopping the run and when dropping back in coverage. He closes fast on defenders and is likely to be a tackle machine in Buffalo, similar to the Patriots Jerod Mayo. The Bills have so much trust in their rookie linebacker that he’s been wearing the green dot on his helmet, which means he’s responsible for communicating via radio with coaches on the sidelines and coordinating the defense on the field. That’s a lot of faith to put in a rookie defender and is a testament to just how quickly Alonso has been able to learn the Bills defensive playbook.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick heaped praise on Alonso recently: “Good size, athletic guy, runs well, can cover a lot of ground, sideline to sideline,” said Belichick. “Physical player, they blitz him, he comes hard as a blitzer. He’s got good range, good tackler. It looks like he’s been a good addition to their defense, gives them some speed, gives them speed and athleticism and some power as well. It looks like he has a good combination of skills.” That’s a lot of complementing for Belichick to do for a player that has yet to play a regular season snap. Alonso is likely to make a big impact for the Bills on Sunday and throughout the 2013 season.
Bills starting quarterback E.J. Manuel is a rookie himself, so don’t be surprised if he doesn’t hesitate to target his fellow rookies at the wide receiver position. The Bills have two rookies who will see significant playing time this season at wide receiver in Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods. Goodwin, a third-round pick out of Texas, is a classic X receiver with the speed to blow the top off opposing defenses. Woods (6-1, 200 lbs), a second-round pick out of USC, has the potential to be more of a possession receiver than Goodwin and can line up in the slot or on the outside, although he seems to have been taking more snaps on the outside in the Z position throughout preseason (opposite Stevie Johnson in the X). Woods has frequently been complimented for his ball skills showing an ability to make awkward catches on poorly thrown balls, but his greatest asset is his quickness. Woods makes great breaks on defenders that enable to him to get open on the inside of defenders and pick up additional yardage after the catch.
It was not that long ago that relying on rookies for big production was unthinkable in the NFL, but the 2012 season certainly changed that. Watching rookie quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III lead their teams to the playoffs has made teams rethink how soon young, dynamic players can help their teams win. Both the Patriots and the Bills seem to be drawing from that playbook in 2013. Sunday will be our first chance to see just how well it might work out for these AFC East rivals.