With Fred Jackson out of the line up for the rest of the season, the 5-5 Bills have a much longer road to overcome. Even if they can overcome injuries and play consistently well, the Bills still stand a chance of not making the playoffs by virtue of tie-breakers and a highly competitive conference. Let's assume that the Bills will finish middle of the road and end up having the 16th overall pick come April. By that point the top quarterbacks, corner backs, offensive tackles and a few wide receivers will likely be gone. However, a slew of very good players do remain for the Bills to choose from, many of whom fit the needs of the Bills.
As of right now the Bills have three principle areas of concern with a few others that could be addressed in the first three rounds of the draft as well. The three primary areas are in no particular order, outside linebacker, wide receiver and corner back. Given the number of free agents the Bills have, combined with the talent level in the draft, the Bills could also be looking at a first round selection of an inside linebacker or offensive lineman (namely a tackle) as well, but this course is less likely. In exploring which area to target first, I shall look at the current personnel in that particular unit, which of these players are free agents, who may be available at this point in the draft and why that pick makes sense. This post may be a bit long, so if you want to just vote, just jump to the bottom. [All player info was brought to you by CBS Sports; all stats courtesy of ESPN]
First up is the outside linebacker (OLB) position. In the 3-4 defense the OLBs have the pivotal role of acting as the pass rusher for the team as well as playing coverage once in a while. Unfortunately for the Bills this aspect hasn’t really shown itself during the past few seasons. The Bills have two fair starters in Shawne Merriman and Chris Kelsay. Merriman has talent (and is good in stopping the run) having been named to three pro-bowls for his pass rush, but only managed two sacks before landing on the IR for the fourth consecutive year. Kelsay likewise has struggled in the sack department, but despite being 32 years old has been playing consistently strong for the Bills.
Given injuries to both players, the Bills have had to rotate quite a few players inside. Last year’s sixth round picks Danny Batten and Arthur Moats (who may be shifted inside next year) have seen a lot of playing time but have only recorded a single sack each so far. Spencer Johnson meanwhile has seen a lot of playing time on the outside much to the chagrin of Bills fans due to his lack of speed (in comparison to most 3-4 OLBs) but has two sacks. Newcomers Antonio Coleman and Kyle Moore have not really seen the field yet, but that does not negate the fact that the Bills once more have a severe lack of pressure from the outside.
Sadly, the NFL draft class this year is backlogged with pass rushers with only a few names potentially breaking into first round consideration, meaning that it may be a stretch to grab a player in the mid-first round compared to the other talent across the board. Still, there a few games left as well as the combines so this fact may change in a few months time.
As it stands right now the best 3-4 pass rusher is Courtney Upshaw [6-2, 265, 4.76] of Alabama. Despite having just 6.5 sacks (14.5 career), the senior gives consistent pressure, run defense and provides quality pressure and coverage. The next best available is Illinois junior Whitney Marcellus [6-4, 265, 4.68] who has had 13 sacks so far this year, but only has 2 others in his career… Next on the list is junior Sooner Ronnell Lewis [6-2, 244, 4.63], who has 5.5 sacks so far but has good awareness. Another possible contender for a late first round birth is Florida State’s junior Brandon Jenkins [6-3, 265, 4.69] who has 7 sacks on the year (20.5 career). The last player that may see the first round is Vinny Curry [6-3, 263, 4.74] of Marshall who has 11 sacks in his last year, but may get dragged down due to playing in the less competitive Conference USA. But like I said previously, Upshaw is the only player currently worth a top 15 pick.
The next area I will address is a starting wide receiver (WR) to compliment Stevie Johnson. Perhaps my biggest off-season criticism of Buddy Nix was the trading of franchise starter Lee Evans to the Ravens. While Evans had been struggling, getting rid of a proven deep threat has hurt the Bills later on in the year offensively when attempting to spread the ball around and getting the ball to Johnson. Gailey has attempted to plug in Donald Jones and David Nelson into the lineup as the new #2 WR to little success as the year progressed. Jones has been averaging about 3 catches for 30 yards before landing on IR while Nelson, acting mostly out of the slot is at 4 grabs for 43 yards a game.
Also on the roster at wide receiver are deep threats QB hybrid Brad Smith (who has in my opinion been under-utilized for the amount we paid to get him), Roscoe Parrish. Parrish like Johnson is a free agent in 2012, but Parrish, despite being the Bills fastest receiver and vetted punt returner, has been often injured and may be a cost-saving cut in the Bills backlogged receiver position. Filling out the other spots throughout the year are Naaman Roosevelt, Marcus Easley, Kamar Aiken, Ruvell Martin and Derek Hagan.
The Bills may forgo taking a receiver entirely this draft to work on the potential in this group, but as that plan has not panned out this year, the Bills could easily draft a starting-class WR and/or a deep threat option. The one receiver the Bills have little chance of grabbing is Justin Blackmon, a top-5 pick. After that there are four receivers in consideration.
The first is junior Alshon Jeffery [6-4, 233, 4.50] of South Carolina who, due to not having a QB, has just 43 receptions for 585 yards and 6 TDs. However do to his height and playmaking ability, Jeffery did record 88 catches for 1,517 yards and 9 TDs the year previous and could be a top-10 pick. Next up is senior Michael Floyd [6-3, 218, 4.51] of Notre Dame who has had back-to-back1,000+ yards of receiving and at least 700 yards a season. Floyd is a good route runner, has good speed and is a great run blocker. Maybe breaking into the lower end of the first round is Tar Heel Dwight Jones [6-4, 215, 4.55] who has had 131 catches for 1.964 yards and 12 TDs over the last two years so far. Lastly, Marvin McNutt [6-4. 215, 4.58] of Iowa State has entered first round consideration (but may just stay a day two selection) after a stellar senior campaign (without a true QB) with 74 catches for 1,240 yards and 12 TDs.
