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Bills counting on rookies at crucial positions

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By Kevin Fishbain

In this era of football, the five crucial positions to build a franchise around are generally considered to be quarterback, pass rusher, cornerback, left tackle and wide receiver.

The Bills will attempt end the longest playoff drought in the NFL with a rookie starting at two of those positions.

Based on minicamp — and it is still early — first-round CB Stephon Gilmore and second-round OLT Cordy Glenn are penciled in to start Week One for the Bills.

Both players ran with the “ones” in camp and got positive reviews from GM Buddy Nix.

“(Gilmore)’s done more than we thought he would do with what we’ve exposed him to,” Nix told Chris Brown of the team’s website. “Nothing surprises him. He’s a patient guy. He doesn’t bite on every move, he’s smart and has deceiving strength and great speed.”

Seeing Gilmore start Week One would not be a surprise. He was the 10th overall pick of April’s draft, and with the team cutting Drayton Florence, a starting spot is open. Gilmore’s competition includes an aging and injury-prone Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, who took a step back last season, and second-year CB Aaron Williams.

Glenn appeared to be entrenched in the team’s stiffest position competition with 2010 fourth-rounder Chris Hairston to protect QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s blind side. The players haven’t put pads on yet, but Glenn has the upper hand. 

“We feel pretty good about the guy we’ve got (at left tackle),” Nix said in the interview. “He’s taken every snap since he’s been here. He’s lined up there from Day One. … He hasn’t done anything except impress us that he can play there.”

Glenn did have some first-round grades, but questions about his ability to play left tackle (his size translates more to guard) dropped him to the second round, and the Bills were more than pleased to take him.

The hoopla surrounding the Bills this offseason has centered around their free-agent acquisitions on the defensive line (DEs Mario Williams and Mark Anderson), their re-signings (most notably WR Stevie Johnson), and the fact that the team got off to such a hot start in 2011 before injuries derailed things.

As I wrote last month, the Bills’ expectations aren’t soaring much outside of Buffalo, and having rookies starting at two key positions is one of the things holding prognosticators back from jumping on Buffalo’s bandwagon.

The Bills don’t have to look far to find examples of teams having success with rookies playing prominent roles. When the Patriots had the best record in the NFL in 2010, starting CB Devin McCourty was in his rookie season, and that defense had several rookie contributors.

But Devin McCourty is the last rookie to start at an outside corner spot in a playoff game. Seahawks OLT Russell Okung, who started in Seattle’s postseason games in 2010, is the last rookie blind-side tackle to start a playoff game. Rookies play roles on playoff teams, but it has been a rare occurence of late to see a rookie starting for a playoff team at either cornerback or left tackle.

The Bills’ O-line was exceptional last season, even with injuries to Demetress Bell and Eric Wood, and Fitzpatrick’s quick delivery certainly helps, but opposing edge rushers are sure to test the rookie, and if Glenn struggles, that will impede the rhythm of Chan Gailey’s spread attack. The Bills might have improved their defense, but it’s the offense that got them to a 5-2 start last season. Glenn will be expected to jump in and keep the continuity going up front.

Gilmore’s play is arguably more crucial, although the Bills have extra depth at corner in case he has some rookie setbacks. The Bills’ pass defense was an unexpected Achilles' heel last season. In addition to the Patriots’ aerial attack, the Bills play teams with standout No. 1 receivers, such as the Chiefs (Dwayne Bowe), Cardinals (Larry Fitzgerald), Titans (Kenny Britt) and Texans (Andre Johnson) in 2012. The schedule does do Buffalo some favors in the quarterback department, but Gilmore’s play on the outside is going to be crucial. Opposing quarterbacks, wideouts and offensive coordinators certainly will target the rookie early on.

If the Bills break through to the postseason, it will be an accomplishment in itself. Now, consider the fact that first-year players could be seeing every snap at two crucial positions for success. Early returns have been positive for Gilmore and Glenn. Assuming each wins his respective starting job, opposing coordinators will be looking to put the rookies on their heels. How Gilmore and Glenn respond and perform will help decide the Bills’ fate.

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