College All-Star Games have come and gone, but for NFL hopefuls, the draft process is far from being over. As the gears change to more individual workouts and preparations for the combine, NFL teams are combing through the hundreds of prospects declaring for the May draft.
The Buffalo Bills have had another offseason full of turnover with one-and-done coordinator Mike Pettine leaving to become the Cleveland Browns head coach. Pettine lured defensive coaches away to join him on the other side of the lake, leaving the Bills to pick up the pieces of having multiple vacancies across the coaching staff.
The Bills have responded well to hire replacements quickly and not get too far behind in the scouting process, as the draft is only three months away.
Hiring big-name coordinator Jim Schwartz to command the defense continues the Bills' identity as a fast, physical defense. Even though he enters with a slightly different scheme on defense, the Bills' personnel needs on that side of the ball remain the same. Linebacker is going to remain a focal point moving forward, and the Bills would be wise to add one or two guys at the position in the middle of the draft. The rest of defensive needs are more depth, rather than looking for new starters.
Offense has a different set of issues, particularly on the line. The Bills struggled to find any sort of consistency on offense in 2013—partly due to starting three quarterbacks during the season—because of a roughshod group on the offensive line. Left guard needs a complete re-boot, and no one would say no to an upgrade over Erik Pears at right tackle.
Receiving options for 2013 first-rounder EJ Manuel is another debated need for the team. Many fans prefer to add the likes of Eric Ebron or Sammy Watkins in the first round, but is either position worthy of spending a top pick with bigger holes on the roster?
Regardless of what direction the Bills go in, they need to add immediate contributors on both sides of the ball to take another step forward in 2014. Over the next few slides, we will take a look at a few candidates in each round who would make sense for the Bills' continued rebuilding efforts.
|Sammy Watkins||Wide Receiver||Clemson|
|Greg Robinson||Offensive Tackle||Auburn|
|Eric Ebron||Tight End||North Carolina|
|Anthony Barr||Outside Linebacker||UCLA|
|Khalil Mack||Outside Linebacker||Buffalo|
Everyone should know these five prospects by now because of the amount each one has been talked about as potential fits with the Bills in the first round. Each player fills a specific need, but there does not seem to be a consensus on any of the five.
Sammy Watkins has been a known commodity for the better part of three years in Clemson's high-scoring offense, but a breakout game against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl sealed his fate as a top-10 selection in May. The dynamic junior receiver is not the tallest receiver in the draft—which is something Bills fans have been clamoring for—but he might play like the tallest receiver in the draft. His game-breaking speed and point of attack on a jump easily make him the best at his position in terms of early impact.
Greg Robinson will probably be the third or fourth tackle taken in the draft, but his stock has risen significantly over the last two months. A road-grader of a tackle, Robinson can play on either side of the line but would be a better fit at right tackle in Buffalo. A tackle position consisting of Robinson and Cordy Glenn would be a terrorizing thought for the rest of the AFC East.
Eric Ebron has been a name on fans' radar since the middle of the season. He is the best combination of size and speed at his position, which should easily translate for teams looking for a receiving-first tight end. Ebron is a willing blocker, but it isn't necessarily his strong suit. Unless Ebron doesn't run well in individual workouts, he will be a name to watch as draft day approaches.
Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack would each upgrade an underwhelming group of linebackers. What Schwartz does with Kiko Alonso will have a lot to do with whether the Bills consider either Barr or Mack early in the draft.
|Austin Seferian-Jenkins||Tight End||Washington|
|Jordan Matthews||Wide Receiver||Vanderbilt|
|Donte Moncrief||Wide Receiver||Ole Miss|
|Aaron Donald||Defensive Tackle||Pittsburgh|
Austin Seferian-Jenkins has as many positive qualities as he does letters in his name. The reason the Washington product isn't getting the notoriety Ebron and Jace Amaro are is because of his lack of straight-line speed. Sure, Seferian-Jenkins won't win a 40-yard dash against a majority of the receiving options in the draft, but he may be one of the most complete products. He can run well enough and has above-average hands plus very good blocking abilities. I have mentioned in the past, the Bills have receiving tight ends and blocking tight ends but not one guy who does both well.
