NFL talent evaluators think Bills can be serious contenders & other whispers

Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams are two dominant forces on the Bills defense.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The quarterback change in Buffalo this week may have caught some by surprise.

The internal belief, though, is that this team isn’t far from being a legit contender in a watered-down division.

Sitting tied for first place in the AFC East, the 2-2 Bills have been very competitive in each of their first four games. Coach Doug Marrone noted Monday — moments after the switch was made from EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton at quarterback — that he believes this team could be playing in January.

“Absolutely,” Marrone told reporters, via the team’s transcript. “I believe that we have a playoff-caliber team. I think that we have to play better than we’ve been playing the last two weeks.”

Though it’s not fair to place all the blame for two straight losses on Manuel, there are some around the league who believe this roster is overflowing with talent.

“I evaluated their defense up and down, and I think it’s as good as it gets,” an NFC scout told FOXSports.com. “They are all solid football players. D-line depth is legit. They’re an undercover team. If they keep the group together and if they stay healthy, this defense will be one of the best for the next six to seven years.”

Former Ravens and Browns scout and current NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah said two weeks ago on his “Move The Sticks” podcast that when he watched the Bills in training camp 21 starters stacked up with those on any team – it was just a matter of Manuel (and now Orton) as the 22nd guy.

For Marrone and Co., that part will need to get figured out in a hurry as the team is changing hands in ownership and must prove this thing is headed in the right direction.

SCOUTING SERVICE: WHAT INSIDERS ARE TALKING ABOUT

A ‘Jet’ in Minnesota

Vikings rookie running back Jerick McKinnon has earned the nickname “Jet” for his exceptional burst and speed.

The former Georgia Southern option quarterback had an exceptional performance last week against the Atlanta Falcons, racking up 135 yards on 18 carries. Should we expect similar production from the first-year slasher Thursday night against the Packers?

Jerick McKinnon was a fourth-round pick in the NFL Draft.

“What stands out is his quickness and elusiveness with the ball,” an NFC personnel director told FOXSports.com. “He’s instinctive and has good feel. It’s clearly translated well to our level.”

McKinnon’s athleticism isn’t much of a surprise to those who follow the game closely.

Last month, Zach Whitman wrote an informative piece for RotoWorld regarding SPARQ, a metric created by Nike to apply a single composite score to a player’s athleticism. In case you’re new to the game as I was, SPARQ, which is popular among high school football camps across the nation, is an acronym that stands for Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness.

Whitman calibrated his own score, called pSPARQ, which takes into account the following eight measurements: player weight, bench press, broad jump, vertical jump, 40-yard dash, 10-yard split, short shuttle and 3-cone (L) drill.

McKinnon’s 145.5 score rivals those in the class of Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.

What does this all mean? Well, to boil it down: McKinnon is a legit freak with through-the-roof upside.

Head coach Mike Zimmer said last Sunday the staff has discussed getting him the ball more, while taking advantage of his explosiveness on the perimeter. As Matt Asiata continues to be a bruiser between the tackles, McKinnon gives the Vikings’ offense some juice between the 20s.

San Diego’s secret weapon

No, that’s not Darren Sproles wearing No. 43 suited up in San Diego blue and yellow.

That’s undrafted rookie running back Branden Oliver, a 5-foot-8 clone of the Eagles scatback. The two running backs have similar statures, but Oliver is stockier, while Sproles is much faster.

Branden Oliver, an undrafted rookie from Buffalo, will earn reps behind Donald Brown.  

“You always got the impression that no one was going to outwork him,” an NFC scout told FOXSports.com of the Chargers’ undrafted rookie. “You see how he’s built and he’s made out of steel. He’s very resilient coming off a knee injury in college.”

In the Chargers’ first preseason game against the Cowboys, Oliver exploded for 64 yards on seven carries. The Chargers then mysteriously cut his reps. The logic? San Diego didn’t want other teams poaching him off their practice squad.

Instead, Oliver showed so much upside that he made the active roster on cutdown day.

“He’s just going to get better with time,” head coach Mike McCoy said, via the team’s Twitter account. “He’s got a bright future."

Rookie o-linemen holding their own

Throughout this week’s discussions with several talent evaluators, two names were brought up as legit offensive line stalwarts: Cowboys first-round guard Zack Martin and Bills seventh-round right tackle Seantrel Henderson. One AFC personnel man said of Martin: “He just doesn’t get beat from what I saw. He can bend and is a smart football player. That was a good pick for Dallas.”  And an NFC scout said Henderson could start on just about any team in the NFL right now. Former Cowboys VP of player personnel and NFL Media analyst Gil Brandt also noted this week that Henderson would be a first-round pick in a re-draft.

SEC defender on the rise

Zack Martin was selected No. 16 overall in NFL Draft.

One talent evaluator believes Mississippi State junior linebacker Benardrick McKinney is a very intriguing next-level prospect. McKinney, a 6-foot, 4, 260-pound tackling machine, is an All-American candidate whose versatility stems from his days as a high school quarterback.“A big, long athletic guy who weighs 260, but he’s not finished growing,” an NFC personnel director said. “He’s a good football player, and it’s interesting trying to project where he’s going to play. If he gets up to 280, he’ll have to put his hand in the ground.” With No. 12 Mississippi State lining up against No. 6 Texas A&M in Starkville this weekend, the stage for McKinney doesn’t get much bigger.

If you were stunned by Giants tight end Larry Donnell’s three-touchdown performance in last Thursday night’s 45-14 win against the Redskins, you weren’t alone. Those closest to him, though, always knew he had the ability to reach such great heights. So how did the Giants recognize the small-school standout’s ability in 2011? Assistant director of pro personnel Matt Shauger saw Donnell’s potential at a Super Regional Combine – where his size and speed were on full display.

Another tidbit on Donnell is his rookie deal expires after this season, but he will be labeled an exclusive-rights free agent because he has fewer than three accrued seasons. If the Giants decide to tender him, they retain his rights for the minimum salary for a player in his third season. The deal has no incentives or splits and isn’t guaranteed.

If the Giants do not choose to re-sign Donnell, he would be free to hit the open market.

2. Was that Da’Rick Rogers’ last chance?

Rogers was immediately released by the Colts this week after being booked on DUI charges. Though the second-year pass catcher has dealt with documented issues in his past, his potential was too good to pass up when Indianapolis signed him last year. Charlie Baggett, Rogers’ former wide receivers coach at the University of Tennessee, told FOXSports.com that he has “Terrell Owens talent.” It will be interesting to see whether Rogers gets another opportunity to show it.

3. Is there a new injury trend?

Fifty-one players are listed on injured reserve (including designated for return) due to foot/ankle issues versus 40 with known knee issues, Dr. David Chao of National Post writes.  Though knee injuries used to be the leading injury, Chao says that balance seems to be changing.

Ross Jones is an editor and writer for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @RossJonesFOX and email him at ross.jones@fox.com.