BBD Editor: Dan Hope
The National Football League is officially in its 2014 offseason, meaning that the entire league (well, maybe not quite yet for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks) is shifting its attention to how it can make its team better for next season.
While free agency and possibly trades will be an important step, there is no bigger opportunity to improve a roster than the annual NFL draft, which will be held May 8-10 this year. The Buffalo Bills, by virtue of their 6-10 record, hold the No. 9 overall selection in the first round of this year’s draft.
A top-10 pick is always a valuable commodity, and the Buffalo Bills sit in a good position. The Bills should have the opportunity to draft a very good talent who provides an immediate upgrade at that slot, and although they have some needs, they have a roster well-rounded enough to have the flexibility to draft for the best player rather than the biggest roster hole.
We won’t know for sure who will be available at the No. 9 overall pick until the No. 8 overall pick has been announced on May 8, but there will be no shortage of speculation around the pick nonetheless. The Bills should be able to come up with nine worthy candidates to be their first-round pick; the following nine options (plus one, see end of page 2) might be their best.
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
It would come as a huge surprise if Jadeveon Clowney fell out of the top five overall selections, but the Bills would be hard-pressed to pass him up if he shockingly fell to the No. 9 pick.
The addition of Clowney opposite Mario Williams, with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in the middle, would immediately give Buffalo one of the NFL’s elite defensive lines. The Bills already have three defensive linemen who often require double-team blocks to fend off; Clowney would give them a fourth.
Clowney’s preseason hype as a “once-in-a-generation” prospect began to fade with a disappointing junior season, but he should still be considered an elite talent. He is an exceptional athlete with ideal size, listed at 6’6” and 274 pounds by South Carolina’s official athletics website, and he can consistently beat opponents with his combination of burst, speed and power.
Clowney brings versatility to any defensive scheme as he is an explosive edge rusher who can set the edge and make plays in space against the run, while he can also kick inside and penetrate the middle.
His instincts, tackling and effort all need to be more consistent, but his overall skill set gives him superstar potential. Though his three-sack 2013 season was very underwhelming, it had more to do with the constant double- and triple-team blocks he faced than it did technical flaws or a lack of effort, and those blocks helped defenders around him makes plays throughout the season.
Regardless of the scheme the Bills plan to run defensively under new coordinator Jim Schwartz, Clowney should be a no-brainer selection if available (highly unlikely, considering the same could be said for picks 5-8).
2. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
Left tackle Cordy Glenn has established himself as one of Buffalo’s best players over the course of his first two NFL seasons, but the Bills should be in the market for an upgrade over right tackles Erik Pears and Chris Hairston. Either one of the top two offensive tackles in the draft would be a great value selection if available at the No. 9 overall pick.
Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews would be an ideal selection if still on the board. He has the most complete skill set of any offensive tackle in this year’s draft. With experience playing on both sides of the line, including three years as the Aggies’ right tackle, he could fit seamlessly into the starting lineup.
Matthews has everything an NFL team should want in a starting offensive tackle. He has exceptional foot skills for the position and consistently has his upper and lower bodies in synch. He can handle both speed and power rushers as a pass protector, while he also does a great job moving up to the second level or along the line of scrimmage to pick up run blocks.
Matthews almost always gets his opponent and he almost never loses a battle when he has a defender engaged. With great size (6’5”, 305 lbs), athleticism and impressive NFL bloodlines, he should have little trouble translating his game to the next level.
3. Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn
As BBD’s Joe Marino discussed last week, there is significant debate as to who should be the first offensive tackle selected in this year’s NFL Draft. Although few dispute that Matthews is one of the draft class’ best overall prospects, there is a growing faction who believes Auburn’s Greg Robinson could develop into an even better player.
Robinson’s game is more rough around the edges than Matthews, especially as a pass blocker, but he has ideal size (6’5”, 320 lbs), devastating power and terrific athleticism. He is a dominant run blocker who can drive defenders out of running lanes and open holes with ease, while his combination of length, quickness and strength give him high developmental potential as a pass blocker.
