Buffalo Bills: Complete 2014 NFL Draft Wrap-Up and Analysis
With a draft strategy historically reminiscent to their division rival New England Patriots than any draft the Bills had conducted in recent memory, Buffalo traded up in the first round, down in the second and made another trade down on Day 3.
In addition to their navigation up and down the draft order, the Bills also conducted trades to move veteran wide receiver Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2015 conditional fourth-round pick, then sent that conditional fourth-round pick to the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire running back Bryce Brown.
The Bills’ draft strategy became clear over the course of the selection meeting’s three days. So did their objective for the 2014 season: Win now.
Buffalo’s wheeling and dealing in this year’s draft has both energized its fanbase and been questioned by critics, but if their strategy proves to be effective, it could give the Bills a chance for a playoff push.
Round 1, Pick 4: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Round 2, Pick 44: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
Round 3, Pick 73: Preston Brown, ILB, Louisville
Round 4, Pick 109: Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke
Round 5, Pick 153: Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor
Round 7, Pick 221: Randell Johnson, OLB, Florida Atlantic
Round 7, Pick 237: Seantrel Henderson, OT, Miami
For the most part, the Bills did a great job combining value with addressing areas of need in making seven selections in this year’s draft.
Not one player selected by Buffalo was a major reach at the point at which he was drafted. The Bills patched their biggest holes by adding potential starters at wide receiver, right tackle and left guard, while they also made important depth improvements at linebacker and in the secondary.
Kouandjio and Richardson, who we’ll get to in greater detail later in the slideshow, could both emerge as starters up front in their rookie season.
Despite being a seventh-round pick, Henderson could also eventually factor into the mix to start. He has as much physical upside as any offensive tackle not named Greg Robinson in this year’s draft, but his play has never lived up to his hype and he has an alarming history of failed drug tests, including one at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Brown and Cockrell are likely to start their Bills careers as backups, but both are skilled players who were adequate middle-round values and should be ready to contribute quickly.
The success or failure of Buffalo’s 2014 draft class, however, will ultimately be defined by how well Watkins performs and whether he makes the Bills immediately better.
By trading their 2015 first- and fourth-round selections to move up five spots with the Cleveland Browns and secure Watkins, the Bills put an enormous investment into their first-round pick being a star. As the value of the traded picks will be dependent upon the Bills’ success this season, that investment was also made into the Bills being a playoff contender this year.
The massive cost of the trade, which will significantly limit the Bills’ options in next year’s draft, can only be justified if Watkins emerged as one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers.
The notion that the Bills gave up too much to land Watkins prompted ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required) to grade Buffalo’s draft as a C-minus:
Sammy Watkins isn't just going to be a really good player, he already is one. He was my No. 2 prospect in the entire draft. EJ Manuel has a weapon, a player who can turn simple throws into big gains, and that matters because I still don't know how effective a downfield thrower Manuel is. My issue is that this draft is loaded with wide receivers—there are good ones already signing as undrafted free agents as I type this, in fact—and the Bills paid a significant price to get Watkins. A future first-round pick is always a heavy price, but they threw in a fourth as well. Think about this: the Jags took a QB one slot ahead of Watkins, but still managed to get Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in Round 2. Watkins could be a star; the problem is he has to be, and soon.
The focus of criticism has been on the trade’s steep price, but as for the reason the Bills decided the cost was worth it, the acquisition of Watkins should have immediate benefits.
An explosive playmaker who can burn defenders with his speed and can create yardage with the ball in his hands, Watkins can immediately become a go-to target and help second-year quarterback EJ Manuel find his groove after a rocky rookie year.
Best Pick: Cyrus Kouandjio (and Cyril Richardson)
Watkins is likely to make the greatest impact of Buffalo’s draft selections this year, but the team’s best move of this year’s draft came in Round 2.
Had the Bills stayed put at their original selection, the No. 41 overall pick, and used it to draft Cyrus Kouandjio, that in itself would have been a smart choice. A 6’7”, 322-pound offensive lineman who can engulf defenders with his 35.625” arms and win with power, Kouandjio fits the Bills well and should immediately contend for the team’s starting job at right tackle.
Buffalo made the value of that selection even better, however, by trading three spots with the St. Louis Rams and getting a fifth-round pick for their troubles. After still landing Kouandjio with the 44th choice, the Bills were able to draft Cyril Richardson, another massive blocker who uses his power to dominate as a drive blocker, with the 153rd pick in the draft.
The Bills just might have turned one pick into two starters on their offensive line.
Kouandjio and Richardson both have their issues as players, including the fact that both of them are limited athletically and can be beat by quickness and speed as a result. That said, each was valued as the best offensive lineman on the board at the time of their respective selections, and both fit the team’s "big wins" mantra up front.
The Bills placed a clear emphasis on adding size and power to their offensive line in this year’s draft, and that’s what they will get from Kouandjio and Richardson. Kouandjio could be an upgrade right away over Erik Pears and Chris Hairston, while Richardson should compete for the starting left guard job with Chris Williams and Doug Legursky.
Worst Pick: Preston Brown
Buffalo’s least impressive draft selection was Randell Johnson, who has intriguing physical traits but is very much a developmental project who might not have the football skills to make the Bills’ 53-man roster. As a seventh-round pick, however, Johnson shouldn’t be considered the team’s worst pick, at least from a value standpoint.
