Theorizing the Buffalo Bills' NFL Draft plan

We are now officially 26 hours away from the start of the 2009 NFL Draft.  The time has arrived where Buffalo Bills fans (as well as NFL fans in general) cross the realm from mock draft land to the land of rumors and speculation.  We're happy to add a little bit of both to your Bills thoughts and discussions this afternoon.

Throughout the pre-draft process, we have closely monitored the rises and falls of draft prospects' stock as well as been the beneficiary of some (incomplete) legitimate first-hand information.  From there, we have boiled it down into a simple pre-draft post for y'all to ponder this afternoon.  There is a degree of truth to the post - but please don't take it to be anything more than that.  This is a theory post - not a law post.  We believe thoroughly that what we type below can, and probably will, change in an instant when the draft begins tomorrow afternoon.

High-Priority Round One Targets
Through various discussions that we've had over the past several weeks, we believe that we can identify four targets that the Buffalo Bills will focus on in the first round.  We know that the Bills like all of these players, but that's where the knowledge ends and speculation begins.  We have no idea where these players fit on the draft board or how they figure into the plans, but you can rest assured that the Bills are interested in the following four names (listed in our believed order of preference, though clearly we don't have - and wouldn't want - a means to confirm this):

Andre Smith, OT, Alabama.  The massive 340-pound Jason Peters clone is one of the hottest names in the draft right now despite a rocky pre-draft process and lingering questions about his maturity.  He could go as high as No. 4 overall to Seattle, but rest assured he wouldn't slip past the Bills at No. 11.  (And no, we don't think Buffalo is serious about trading up for him.)

Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State.  We have spoken at length about the Bills' preference for finding immediate, well-rounded contributors at the top of the draft.  The Bills lost a degree of physicality in their run blocking department when Peters was traded.  Pettigrew would instantly restore that as well as give Trent Edwards a solid short-area and red zone target.  There isn't a more NFL-ready player in this draft class.

Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee.  Mike Mayock's favorite defensive prospect is flying up draft boards thanks to an impressive pre-draft process and a terribly weak natural 4-3 defensive end class.  He's not a guy that will immediately solve Buffalo's pass rushing woes, but he can play immediately on any down, has a lot of natural ability, and can be a major player in Buffalo's DE rotation.

Clay Matthews III, OLB, USC.  Put all thoughts of Brian Cushing out of your head, folks - the Bills (and many other NFL teams) see Matthews as the best of the LB bunch from USC with the most upside.  Matthews is an elite blitzing prospect, having played the elephant (rush linebacker) position as a Trojan, but he's got the athletic chops to man virtually any linebacker position imaginable.  Buffalo will do its absolute best to not enter 2009 with Keith Ellison as a starting linebacker.  Matthews would help them accomplish that.

We've heard the rumors that the Bills are exploring a trade up to land Alabama's Smith, but we're not buying it - even if we do know that Smith tops the Bills' board at OT by a considerable margin.  The Bills have too many holes.  Far more importantly, this team's front office and coaching staff - particularly head coach Dick Jauron - has too much invested in this draft class to throw half of it away for one player.  They are in win now mode, and trading picks for one guy doesn't help the team plug holes.  If anything, we believe the team would prefer to trade down.  It's likely that the Bills have discussed (and will continue to discuss) moving up, but we see it as a due diligence matter that won't get any further than the exploratory stages.  (Feel free to speculate on if that theory is shot when/if Wake Forest LB Aaron Curry begins to slide.)

If you're asking me now (or any time within the past two weeks), I think the Bills would ideally like to find a way to get two of these players onto its roster.  With two first-round picks and nine in total, they have the ammo to shift themselves into better position in the first round to get that done.  We're not making any promises, but given Smith's popularity at the moment, we think that the team will be aggressive in nabbing two of Pettigrew, Ayers and Matthews tomorrow afternoon.

What if that doesn't work?  Good question - and it's actually one that we're not too thrilled to ponder.  Head on in past the jump to peruse five names that we think the Bills might focus on if they can't land two of the names listed above.

Be prepared to pinch your nose, because we're guessing that the notion of taking any of these guys at No. 28 wouldn't thrill most of you.  We're not jumping for joy at the thought, either, and we're guessing the Bills themselves will do their best to avoid it.  The Bills will likely focus on two things if they can't get two of their (as we see it) top four targets: offensive line help and defensive playmaking - position be damned.

That's why I think these five guys become priorities if two of the four names mentioned aren't Bills by pick No. 28.  Yes - this is ALL speculation on my part, and shouldn't be taken as anything more.

Eben Britton, OT, Arizona.  He visited Buffalo on a pre-draft visit, so we at least know the Bills are curious.  Britton is one of the most boring prospects you'll ever encounter - nothing about his game is exciting, and he doesn't have one trait that blows you out of the water.  He will likely be a liability as a rookie when it comes to pass protection, which means he'll play RT in his first season.  But he's a solid athlete that competes, finishes and plays the game intelligently.  If the Bills are serious about moving Langston Walker to the left side, Britton would be a safe investment with the potential for a long, stellar career.

Andy Levitre, OG, Oregon State.  I don't think it's a lock at all that the Bills target OT with either of their first round picks (unless, obviously, Smith is available).  Britton will be considered, but I think it's far more likely that the Bills look at an interior lineman like Levitre.  A left tackle in college, Levitre lacks the measurables to play outside in the NFL - but he's got loads of potential as a guard.  He plays mean, finishes blocks and has good hands and feet.  He's a little rough around the edges, but he's an immediate starter, unlike Britton.  That in itself leads me to believe he'd be the top offensive lineman on Buffalo's list at the end of round one and into round two.

Max Unger, G/C, Oregon.  Here's another non-flashy player with traits similar to Levitre - positional versatility, intelligence, and a bit of a mean streak.  The interior line has always been an area where the Bills look for players that can play multiple positions.  Unger is exactly that player, having played LT and C in college.  He's another immediate starter.

Alphonso Smith, CB, Wake Forest.  We told you it wasn't ideal.  We also told you that defensive playmaking was a priority - and Smith is certainly that, having amassed 21 career interceptions at Wake, including 15 in his final two seasons.  He's small (5'9", 193 pounds), but size has never stopped the Bills from taking a DB.  Smith is aggressive, physical for his size, and possessor of the best ball skills amongst the DB class this year.  I think he could beat out Drayton Florence for the nickel corner role right out of the gate - and he offers a bit of return upside as well.  CB is obviously not a need, but position won't prohibit the Bills from drafting the best, most impactful players they can find.  It's obvious they'd like to avoid it - but as Smith visited Buffalo in March, they clearly like him as a prospect.

Louis Delmas, SS, Western Michigan.  I'm very confident that the Bills will take a corner at some point considering the fact that three of their corners (Terrence McGee, Ashton Youboty, Florence) all have contracts expiring within the next two seasons.  The same is true at safety, where all five of the team's current players are in the tail ends of their respective deals as well.  Delmas is the most complete safety in this class - physical with good range; solid against both the run and the pass; productive, experienced and a leader.  In short, he's everything the Bills look for - and he'd likely beat out Bryan Scott for the starting strong safety role by mid-season.  Again, it's obviously not ideal from any angle, but production is production - and the Bills could consider this kid if the worst comes to fruition.

That's all we've got.  We're speculated out.  Consider this your open thread for Draft Eve; we'll hit you back tomorrow morning with our final, very trade-happy first-round mock draft, and then official NFL Draft proceedings begin tomorrow at noon eastern.  Hang tight, Bills fans - we're almost there!

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