Robinson has to become a more natural kick-slider and more technically sound in his pass protection, but he would be an immediate upgrade over Pears in his ability to create holes both inside and outside for Buffalo’s running backs.
Though he has the potential to excel on either side of the offensive line, Robinson’s skill set suggests that at least initially, the right tackle position could be his best fit. He could even project to kicking inside to left guard, where the Bills also have a need, but either way, his talent might be too good to pass up if he is still on the board at No. 9 overall.
4. C.J. Mosley, ILB, Alabama
C.J. Mosley doesn’t hold the same prospect value as Clowney, Matthews or Robinson, but he might be the most natural fit as a first-round pick for what the Bills need.
Buffalo found one star for its linebacker corps in 2013 with the emergence of rookie, every-down middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, but defending the run up the middle continued to be a problem. While Alonso became an immediate impact player and leader, a move to weakside linebacker alongside a physical, run-stopping middle linebacker could maximize Alonso’s potential.
Mosley is actually more similar to Alonso than the prototypical thumper up the middle, but he could fill the role Buffalo needs and form a dynamic duo at the position. Though slightly undersized for a middle linebacker, listed at 6’2” and 238 pounds by Alabama’s official athletics website, he is a strong, attacking defender who has little trouble getting off of blocks.
Like Alonso, Mosley projects as an immediate three-down player. He is a strong run-stopper and aggressive blitzer, but he also excels at dropping back into coverage. He is a terrific athlete with sideline-to-sideline range, and in a duo with Alonso, could give the Bills significant flexibility in how they can move their linebackers around to confuse defenses and make plays.
The Bills’ expected move to a 4-3 defense only amplified the need for a middle linebacker, and in Mosley, they could get one of the draft’s most complete prospects at a solid value.
5. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Take Khalil Mack’s local ties into consideration, and you can expect to see the University of Buffalo linebacker projected to the Bills in many mock drafts from now until May. An explosive and versatile defender, Mack could be the missing piece as a playmaker on the Bills’ defensive front seven.
Mack is a terrific all-around athlete who is multi-faceted as both a run and pass defender. He has the range to make plays all over the field, and he is a very strong tackler in space who can also drop into coverage and pick up tight ends and running backs.
Closer to the line of scrimmage, Mack is a dynamic pass-rusher with a difficult-to-block combination of speed, power and pass-rushing moves. He also has the strength to set the edge against the run, while he can chase runners outside in pursuit.
The Bills need an inside linebacker like Mosley more than they need an edge player like Mack, but his versatility makes him a good fit for any scheme Buffalo could opt to run. He would likely start at strongside linebacker in a 4-3-based defense, but his game could also translate well to playing as a defensive end in the “Wide 9” package Schwartz’s defenses in Detroit often used.
Mack isn’t the most natural fit for the Bills, and projection based upon regional ties rarely come to fruition, but he would be one of the best players available at No. 9 overall and able to provide an immediate impact.
6. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU
Kyle Van Noy hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as Khalil Mack has this season, but he deserves to be in the conversation among linebackers who are potential early-round draft picks, and he might be a better fit for the Bills should they switch to a 4-3 defense.
Van Noy isn’t as explosive as Mack, but he is the most well-rounded linebacker in this year’s draft class. He does not wow with speed and power, but he is a very good athlete who makes plays all over the field and should be an immediate three-down player.
Van Noy is a very good tackler in space who could line up at any linebacker spot against the run, while he brings great versatility as a pass defender. He needs to bulk up to play defensive end on a regular basis, but has the burst and pass-rushing moves to be a situational pass-rusher on the line of scrimmage. That said, he is also a terrific coverage linebacker.
Should the Bills select Van Noy, he would likely factor in at either weakside or strongside linebacker, with the versatility to kick down to defensive end or even inside to middle linebacker in passing situations.