Preston Brown could be groomed to be Buffalo’s starting middle linebacker in 2015, as veteran free-agent addition Brandon Spikes was only signed to a one-year contract, but in regards to both value and need, he wasn’t the best choice for the Bills in Round 3.
From a positive standpoint, Brown is a physical, “thumper” middle linebacker who is a strong between-the-tackles run-stopper.
That might not enable Brown to make a significant impact on the Bills defense in his rookie season, however, because Spikes is one of the best thumpers in the league. A limited athlete who struggles in downfield coverage, Brown would be a liability on the field in pass defense sub-packages, which is where the Bills really could have used immediate help from a linebacker chosen in this year’s draft.
If Brown can provide solid depth and contribute on special teams, then emerge as a starter if Spikes is not re-signed, he’ll be well worth the team’s third-round investment. Still, for a team that is trying to make rapid improvements for a playoff push, the Bills would have benefited from drafting a coverage linebacker or a player at a bigger position of need such as defensive end.
It’s possible that the team’s initial target for the No. 73 overall pick was Oregon State’s Scott Crichton, who would have been exactly what Buffalo still needs at defensive end but went one pick before the Bills were on the clock. That might have forced the team into reaching for Brown, but other valuable options could have included North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin and Florida State safety Terrence Brooks.
Undrafted Free Agents
Buffalo had not yet announced any undrafted free agent signings as of midnight Monday, but there are seven players coming out of college who have confirmed, via their own tweets or tweets from their representatives, that they have received opportunities to join the Bills.
A one-year starter for the Tigers, Robinson is an athletic but small cornerback who recorded 37 tackles, three interceptions and three tackles for loss in his senior season.
Kitchens is undersized for a linebacker, having measured in at just 6’2” and 230 pounds at his pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com, but he plays fast and could earn his way onto a roster by excelling on special teams.
The Bills have a minor need for defensive tackle depth that Jacobs could help absolve, but neither his measurables nor his production coming out of Florida look like what you’d expect from a legitimate NFL prospect.
Broomfield was only a one-year starter at Iowa State and such an NFL long shot that he had already accepted an assistant coaching position at Ohio Wesleyan University. That said, he recorded 57 tackles and seven passes defensed in his senior year and has a good combination of size and athleticism.
The most promising prospect among the Bills’ reported undrafted free-agent additions, Ladler is a strong, physical safety who made at least 90 total tackles in each of the past two seasons and had nine career interceptions, including five as a senior, at Vanderbilt. He should have a legitimate shot to make the Buffalo roster as its fifth safety if he can contribute well on special teams.
Gaines has poor size and athleticism for an NFL linebacker, having measured in at just 6’1” and 232 pounds and run a 4.84-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com. That said, he recorded 199 total tackles during his Miami career and can compete if he can contribute on special teams.
A local product who also played his high school and college football in Buffalo, Brim began his collegiate career at wide receiver but switched to safety and eventually emerged a starter in his junior year. His skill set isn’t likely to earn him a roster spot, but he recorded 105 tackles and six pass breakups in his final two collegiate seasons.
Another addition from the local university, Way recorded 27 tackles for loss in a productive four-year career at Buffalo. That said, he is an undersized defensive tackle with limited athleticism, making him a longshot for the NFL.
A backup quarterback for most of his career at Ohio State, Guiton performed well when injuries to starter Braxton Miller pushed him into duty. He will have to prove himself right away to get signed to the roster, as WBNS-TV's David Wilkinson reported his ticket to the Bills is a camp invitation, but if he performs well in minicamp, he has the skills to make a serious push at Jeff Tuel's third-string quarterback job in the preseason.
The suggestion that the Bills could be a playoff team in 2014 is likely to be met with Jim Mora-esque skepticism. Buffalo has not made the postseason since 1999, won just six games this past season and has an unproven quarterback who still has many flaws to work through.
That’s the expectation they placed on themselves, however, when they started to mortgage their future by trading away their first-round pick in next year’s draft. Not only will that pick be a top-20 choice if the Bills don’t make the playoffs, but its new possession by Cleveland gives the Bills one less opportunity to improve their roster next season.
With the draft complete and most undrafted free agents worth signing already off the board, the Bills’ options for making further improvements to their roster are now very limited. While there could be some veteran free agents hanging around on the market that Buffalo could give a call before or during training camp, the team’s 53-man roster should be comprised largely of players who are already with the team at this point.
The key for the Bills now, if they are going to make their aggressive drafting pay off, is to get their rookies acclimated quickly as they combine with veteran free-agent additions and players who were already on the roster to build a team that hopes to start moving up the AFC East ladder in 2014.
The team’s success or lack thereof will strongly correlate with the development of EJ Manuel, whose upcoming season looms as a make-or-break year for him to prove himself as a franchise quarterback.
While Manuel’s rookie season was plagued by injuries, limited weapons and a subpar offensive line in front of him, the second-year signal-caller will have no excuses in 2014. The Bills did their job in this year’s draft by putting more talent around Manuel; now it’s time for he and his teammates to either raise their game or allow the Bills to miss the playoffs for a 15th consecutive year.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.