ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It's far too early to start grading the 2013 draft class, but it certainly isn't too early to start getting excited about what the Buffalo Bills accomplished in April. Their first three picks, first-round selection EJ Manuel and second-rounders Robert Woods and Kiko Alonso, have already become three of the most important players on the team and appear destined to make the NFL's all-rookie team this year.
"We have a lot of talented young guys and they're playing great football for us," said center Eric Wood.
Manuel is now 2-2 as an NFL starter, and while he hasn't been great, and still needs to work on his accuracy, he has been efficient enough to beat Carolina and Baltimore, two teams with solid defenses. His next hurdle will be to go on the road and win in a hostile environment, and he gets the next opportunity Thursday in Cleveland.
Woods has forged a nice bond with Manuel, which was clear against the Ravens. Stevie Johnson was taken out of the game by the Ravens and had only one catch for minus-one yard, so Manuel looked to Woods and hooked up four times for 80 yards. One of the completions went for a 42-yard touchdown on a post pattern on which Woods beat man coverage and Manuel threw a perfect strike. Woods also appeared to haul in a pretty touchdown pass in the red zone, but he bobbled it just enough to give the officials cause to overturn the score.
Woods was regarded as the most NFL-ready receiver in the 2013 draft, and that moniker has been dead on. Not only does he catch the ball, he runs precise routes, and he has done a nice job blocking in the run game, a skill not many receivers like to perfect.
While Manuel had to fight for the starting job against veteran Kevin Kolb (until Kolb suffered a season-ending concussion), Alonso was plugged into the middle linebacker spot from day one, and he has become the quarterback of the defense despite his lack of experience. Alonso has four interceptions in his first four NFL games, and he also has a forced fumble and a recovery, turnover numbers that have been rare in Buffalo's linebacking corps.
"Four interceptions? His instincts are phenomenal," said defensive back Aaron Williams, who intercepted two passes Sunday. "That's the kind of plays we need out of young players like him. He's doing a really good job of leading the defense and being vocal on the field. Hats off to Kiko."
There were questions whether Alonso would be a three-down linebacker coming out of Oregon, but he has silenced that talk because he has been solid against the run and terrific against the pass. He seems to be one of those players who can find the ball, and when he has a chance to make a play, he makes it. His diving interception that secured the victory Sunday was a play you would think only a defensive back could make.
Kyle Williams, the most tenured player on the team, has been greatly impressed by this threesome and saw flashes of this during offseason workouts.
"I had the luxury during the spring, I say luxury but I wasn't practicing during the spring, still coming back from surgery so I got to watch these guys," he said. "You have different rookies and guys that come in, and some do it the right way, some do it the wrong way. These guys, as soon as they got here, just watching them work, the way that they play, you knew they were going to be able to do some things and they've done it the right way and we're lucky to have them."
-- RB C.J. Spiller left Sunday's game a few times with an ankle injury, and his status for Cleveland will be questionable.
-- RB Fred Jackson suffered a sprained MCL and though he said he thinks he can play, it seems a long shot on a short week.
-- CB Leodis McKelvin was inactive due to his hamstring injury, but he was close, and he may be available for the Browns.
-- RG Kraig Urbik re-injured his knee, but was able to finish Sunday's game.
-- FS Jairus Byrd was inactive for the fourth consecutive game because of plantar fasciitis.
-- CB Aaron Williams left the game in the fourth quarter with a contusion on his back, but he should be fine.