He has not gotten much mainstream play as a potential top-10 overall draft pick, but he is another possibility who could make the Bills defense immediately better and give Schwartz considerable flexibility for various schemes.
7. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Another player considered unlikely to make it to the No. 9 overall selection, Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins has potential that would be tough for the Bills to pass up if he was available.
The Bills don’t necessarily need to draft a wide receiver, and drafted two of them last year, but Watkins could add a new, dynamic dimension to the Bills offense. With an outstanding combination of speed and open-field running ability, but also polished route-running ability and good size (6’1”, 205 lbs), Watkins could immediately become Buffalo’s most explosive receiver.
In addition to the skills of a No. 1 wideout, Watkins is a triple-threat who can trouble defenses with his speed and moves on gadget running plays, and is also a great kickoff returner (though the Bills wouldn’t necessarily replace Marquise Goodwin with him in that role).
Ideally, the Bills should be looking for a bigger target to add size and contested-catch ability to their passing offense, but it is unlikely that any offensive skill-position player in this class would provide a bigger spark for the Buffalo offense than Watkins.
8. Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
Another offensive playmaker the Bills could potentially select with their first-round pick, and fill what could be a pressing need in the process, is North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
With Scott Chandler an unrestricted free agent this offseason, the Bills could look for an upgrade at the tight end position who can provide a more dynamic downfield threat. That is exactly what they could get from Ebron, who has the speed and size to create mismatches while he is a good vertical receiver and can extend plays in the open field.
Though he is best over the middle and would be an upgrade for the Bills in that capacity, he is essentially a big wide receiver. He has the skills NFL teams look for in a starting wideout, and he has the flexibility to be flexed out to the slot and outside, only making him a tougher matchup for not only linebackers and safeties, but also cornerbacks with his length.
He is a subpar in-line blocker who needs to become bigger and stronger to be a significant asset in that capacity, but he could immediately become a go-to receiving option and playmaker for EJ Manuel and the Bills passing offense. He would add a new dynamic that Buffalo does not currently have from the position, and is worthy of an early first-round pick as the draft’s top tight end prospect.
9. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans is another possible top-10 pick who would add imposing size and playmaking ability to the Buffalo passing offense.
Evans is an ideal addition for an offense led by EJ Manuel, a developing quarterback who has the arm strength and athleticism to make big plays downfield, but doesn’t always have the accuracy. An athletic, 6’5”, 225-pound wideout with great strength and leaping ability, Evans a massive catch radius and can make the tough catches for his quarterback, something he did often for Johnny Manziel over the past two seasons at Texas A&M.
Evans’ biggest knock is his subpar speed, which could give him trouble separating from cornerbacks at the next level, but he makes up for it with his ability to win vertically and make catches through contact. And while he might not blaze by any defensive backs at the next level, he uses his vision and strength very well to make plays as an open-field runner.
The Bills already have plenty of speed in their receiving corps; what they need is a big wideout, especially in the red zone, who can win battles against coverage to make plays on the ball in the air. Buffalo could get that from Evans.
The Other Option: Trade
For all the speculation there will be over the next three months over the No. 9 overall pick, it’s very possible the Bills won’t even draft with that selection.
Trading down worked out quite well for the Bills last year. By moving down eight spots from the No. 8 overall selection to No. 16, they picked up a second-round pick which turned into Kiko Alonso, who would probably be a top-10 pick in hindsight, while they also landed EJ Manuel, the top quarterback on their board (they also added the No. 222 overall pick, used to select tight end Chris Gragg).
That said, the Bills are in a different situation this year. Unlike last year, when drafting a quarterback early was a foregone conclusion and there was no quarterback worthy of the No. 8 overall pick, Buffalo will be playing the board for the best player available this year. Trading down was an obvious decision last year, but it could come down to which of the above nine players are available this year.
Even so, trading down looks like a smart option in any respect — should the Bills trade into the middle of the first round, it is possible that Mosley, Van Noy, Ebron and/or Evans could still be available. Other solid options later in the first round could include Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin, Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro and Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.