One glaring weakness for the Bills has been its play at corner back (CB) this year. The two best corners, Terrence McGee and rookie Aaron Williams have taken turns being injured with McGee on the IR. Meanwhile, the other two starters, Drayton Florence and Leodis McKelvin have been struggling with inconsistencies throughout the entire year. Rookie Justin Rogers is being given more reps to show his skills while veteran Reggie Corner is a free agent and will probably not be back next year. With just two potential starters (one being the aging, injured McGee) in a pass-happy NFL, the Bills may be hard pressed to bring in a solid corner back if they get the chance to do so.
Despite having highly invested in corners between signings and draft picks, this aspect of the Bills secondary has struggled in many games this year. Florence is the highest paid corner, yet despite having three picks early in the year, has given up several touchdowns to poor coverage or is liable for interference. McGee meanwhile is the second highest paid and while the most consistent in run and pass defense, is often injured. McKelvin meanwhile has been recently benched for giving big plays despite tight coverage, although all corners have been problematic with not looking back to defend passes.
If the Bills do end up drafting around the 15th pick, one or two of the top corners will likely be gone, most likeliest being LSU’s Morris Claiborne. Next best on my boards is Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick [6-2, 192, 4.49] whom CHIX will love for his physical play and abilities. Part of that top ranked Tide defense, Kirkpatrick (a junior) has 78 tackles and 3 picks in the last two years and had 3 passes deflected against Tyler Wilson (a top QB you may see on the boards next year). Next up is Nebraska senior Alfonzo Dennard [5-10, 205, 4.49] who as a three year starter notched 84 tackles and 4 picks (3 passes deflected against Kirk Cousins this year. However, Dennard has some injury concerns and due to his height may be overlooked by CHIX. Next is North Alabama/Florida corner Janoris Jenkins [5-10, 182, 4.46]. Jenkins at Florida was a strong three year starter with 106 tackles and 8 picks, but was forced to transfer to North Alabama (where he has been a top-notch corner) after getting into a bar fight and possession of drugs. Lastly on the list and climbing the boards is Chase Minnifield [6-0, 185. 4.49] of Virginia who has really come out as a starter in the last two years with 95 tackles, 9 picks and 12 passes deflected.
The Bills may have a long term strong-side inside linebacker (MLB) starter in third round pick Kelvin Sheppard. Starting opposite of Shepp is Nick Barnett who as the starting weak-side inside linebacker, has been one of the lead tacklers and defensive leaders on the team. Other players the Bills have on the inside are 2012 free agents Kirk Morrison and Reggie Torbor, as well as rookie Chris White.
Shepp has been an improvement over Andra Davis, who is a free agent this year, but while doing fair in run defense, has struggled a bit in pass protection. Given the importance of the linebacker in the 3-4 defense and the talent the first round brings, the Bills could be seeking a dominant player inside while prepping Shepp to take over Barnett’s role in a few years especially given that the Bills go up against two of the top tight ends in the league four times, Patriots Rob Gronkowski and Jets Dustin Keller.
There are five players that can play the 3-4 inside linebacker position in the draft. The best player inside is Boston College’s Luke Kuechly [6-2, 237, 4.79] Kuechly has recorded more than 180 tackles in each of his last two seasons and also has 6 career picks in college. The next best is fellow junior Vontaze Burfict [6-3, 250, 4.67] of Arizona St. who despite having an off season, still looks impressive with over 200 career tackles and 7 sacks. Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o [6-2, 255, 4.59] has good skills and speed with about 100 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his senior year. Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower [6-4, 260, 4.74] has climbed the boards and is a big solid tackler for one of the top defenses in college with 70 tackles and 3 sacks. Lastly Zach Brown [6-2, 230, 4.48] of North Carolina is technically a 4-3 OLB, but given his speed and ability, the Bills could be inclined to take him given his 81 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 2 picks in his senior season.
The least likely of the first round selections is that the Bills may opt to go after the illusive long time tackle. First glance the left tackle seems set with Demetrius Bell, rookie Chris Hairston and even LG Andy Levitre seeing reps. Erik Pears is the lone consistent starter at right tackle backed up by Sam Young. Given that despite all the injuries afflicting the offensive line they have given up 12 sacks the lowest in the league.
Despite this fact there are a few reasons why the Bills could draft a tackle. First both starters LT Bell and RT Pears are free agents. Second the line still gives Fitz a lot of pressure to handle; a major reason why Gailey works largely in the shotgun is to give the line more time to protect Fitz. Lastly, Buddy Nix attempted to bring in two right tackles via free agency (unsuccessfully) this past summer.
At this point in the draft the best right tackle prospect is Mike Adams [6-6, 320, 5.28] of Ohio State. Adams was one of the Buckeye’s suspended this past year, but he has come back as a dominant lineman excelling in both pass and run protection and can play both sides of the line. The next best options are junior Jonathan Martin [6-6, 305, 5.28] a left tackle at Stanford and the Alabama sophomore D.J. Fluker [6-6, 335, 5.06] who shows really good protection despite his size, but is likely to return to school for another year. Left tackles Matt Kalil and Riley Reiff are likely to be gone by time the Bills draft.