5 2014 Draft Prospects Guaranteed to Interest the Buffalo Bills
Draft season is fun for Bills fans for two reasons.
First, with the team so far removed from any type of regular-season success, there isn't much to talk about once the calendar year turns. Add in the fact that high-profile free agents rarely stick their necks out to take a chance on the blue-collar town, and the draft becomes the main source for the infusion of talent into the roster.
Doug Marrone hit a near home run in his first draft as an NFL head coach, selecting probably Defensive Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso in the second round while supplementing with starters at wide receiver in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. First-round selection EJ Manuel still has a long way to go before proving worthy of his draft slotting, and unfortunately for Marrone, his coaching career is now tied to the success of his young quarterback.
Their record aside, the Bills took several steps forward in Marrone's first season—including drastically improving their pass rush and coverage on defense—but they will have to continue to build a foundation in the 2014 draft if the head coach wants to stay for the long term.
Quarterback, running back and defensive line are obvious areas that the Bills will likely not address early in the draft this offseason. Left tackle, center and cornerback are locked up long term too, but depth is a concern at all of those spots. With that said, a majority of the other roster spots are open for rookie competition.
The Bills will look to add a big target—at receiver, tight end or both—early in the draft. Guard and linebacker are potential early targets too, considering how badly the two respective units played for a majority of the season.
Which prospects make sense for the Bills in the first few rounds when considering need, talent and fit? Let's take a look at five incoming rookies who could make the biggest impact for the team in 2014.
5. Khalil Mack, Outside Linebacker
Tackles for loss: 54.5
Unless the Bills go in a different direction, Khalil Mack will continue to be a popular player mocked to Buffalo. Even with the signing of Manny Lawson and the trade for Jerry Hughes, outside linebacker is still one of the most glaring needs moving forward.
Mack was a legitimate first- or second-round talent before his first snap during his senior season at the University of Buffalo, but his legend grew as the Bulls played a tough out-of-conference schedule. He was a one-man show on the final day of August, when he put up two-and-a-half sacks and a 45-yard pick-six to keep the Bulls in contention for an upset bid against Ohio State until late in the game.
"He's one of the top pass rushers in the draft," the AFC college scouting director said. "He played his best games against the biggest opponents, and can be an [outside linebacker] in a 3-4 or a Sam [linebacker] in a 4-3."
His homegrown roots will get fans in his corner as the draft creeps closer, but that doesn't fix the problem of need versus value. Outside linebacker is a need for the Bills, depending on what they do with Kiko Alonso in his second season, but is it crucial enough to draft a talent like Mack so early?
4. Yawin Smallwood, Inside Linebacker
Tackles for loss: 24.5
The consensus on Yawin Smallwood is that there does not seem to be one. Dan Kadar of Mocking the Draft has Smallwood as the 51st best prospect in the draft, while CBS-run NFLDraftScout.com doesn't have the UConn linebacker in the top 100. Smallwood had a great junior season in his second year as a full-time starter and will likely fall somewhere between the second and fourth round.
He follows a similar path that New England's Jamie Collins did last year by being a super athlete for a team wallowing in FBS obscurity. Like Collins, Smallwood is a built athlete with superior fluidity for his size and top-notch coverage skills for a linebacker. While he probably won't break Collins' torrid pace during the combine, he should be a steal for a team once the first day of the draft closes shop.
Rob Rang of CBS Sports had this to say about Smallwood:
A more fluid athlete than Stanford's Shayne Skov or Wisconsin's Chris Borland, NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated senior inside linebackers, Smallwood was asked to cover wide receivers as well as running backs against Memphis, showing good balance, agility and speed for the position. Complementing Smallwood's athleticism are his long arms and strong hands, other physical characteristics scouts prefer at the position because they help defenders disengage from blocks and latch on to the shifty ball-carriers in the NFL. With the NFL increasingly turning towards the pass, inside linebackers generally drop on draft day. Smallwood's intriguing traits, however, could make him an exception to the rule.