Cyril Richardson did not have a good week in Mobile, Ala. for the Senior Bowl, but he still remains one of the best guard prospects on the market. There was nothing positive to take away from the play of the Bills' left guards in 2013, so any upgrade the team makes during the 2014 draft will have an impact on the offense moving forward.
Jordan Matthews has been touted as a valuable asset in a few of my articles over the past few weeks. Matthews has gotten a bit of an unfair tag as a finesse receiver, but if you turn on the tape, he is one of the best jump-ball receivers in the draft. A tall and built receiver, there should be very few concerns about his physicality as a second-round option. Donte Moncrief is not quite as strong as Matthews or Mike Evans but every bit as productive. Both Moncrief and Matthews will go in the second or third rounds, giving whoever takes a chance a steal.
Aaron Donald may have played himself into the first round with a fantastic week of practice at the Senior Bowl, but the amount of talent at the top of this draft may push him down to the top half of the second. In December, I randomly tweeted about comparing him to Geno Atkins, a player who fell into the middle of the draft due to size concerns. After a dominating week in Mobile, that comparison might not be too far off.
|Gabe Jackson||Guard||Mississippi State|
|Chris Borland||Inside Linebacker||Wisconsin|
|Billy Turner||Offensive Tackle||North Dakota State|
|Christian Jones||Outside Linebacker||Florida State|
|Yawin Smallwood||Inside Linebacker||UConn|
Gabe Jackson would be a huge get in the third round if the Bills decide to pass on a guard earlier in the draft. The offensive line issues should be addressed earlier, but I understand the unpopularity surrounding such decisions. If the Bills decide to go the tackle route, then Billy Turner from FCS champion North Dakota State deserves a look. Turner was a late add to the Senior Bowl rosters and performed well against some of the top competition at defensive end.
Chris Borland is a widely known name at this point, but pegging him round-wise is difficult. Borland is a bit undersized and nothing about his physique screams difference maker, but he showed at the Senior Bowl what he did all season in the Big Ten. His nose for the football could get him drafted earlier than the second round, but a third-round grade is a safe assessment at this juncture.
Two other linebackers could draw mid-round interest from Buffalo if they pass on the top-end talent at the position in Round 1. Christian Jones needs to improve several technique issues at outside linebacker, but his size and fluidity are a scary combination this late. Yawin Smallwood declared after his junior season at Connecticut, so he has been flying a bit under the radar during senior All-Star Games. The athletic linebacker is a player to watch during the combine, as his versatility would be a big asset in Schwartz's 4-3 scheme.
|Marcel Jensen||Tight End||Fresno State|
|Antone Exum||Cornerback||Virginia Tech|
|Morgan Moses||Offensive Tackle||Virginia|
|Martavis Bryant||Wide Receiver||Clemson|
The fourth round is a good time for the Bills to start thinking about depth at several positions. There remains a good chance they slide out of the first round like they did last offseason, in an effort to pick up another mid-round selection. With that said, the Bills will be looking for starters in the first three rounds and quality depth for the remainder of the draft.
The Bills top three corners are set in stone barring an unforeseen injury in the offseason, but depth remains an issue. Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore have both had injury issues in their time with the team, while Nickell Robey is more suited in nickel and dime sets. Pierre Desir is a small-school player who was worthy of a Senior Bowl invite, and he was consistently named as one of the standouts in post-practice evaluations. Antone Exum has had injury issues at Virginia Tech and would be one of the top cornerback prospects if not for those problems.
I hope the Bills will have taken a tight end by the fourth round, but if not, Marcel Jensen is a good value in the fourth or fifth rounds. Jensen wasn't used much in Fresno State's spread offense, but his physical attributes are drool-worthy. The senior has great leaping ability and huge hands, but his lack of consistent usage might be a concern.
