The Buffalo Bills' front office has to be pleased with the early returns the Bills have received from their rookie class, particularly at the top of their 2013 draft.
QB EJ Manuel -- the 16th overall selection in the first round -- has been far from perfect and has dealt with some durability issues, but has shown flashes along with the maturity and leadership qualities to give the organization plenty of hope it has found its quarterback for the future.
Ultimately, how Manuel pans out will carry the most weight with the perception of their 2013 draft class. That said, through the first month of the season it appears the Bills have nailed their two second-round selections: WR Robert Woods (41st overall) and MLB Kiko Alonso (46th overall). Woods wasn’t the most physically gifted receiver, but he was the most NFL ready of the class and has shown it by producing early with his polished routes and ability to quickly pick up concepts.
Alonso has been the more impressive of the two, though. He has started all five games and is a three-down player who makes the calls on defense. Alonso has played with an extremely high motor and has quickly developed into one of the defense's biggest playmakers. He was all over the field in a 12-tackle performance Thursday against Cleveland and currently leads all rookies with 44 tackles. Alonso also is tied for the league lead in interceptions with four and has also added four defended passes, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a sack. At this point, he has to be the early front-runner for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker received an early third-round grade coming out of Oregon last year. Character concerns played a big factor into his grade. Alonso had multiple alcohol-related arrests during his time in Eugene, which brought up questions as to how he would handle his responsibilities off the field with more money in his pocket than he has ever had.
Strictly off tape, Alonso would have received a second-round grade. Similar to what he has shown early in his pro career, Alonso was extremely active and constantly seen around the ball. One of Alonso’s better qualities was his overall range. He was a sideline-to-sideline run defender and covered a lot of ground in underneath zone coverage. Alonso also flashed the ability to hold up in man coverage and displayed above-average playmaking instincts in this area, which has translated well during the first month of his career in coverage.
No question Alonso’s instincts, effort and intensity have allowed him to be highly productive through the first five games. However, he still has a lot of room for improvement. In particular, he must learn to harness his energy and play more within the confines of the Bills' defensive scheme. Alonso must show more discipline with his run fits and learn to give ground and use his hands better when taking on blocks.
Overall, though, it’s hard to criticize Alonso’s play and production on the field to start the year. General manager Doug Whaley and his staff deserve some credit as well for their handling of the draft early on. Manuel was the quarterback they clearly targeted and they did a nice job of swapping the No. 8 overall pick with St. Louis, which was at No. 16 while picking up the extra second-round pick that allowed them to land Alonso.
Assuming Alonso remains healthy and continues to keep his nose clean off the field, it appears the Bills have found a defensive leader for many years to come.