The Bills hit it big in the second round last year with Alonso, and pairing Smallwood with the Bills' Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate would be another good step for the defense.
3. Cyril Richardson, Guard
Cyril Richardson, David Yankey or Gabe Jackson. Take your pick, but the Bills need to come away with one of the top interior linemen in the 2014 draft to add stability to their struggling offensive line. Spending a first-round pick on any of those guys isn't in the Bills' best interest, but with quarterbacks and wide receivers sneaking into the first round, the top guards have a good chance at falling into Round 2.
Richardson is the type of guard that Buffalo needs to turn its run-first offense into less of a hot-cold commodity. He is big, tough and a force in both the run and pass games. A three-year starter at guard and tackle, he was a part of two top-10 offenses during his time in Waco, including the Bears' top-ranked offense in 2013.
Can you get a serviceable interior lineman later in the draft? Sure. But why pass over a very good talent at arguably the biggest position of need just because picking a guard in the second round isn't sexy?
Andy Levitre was a great investment for the Bills in the second round five years ago, and a player like Richardson would fill the hole left by the now Tennessee Titan.
2. Donte Moncrief, Wide Receiver
The receiver that I think Buffalo should take a look at changes every time I glance at the ever-growing list of prospects declaring at the position. Mike Evans continues to gain traction as a big target in the first round, but the position pool is too deep to spend a top pick on a one-trick pony. As nice as the idea of Sammy Watkins falling to the ninth pick is, the odds of that happening after his Orange Bowl performance is between slim and none.
If the Bills value a big target for young quarterback Manuel, general manager Doug Whaley should have his eyes set on Jordan Matthews, Allen Robinson and Donte Moncrief. In an average draft, all three of those guys would have a shot at going in the back half of the first round, but the wide receiver pool of 2014 is far from average.
Moncrief is an underrated prospect for Ole Miss, who played very well against the SEC's top corners week in and week out. At 6'2", he has the size and athletic ability to get up and win jump balls on the outside. Despite not possessing elite speed, he will have a probable sub-4.5 40-yard time, which will make him a surefire second-round pick in early May.
Rob Rang mentions that Moncrief could be one of the best pure receivers in the draft, despite not possessing any of the classy skills of Watkins:
Moncrief's thick frame, deceptive speed and smooth route-running make him a nightmare for cornerbacks. He does not possess the explosive moves of Southern Cal's Marqise Lee or Clemson's Sammy Watkins but might be a better player than either of them. He is sudden in his breaks, showing the ability to generate separation even against tight man coverage, and accelerates quickly, often leaving defenders in his dust on double-moves. Moncrief tracks the ball well and generally shows excellent hands (one drop vs. Texas), as well as the body control to make the dazzling grab. Moncrief is also cognizant in the running game, showing awareness and toughness as a downfield blocker.
While not as fast as his NFL predecessor Mike Wallace, Moncrief has the physical skills to be an impact receiver sooner rather than later.
1. Eric Ebron, Tight End
I heard the name Eric Ebron a lot during the first half of the college football season, so when I had a rare Saturday off on October 17, I turned on the game between North Carolina and Miami. Ebron exceeded any expectations I had by catching eight balls for 199 yards and a touchdown.
He is a dynamic athlete for his size and would be a perfect complement to the team's stable of tight ends. The Bills would be smart to bring back Scott Chandler for another contract because he knows the feel of the offense, but Ebron is an instant upgrade over the depth on the roster.
Chris Gragg and Tony Moeaki are nice players, but Ebron is a difference-maker, while the other two are spot-fillers. Lee Smith excels more as a blocker than a pass-catcher, which means he will have a place as long as he can play.
Is No. 9 too high for a tight end? Probably, but sliding down a few spots and still having a shot at Ebron might be the Bills' best move. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports compares Ebron's athleticism to Vernon Davis, a former top-five pick, who has become one of the best tight ends in the league after a tumultuous first two seasons. Sold.