What will the Bills' brain trust whip up in the 2014 NFL draft?
The 2013 NFL draft was a trial run for rookie general manager Doug Whaley, as he was still under the tutelage of then-GM Buddy Nix. After another 6-10 season, which results in another top-10 selection, Whaley will be in full control of the franchise's projected turnaround for the first time.
The Buffalo Bills did great things in the draft a season ago, but the first round continues to be a thorn in their side. Several first-rounders have gone on to respectable careers for other teams like Marshawn Lynch and Donte Whiter, but very few high picks during the 14-year playoff drought have made the team any better.
However, the Bills have done well at finding talent in the middle rounds of the draft. Jairus Byrd, Kyle Williams and Stevie Johnson were all players who slipped through the over-evaluation of the draft and have found high-level success in Orchard Park, N.Y. As a team that rarely gets the slam dunk in free agency, Buffalo's best chance of a '90s-revival period is building a foundation through the college draft.
Offensive line and skill players continue to be a huge needs for a team that sputtered in EJ Manuel's first year at the helm. Linebacker starters and secondary depth is of concern as well.
While the actual draft rarely works out the way even the smartest of analysts predicts it will, let's take a look at the perfect situation in each round for the Bills.
Time for Sammy Watkins to trade in oranges for buffalo wings.
The question of offseason is how high do the Bills want to draft an explosive offensive weapon. There is no question that they need to upgrade at either wide receiver or tight end, but when they do it should be a surprise come draft day.
Sammy Watkins capped off his impressive Clemson career with a statement game against a favored Ohio State team. The junior caught a career-high 16 passes for 227 yards and two scores, often making the Buckeyes defensive backs look silly. The game made Watkins an instant hit with the casual fan and almost assuredly confirmed his status as a lock in the top 10 this May.
Watkins brings a combination of size and speed that no one on the Bills' current roster possesses, which would immediately improve the way opposing defenses match up. Add in the fact that Watkins' favorite football team growing up was the Bills and you have a match made in heaven.
A dynamic receiver in the first and an all-around tight end in the second? Yes please!
How does a world where the Bills draft top-end talent at wide receiver and tight end sound? Great, right? Grabbing players at both spots this early would be the ultimate luxury, and considering needs on the offensive line, it might be one the team cannot afford.
However, if the Bills decide to pass on Eric Ebron in the first round in lieu of someone like Watkins, Austin Seferian-Jenkins should be their next target at tight end.
The Washington Huskies tight end saw a dip in production during his junior season, but he remains a highly sought after NFL talent. At 6'6", the 275-pound Seferian-Jenkins was a matchup nightmare for all defensive backs and linebackers. While he will not wow you with a burst of speed, Seferian-Jenkins has a knack for getting open and can win almost any jump ball in the end zone.
The Bills already have a stable of productive tight ends on the roster, but Seferian-Jenkins brings a new set of skills. Scott Chandler is an above-average receiving tight end, and Lee Smith is a very good blocking end, but neither player is the complete product Seferian-Jenkins projects to be. As dangerous as his playmaking ability is, Seferian-Jenkins' blocking ability sets him apart from the other prospects at his position.
There is a giant hole at left guard with Gabe Jackson's name on it.
While David Yankey and Cyril Richardson generate the early-round buzz, Gabe Jackson has the chance to be a great third-round value for a team. A Second-Team All-American and the first offensive lineman to win the Conerly Trophy—an award given to the best college football player in the state of Mississippi—Jackson racked up the accolades despite a ho-hum season for the Bulldogs in Starkville.
The Bills sorely missed Andy Levitre in 2013, and they must address the position early in the draft in hopes to find a future mainstay with a mean streak. Jackson is a surprisingly athletic guard with punishing blocking ability, who helped the Bulldogs stay out of the SEC basement with a 41st-ranked offense. Mississippi State averaged 189 rushing yards per game playing in the toughest conference in America.
A bruiser in the third round is exactly the type of pick Bills fans should be rooting for when May comes around.
