The Buffalo Bills' 2011 draft class should be as successful in 2012, if not even more so, than they were in their rookie years.
Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus led the charge, but there were many contributors along the way, several who will be expected to assume bigger roles in their sophomore year.
Will they be up to the challenge?
Let's take this case-by-case to uncover how much carryover there will be.
DT Marcell Dareus
Dareus came in with big hype, and the big man made a big impact as a rookie. The mauling yet quick defensive tackle led the team in sacks with 5.5.
He was the most consistent and reliable defensive player on the Bills' roster in 2011; he played in all 16 games and started 15. According to Pro Football Focus, he lined up for more defensive snaps (751, 71.2 percent of the total defensive snaps) than any other linemen on the Bills' roster (narrowly beating out Dwan Edwards by one snap).
With newly acquired defensive ends Mark Anderson and Mario Williams plugged in on the outsides and defensive tackle Kyle Williams returning from an injury-shortened season, Dareus figures to improve (if even just by osmosis) and his ability to build off his 2011 campaign will only help the Bills be even more dominant in the trenches.
CB Aaron Williams
If Williams is the cornerback the Bills think he is, and that he flashed the potential to be last season, the Bills should be much improved at one of their weakest positions in 2011.
Bleacher Report Bills featured columnist Chris Trapasso gives his thoughts on Williams' rookie year and expectations going forward:
Aaron Williams didn't have a horrible rookie campaign, but he learned a few harsh lessons in his first year. He was victimized early in the first Patriots game, before suffering a devastating shoulder injury that forced him to miss nearly two months of action. When he returned to the field, he played a much more significant role and seemed much more comfortable.
With the recent release of Drayton Florence, and the injury prone Terrence McGee now 31, I expect Williams to be one of the team's starting corners in Week 1. With the improved pass rush, Williams will have the luxury of playing tighter man coverage and taking more chances on balls thrown his way.
LB Kelvin Sheppard
The Bills' front seven will be a much improved unit in 2012. If Sheppard wants to be a part of that improvement, he has to eliminate the rookie mistakes; Chan Gailey said as much back in January per BuffaloBills.com.
"He made a lot of strides this year. He was still making mistakes that rookies make from time to time. He's aggressive and he's got better at his reads. He got a lot more comfortable playing every day and I think that he is going to be a good player as time goes on. I saw improvement each week in him."
Sheppard played in all 16 games, started nine and logged 66 tackles as a rookie. He is the best young linebacker on the Bills roster, and is the only projected starter below the age of 30. The Bills are hopeful that he continues to improve as Gailey predicts.
S Da'Norris Searcy
The Bills have a solid group of safeties in George Wilson, Jairus Byrd and Searcy, with each having their own very distinct role. Searcy was able to find his way onto the field in all 16 games, starting three in place of an injured Wilson. He was only on the field for 232 snaps in 2011 according to PFF.
The safety spot is considered a big strength of the Bills' roster, and with the improvements in their front seven, it's up to the defensive backfield to hold up their end of the bargain. Searcy could play a role in that; however, his role will be a rotational one unless an injury thrusts him back into the starter's seat.
OL Chris Hairston
"We need tackles, but we think Chris Hairston can play left tackle for us and win. People say Fitz gets the ball out quick, but we run our offense with a lot of empty sets, with five blockers and if they bring six he better get it out. In this offense he has to get it out quick.
"Chris Hairston might not be the prettiest foot athlete that he can protect the back side. We've got Pears and Sam Young is coming off of knee surgery. So we've only got three. We'd like to have two more."
The Bills drafted Cordy Glenn, who could compete for the left tackle spot, but is seen as more of a right tackle or a guard.
RB Johnny White
As a rookie, Johnny White only saw the field for 29 snaps according to PFF, with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller taking a large percentage of the team's snaps at running back. The two lead backs form one of the most fearsome two-headed attacks in the AFC East and possibly the NFL. Ideally, White is a role-player and an occasional spell option behind Jackson and Spiller.
Former Cowboys running back Tashard Choice was higher on the depth chart last season, but if White can make the most of a full offseason program, that could change.
LB Chris White
While contributing mainly on special teams as a rookie, White tore his ACL and was placed on injured reserve according to Rotoworld. He'll be competing with 2012 fifth-round linebacker Tank Carder, who is also a special teams ace and was a solid linebacker for TCU in his college years.
White will be fighting an uphill battle coming off ACL surgery, but he'll have a full offseason workout program to help him out this time around.
CB Justin Rogers
Improvement from within would really help the Bills at cornerback, but they also brought in rookies Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks; along with Aaron Williams, Rogers may not get the playing time to make a big impact, but he and the rest of the Bills corners should definitely play a lot better next season with an improved pass rush.
DT Michael Jasper
Michael Jasper was a practice squad player in 2011 and was called up for the team's final game against the Patriots, but didn't play. As the Bills implement their 4-3, Jasper's opportunities to hit the field will be in relief duty for Dareus and Williams, mainly as a run stuffer (394 pounders usually don't make very good pass-rushers).