(Photo Courtesy of David J. Phillip/AP)
This time of the year has grown to be one of excitement and optimism for Bills fans. The draft season brings something that lately the other three seasons have not: hope. Over the past decade and a half regular seasons have had some shining moments, but overall have usually ended in disappointment or downright embarrassment. The lengthy post season drought the Bills find themselves in makes me wonder if a rule was implemented without my knowledge that prevents the Bills from competing past mid-December. Even off-seasons, minus the Mario Williams signing, usually come and go with just minor moves just to fill out the roster. However, no matter what, every draft season brings along its share of undeniable sanguinity for even the most cautiously optimistic fan.
Judging by their offseason actions, I would say GM Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone expect to be playoff contenders in 2014. This is despite their 6-10 record last year, and having an unproven second year quarterback leading their team.
Instead of hiring from within when defensive coordinator Mike Pettine left to be the head coach in Cleveland, they went out and got an established name in Jim Schwartz to replace him, which brings instant credibility to an already up and coming defense. When long time Patriots defensive assistant Pepper Johnson left for greener pastures, the Bills scooped him up in a mostly lateral move for Johnson, with the Bills gaining experience and wisdom at the DL coach position to work with a very talented group. On top of that, they used his relationship with disgruntled, and somewhat controversial, linebacker Brandon Spikes to ignore the red flags and give him a one-year contract to start at MLB. This moved PFWA Rookie of the Year winner Kiko Alonso to the weak side where he can use his speed and instincts more. Their others signings, while not flashy, all provide importance in their own way, be it through battling for a starting spot, or by helping a special teams unit that was well below average in 2013.
That’s not to say the team does not have several positions that need to be addressed, as we are coming up on a decade since the last time they had a winning record. For what it is worth, however, this team seems as close to a playoff contender as I can recall of recent memory, so this draft, and specifically this first pick, looms crucial to their immediate future.
With tonight marking Doug Whaley’s first NFL draft at full control of this franchise, let’s take a look at why the 2014 draft could go a long way in shaping the team’s immediate and long term future:
1st Round Pick: #9
The Buffalo Bills are in an interesting spot this year with their #9 overall pick, and there are several ways the Bills can approach it. They can draft an offensive tackle to solidify their offensive line that ranked 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2013, but were just 14th in yards per carry. They have also fallen from 1st, to 10th, to 28th in sacks against, leading many to believe this offensive line was helped out by Chan Gailey’s quick-throw offense a lot more than what was originally thought. These stats and considering the fact that there are three (Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan) top-10 caliber tackles, some will argue four with Zach Martin of Notre Dame, make tackle a definite option at #9. However, I do not think that is necessary seeing as how their current LT Cordy Glenn was a second round pick, and this year’s draft class at OT is considered top-heavy deep. I think a value pick in round 2 or 3 is a better option to fill the void at RT.
With that being said, a top-10 pick and a quarterback still very young and unproven should lead the Bills in the direction to go out and get Manuel as many weapons as possible to succeed. After already suavely trading a 6th round pick for low-risk-high-reward WR Mike Williams, the Bills should look to add one more weapon to their offensive arsenal. Drafting Mike Evans would provide a “go up and get it” WR that proved in college his specialty is getting jump balls. This would vastly improve their red zone touchdown efficiency which ranked 29th in the NFL at just 48%. Evans is a big body, at 6’5” 231 lbs, but can still move, running a 4.53 40-yard dash at the combine.
If Evans is not available at #9, I think the Bills should move up to go get him. Giving up a third round pick to trade up with Atlanta at #6 and jump Tampa Bay would totally be worth it for me. However, if he is gone and the Bills stay put I think Eric Ebron, the TE out of UNC, would fill the weapon void as well. Adding Ebron would give the Bills something they may not have ever had in the history of their franchise: a game changing player at the tight end position. Pete Metzelaars was great in the Bills glory days of the early 90’s, but looking back in the past decade or so, when has their TE struck fear in opposing offenses? Do the names Robert Royal, Shawn Nelson, Derek Schuman and Tim Euhus make you sick to your stomach like they do for me?
Sure recently re-signed Scott Chandler has been more than serviceable, but adding Ebron would cause severe matchup problems for opposing teams when a linebacker or safety would have to cover him. For me, adding Ebron provides a similar version to the Patriots offense when they had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski on the field at the same time. In no way am I comparing Chandler to Gronk, but the two different dynamics that Ebron and Chandler will bring when on the field at the same time will provide a lot of creativity for offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
In rounds 2-4 I believe the Bills should find a starting right tackle, a safety that will challenge for the void left by Jairus Byrd leaving for New Orleans, and a running back that they can groom with both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson entering the final year of their contract. Here are some names at each position to keep your eye on:
Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama) – Certainly a top-end talent, and a massive human being (6’7”- 322 lbs), many mock drafts have him going late first round, or even as high as #19 to Miami. However, the long armed Crimson Tide product had a combine that was very lackluster, and durability questions continue to arise. I am hopeful (maybe a little too optimistic) that he falls out of the first round, and if that happens, I would love to Bills to trade up as much as they need to and grab him. With Cordy Glenn set at LT, the Bills would have two SEC boys to start at each tackle for years to come.
Terrence Brooks (Florida State) – Interestingly enough the Bills had zero safeties in for pre-draft visits. They did however have 6 cornerbacks in for visits, which may indicate newly signed Corey Graham will be moved to safety. With that not being known as of yet, I think Brooks would be a great fit in round 3 for the Bills. For one, he is a Florida State product, and we all know how much the Bills love drafting Seminoles. More importantly, he has a nose for the ball like the man he will challenge to replace, boasting stats of 56 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 passes broken up and two forced fumbles in 2013. He also impressed scouts at the combine running a 4.37 40-yard dash, and showed great straight line speed in tracking down ball carriers throughout his career at Florida State.
Lache Seastrunk (Baylor) – As we get to the fourth round and beyond, teams tend to look for value picks and depth players. The running back position as a whole is filled with these type of players, and Seastrunk would be a great pick for the Bills if he falls this far. While it was only one game, I did watch him play against UB early on in the year, and he made the Bulls defense look like they were wearing cement shoes. Overall in 2013 he ran for over 1,100 yards and 11 TD on just 158 carries for a 7.4 yard per carry average. Another plus is that his route running and hands are said to be one of the best in the draft among running backs. The book on Seastrunk is that he relies too heavily on east-west type of running since he is so athletic and shifty. Perhaps learning under Fred Jackson, even if it’s just for one season, can help him mature into a complete back.
The Bills should also look to add some linebacker and more offensive line depth. A QB could be targeted as well if they feel the value is there in the later rounds. Anything to help the special teams should be considered past the fourth round too, as they continue to try and revamp the unit that ranked near the bottom in most categories in 2013.
No matter what happens tonight, try and be optimistic that the front office regime that did pretty well last year. The way I look at it, these moves tonight could be the final step in creating a roster to put the Bills over the hump and in the playoffs for the first time since I was in second grade (and I graduate from college next week).
Happy draft day everybody.