The Bills need a no-nonsense inside linebacker to stuff the run.
Kiko Alonso was a fantastic pick in the second round last offseason, but the Bills are still lacking a guy up with middle who can sniff out running lanes. Alonso was great against the run early in the season, but as the year progressed, the PFWA Defensive Rookie of the Year struggled with overcommitting and leaving larger cutback lanes.
Chris Borland is the cure for such issues. The former Badger lacks elite athleticism and speed to stay with new-age tight ends, but he makes up for that with some of the best play-analyzing skills of any defensive player entering the 2014 draft. Borland has great football instincts and rarely makes the wrong read on a rushing play, which makes him a great fit for a Bills team searching for a run-stuffer.
In an article on November 13, CBS Sports' Rob Rang compares Borland to former Miami Dolphins' great Zach Thomas. Borland and Thomas both stand at 5'11" and have the same perceived lack of athleticism while entering the draft. That lack of burst will slide Borland further down than he should go, and in the fourth round, the inside linebacker provides an incredible value.
FCS rushing champ Terrance West would be a great late-round find for Buffalo.
Running back? That's not a need.
No, running back is not an area of concern for the Bills in the short term with both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson rushing effectively. However, Jackson turns 33 during the offseason and Spiller enters the 2014 season on the final year of his rookie contract. The fact that the Bills could potentially be without either player in 2015 is a scary thought.
Enter Terrance West, the record-breaking running back for FCS runner-up Towson. West is a tough runner who excels with contact in between the tackles and had such a good junior season, he declared early for the draft.
There is a good chance a team with a need for a back gambles on West earlier in the draft, but once he slides to the fourth or fifth round, his talent makes him a no-brainer. West rushed for over 2,500 yards during his junior season and averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 802 career rushes for the Tigers. His stats make Madden players blush, although there are areas of concern with his game.
West will be 23 before he ever takes an NFL snap, and his workload in college makes him an early burnout candidate. There is also the concern about the competition he faced while in college, but enough small-school players have made the jump in recent years that those questions should be tempered.
A good comparison to West is current Redskins running back Alfred Morris, who is similar in size and had the same concerns coming out of Florida Atlantic two years ago. The Redskins were rewarded for their late-round scouting, and a gamble on West could pay off similar dividends.
Nevin Lawson fits as a late-round secondary add to bolster depth.
Tough, physical cornerback and at this point in the draft, players like Nevin Lawson are good ways to build more depth.
Lawson is not big or extremely fast, but the senior out of Utah State knows how to match up with the opponent's top receiver. Utah State's website describes Lawson as "confident" and "physical," which is something the Bills could use at the cornerback position.
Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey listed Lawson as one of the 10 best players during Shrine Game practices this week, and considering where he played college ball, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Jarrett Bush, Curtis Marsh and most recently Will Davis have all come out of Utah State as NFL-caliber corners over the past few years. The Aggies' stingy defense has been one of the best in college football under former head coach Gary Andersen and now Matt Wells, especially through the air.
Lawson will be well-coached entering the NFL, but not possessing any one elite trait will make him a mid-to-late selection in the May draft. This late in the draft is where the Bills need to continue finding players who can contribute in any way possible.
Connor Shaw is the quarterback no one is talking about.
If you had to guess which SEC starting quarterback had the least interceptions in 2013, who would you say? AJ McCarron or Zach Mettenberger? Maybe Johnny Manziel?
In fact the correct answer to the question is South Carolina's Connor Shaw. The unheralded senior led the Gamecocks to an 11-2 record and an Outback Bowl victory over Wisconsin, all while throwing only one interception in his final collegiate season. One.
Aside from his low turnover totals, none of Shaw's stats jump off the page, but he does many things well. His career completion percentage (65.5) and yards-per-attempt (8.3) rate are both good considering the defenses he faced on a weekly basis.
It's doubtful Shaw ever amounts to anything other than a backup or emergency quarterback, but there are few risks in the seventh round.