- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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Their first eight games are in the books.
Now it's time to grade the Buffalo Bills' rookies as they enter the second half of their first season in the NFL.
Here we go:
LB Kiko Alonso: A No Bills rookie has played better this season. Alonso has yet to come off the field this season, playing every defensive snap for Buffalo. His 298 defensive snaps are also the most of any NFL player through eight games. In addition to a sack and a forced fumble, he remains tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions. The one knock against Alonso, however, is that he had that same stat line through four games. If he can continue to add to his sack, forced fumble, and interception totals in the second half of the season, it will help his case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He remains in the thick of that race.
CB Nickell Robey: A Walk into the Bills locker room, and few players exude confidence like Robey. Despite being the youngest and smallest player on the Bills' roster, he has been on their steadiest contributors in defense, holding down the fort at nickel cornerback from Week 1. He hasn't been perfect -- he gave up the Saints' first touchdown Sunday on a closely-contested play -- but has shown instincts not often found in rookies. The question for Robey is his ceiling; because of his size, he may not get the chance to play on the outside. In today's NFL, however, the slot cornerback has more value than ever before, and the Bills may have found their guy in Robey.
WR Robert Woods: B-plus Woods got off to a hot start when he developed an early rapport with EJ Manuel. His 18.3 yards per reception through Week 4 was the best mark of any rookie in the NFL. Once Manuel was injured in Week 5, Woods' numbers began to tail off. He had just one catch in a loss to the New Orleans Saints, and head coach Doug Marrone admitted afterwards the Bills "need to get him the ball." The biggest problem for Woods has been the Bills' quarterback play. Of the 137 qualifying running backs, receivers, and tight ends in the NFL, Woods ranks 135th with a 43.1 reception per target percentage. However, Woods has yet to drop a pass this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That leads to an interesting hypothetical: How much national attention would Woods be receiving if he was playing with a better quarterback?
WR Marquise Goodwin: B-plus Was tempted to go with another "incomplete" here since Goodwin missed four games with a hand injury, but there is a large enough sample size to evaluate. When Goodwin has been healthy, his big-play ability has been evident. He scored on a 40-yard touchdown against Cincinnati and added a 26-yard catch against New Orleans. He's yet to break off the sort of blink-and-you-missed-it kickoff return we saw (twice) in his preseason debut, but those opportunities will come. Overall, Goodwin has lived up to his billing as a speedster who can stretch defenses. The next step for the third-round pick will be proving himself as a capable all-around receiver.
S Duke Williams: B-minus For all the injuries the Bills endured early this season in their secondary, Williams has seen very little time on defense. For a fourth-round pick, that's not the end of the world; he may simply need more time within the system. Williams has been a consistent contributor in special teams and if Jairus Byrd departs through free agency next offseason, he will have the opportunity to slide into the defensive rotation.
QB EJ Manuel: Incomplete This isn't a cop-out; Manuel has simply been one of the toughest players on the Bills' roster to evaluate to this point. When he's been on the field, Manuel has hardly been a disaster, but he's also been a far cry from the player the Bills will eventually need him to be. His 42.2 QBR ranks 23rd among the 34 qualifiying passers in the NFL, while his 6.57 yards per attempt rank 27th. The problem, of course, is that Manuel hasn't been able to stay on the field. He was hampered by a preseason knee injury and has most recently been sidelined with a sprained LCL. He'll likely return sometime this month, giving him a chance to build momentum heading into what will be a critical sophomore season. Staying healthy will be his top priority.
S Jonathan Meeks: Incomplete Meeks was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, after injuring his ankle in Week 6. He was almost exclusively a special teams contributor up until the injury. The fifth-round pick will have a chance to return late in the season, and like Williams, will be in the mix in the back-end next offseason.
K Dustin Hopkins: Incomplete After straining his groin prior to the regular-season opener, the Bills kept Hopkins on their roster for five weeks before deciding to place him on injured reserve. Marrone said Hopkins hit a set-back in his rehab when he began practicing kickoffs. Part of the rationale in shutting him down, though, may have been the strong play of Dan Carpenter, his veteran replacement. Carpenter is a free-agent after this season, which should open the door for Hopkins to return as the kicker.
TE Chris Gragg: Incomplete As a seventh-round pick, Gragg is a developmental player who has slowly been worked into game action. The Bills haven't dealt with any injuries to their top two tight ends -- Scott Chandler and Lee Smith -- so Gragg hasn't had many opportunities to see the field. He'll likely be in a competition for a roster spot next training camp.
QB Jeff Tuel: Incomplete It's almost easier to evaluate Tuel based off what he hasn't done, rather than what he has done. Tuel's only live reps came against the Browns in Week 5, replacing an injured Manuel. He went 8-for-20 and threw a pick-six, so when the Bills decided on a starter for their next game, they shied away from Tuel. In general, the Bills seem very reluctant to play Tuel, which for an undrafted rookie is both understandable and a smart move. They may have to turn to Tuel on Sunday if Thad Lewis (ribs) can't play, but as Marrone said this week, Tuel will have to play better than did in Cleveland.