Morgan Moses was talked about as a solid second-round draft pick at one point, but the consistency isn't there. Virginia offensive linemen have had good success in the NFL over the last decade, and Moses could be a good find for a team who falls in love with his size. Martavis Bryant also has monster size for his position, but it was a curious decision for the receiver to come out with eligibility remaining. Bryant is a bit under-appreciated because of playing behind DeAndre Hopkins and Watkins, but his size-speed combination is about what you would expect from a Clemson product.
|Nickoe Whitley||Free Safety||Mississippi State|
|Hakeem Smith||Strong Safety||Louisville|
|Seantrel Henderson||Offensive Tackle||Miami (Fla.)|
|Weston Richburg||Center||Colorado State|
Nickoe Whitley was a playmaking safety in the SEC as a four-year starter for Mississippi State. Whitley played a majority of his senior season on a torn ACL and still finished near the top of the conference with five interceptions. He will be under-drafted due to the injury, but the Bills are in a good position to bring a player like Whitley along slowly with significant upside in the future.
Hakeem Smith had similarly good marks for Louisville, as a four-year starter for the Cardinals. Smith was a four time All-Conference selection for his stellar play at strong safety. The Bills drafted Duke Williams in fourth round last year, but the cupboard could be bare if a few of their free agents leave in March.
Seantrel Henderson and Weston Richburg are project players at tackle and center respectively. Henderson was one of the biggest tackle prospects in years coming out of high school, but he never lived up to his billing as a starter for the Hurricanes. Henderson is not a short-term option at tackle for any team, but he could develop into a mid-level starter or depth with training. Richburg had a nice week at the Senior Bowl, and the Bills could be in the market for a backup center.
Zach Mettenberger could see a free fall in the draft due to his season-ending knee injury late in the year. A team might be brave enough to draft him as early as the third round if his injury is responding well to therapy, but a deep talent pool could push the LSU quarterback down draft boards. The Bills are in the market for another young signal-caller if the price is right and such a bargain would constitute as such.
|Caraun Reid||Defensive Tackle||Princeton|
|Nevin Lawson||Cornerback||Utah State|
Caraun Reid had an electric week at the Senior Bowl and was named a "buzz-worthy" player by NFL.com's Bucky Brooks after the game was over. Defensive tackle is not a need for the Bills, but it's hard to turn down a productive player in the sixth round.
Ryan Groy is not as highly rated as the typical Wisconsin guard, but he still comes from the same system which has produced countless NFL linemen. Even if the Bills draft an interior lineman earlier in the weekend, they could use more than one player on the inside for depth purposes.
I wrote about Nevin Lawson last week as a cornerback possibility late in the draft. He may be a little undersized for what the Bills are looking for, but he has plenty of experience matching up against opponents' top receivers while playing for a very good college defense.
|Logan Thomas||Quarterback||Virginia Tech|
|Colt Lyerla||Tight End||Oregon|
|Matt Hall||Offensive Tackle||Belhaven (Miss.)|
The Senior Bowl did nothing to dispel the negativity surrounding Logan Thomas' prospects as an NFL quarterback. There was a time where Thomas' size and strength made him a potential first-round prospect, but his tape does nothing to back up the attributes. He will need to be coached up and watch from the sidelines for a few years, but the Bills started Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel in 2013—players who were virtually unwanted coming out of college.
The seventh round is a place to take chances on players you might not be guaranteed to convince to sign in the free agency period after the draft. Colt Lyerla was a highly sought after tight end at Oregon before his collegiate career took a strange turn. Following an arrest, Lyerla quit the team and left his NFL fate to his inconsistent tape. The skills are there, but quitting on your team is not a very good look for someone trying to make an impression.
If you don't know Matt Hall, you are not alone. Hall began his college career at Ole Miss, where he started at right tackle for a season. Hall transferred to a lesser known NAIA school in Jackson, Miss. before his junior season. The mammoth tackle—the school lists him at 6'10"—will at the very least get a call following the draft based on his frame, but he might be a sneaky get as a compensatory selection late in the seventh round.