With the 2011 NFL Combine set to begin, I thought it was high time to sharpen my focus on 2011 NFL Draft prospects. Many of you have asked for my opinions on who I have in mind for the Buffalo Bills over the past few months; this is the most concrete answer I can give you right now.
There are ten players on my radar for the No. 3 overall pick. Many of them are frequently mentioned as possibilities by this fan base, but one or two of them may surprise you. (Probably not, though.) Right now, I only have vague ideas of where I might eventually rank players come April, but I absolutely refuse to do so now - it is pointless to be so concrete about something so fluid two months before the actual event.
After the jump, I'll list the ten prospects on my radar. They will be listed alphabetically by surname, lest you think I'm kidding about not having a ranking within this group. From there, you can tell me which players you like, which you don't, and whether or not you think any other players belong in the conversation.
Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson (JR). A big, physical defensive end with excellent athleticism for his size. Was something of an enigma prior to a break-out junior campaign in which he dominated the ACC. Won't wow you with explosion, but a great blend of physical tools across the board make him very difficult to block. Lacking technically, so I expect him to adjust slowly to the pro game. In Buffalo: Would be a swing end (like Chris Kelsay was last year) that would stand up on rare occasion, but line up mostly with a hand in the dirt - even as a five-technique end in the 3-4. He'd be asked solely to rush the passer, and would likely start the season as a role player until he was technically proficient enough to see more playing time.
Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama (JR). Arguably the most versatile defender available this year, Dareus - who played five-technique end in Nick Saban's 3-4 collegiately - projects snugly into either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. A wide-bodied defender with excellent athleticism, Dareus is probably the most technically advanced lineman available this year. He anchors with ease against the run, stacks and sheds like a veteran, and is capable of helping from a pass rush perspective, as well. In Buffalo: Dwan Edwards and Alex Carrington are penciled in as starters at DE, but Dareus - whose skill set complements Kyle Williams quite nicely - would have a shot at snagging a starting role, and could capably be an every-down defender for the team.
Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn (JR). The most disruptive defensive lineman available this year, Fairley's strength is elite first-step quickness, explosive short-area athleticism, and a tough-to-learn ability to get skinny, shoot gaps and wreak havoc in the backfield. He has the prototypical build of a five-technique end, but may not be able to play there immediately, as he'll need to improve his anchor strength and learn the technique. Like most of this year's highest-rated linemen, however, Fairley will get looks from both 4-3 and 3-4 teams. In Buffalo: If the team is serious about building its defense around their players' strengths, Fairley would be used in much the same way Williams has been - at multiple positions, playing mostly one- and three-technique. His presence in Buffalo might dictate a more distinct movement toward base four-lineman looks.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri (JR). He's got everything you look for in an elite QB prospect from a physical standpoint: size, arm strength and mobility. He can make all of the throws, and is big and quick enough to avoid pressure. On an NFL team that utilizes a lot of shotgun passing formations, Gabbert may be able to play right away - though he'll have a sharp learning curve adjusting to reading the NFL's complex blitz schemes and coverages. I wonder about his pocket awareness, as well; he does not strike me as the creative type that can extend plays, despite his physical tools. In Buffalo: Would serve as the backup quarterback for a year behind Fitzpatrick while working with Chan Gailey and George Cortez on mechanics and in the film room. A possible starter in 2012 or 2013.
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia (JR). In my opinion, Green is the closest thing to a slam dunk this draft class has. At a minimum, he will be a productive go-to receiver for a long time; his potential is much higher. Though he's a bit lanky and won't wow anyone over the middle, he has elite hands and ball skills, stretches defenses vertically with ease, and makes impossible catches look routine. He is a playmaker in the truest sense of the word, and was productive at Georgia despite a great deal of quarterback upheaval. In Buffalo: Gailey is particular about getting his receivers to operate at a certain level from a route-running standpoint, but sooner rather than later, Green would be atop Buffalo's receiver depth chart alongside Stevie Johnson and Lee Evans.
Cameron Jordan, DE, California (SR). If there's any one player that might not belong on this list, it's Jordan, who is an excellent prospect, but may not have the difference-maker potential of the rest of these guys. That's OK. Jordan gets a mention from me because if the Bills are looking for the prototypical 3-4 defensive end, Jordan is their guy. He is an excellent run defender and a competent, if unspectacular pass rusher, and is absolutely impossible to block one-on-one. Having played in a 3-4, he is familiar with the techniques and should be able to play that scheme right away - but he is athletic enough to play strong-side end in a 4-3, as well. In Buffalo: Like Dareus, he would immediately challenge Carrington for a starting role (assuming Carrington's job security is shakier than Edwards').
Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M (SR). I spoke about Miller very recently, saying that Bills fans don't seem to like him because of some absurd belief that, athletically, he compares to Aaron Maybin. Von Miller is absolutely nothing like Aaron Maybin. No, he will not ever be a dominant run defender due to his size, but he is such a marvelous athlete that it's a near given that he will be a disruptive force regardless of which scheme he plays. His best asset is his pass rush ability - he has the potential to be truly dominant in that area - but he's got upside as a coverage player, as well. In Buffalo: Miller could play the weak-side (Jack) position on running downs, where he'd see less blocking traffic and afforded more space to make plays in the backfield. On passing downs, he could switch to the strong (Sam) side, and either rush or cover backs and tight ends in the short zones. He'd have a chance to play right away.
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn (JR). Easily the most controversial prospect this year, Newton is equal parts talent (size, athleticism, arm strength), production (50 touchdowns in 14 games, a Heisman Trophy and a national championship), attitude concerns (sense of entitlement, diva personality) and red flags (cheating, stolen property while at Florida). Anyone who takes this guy is bringing the epitome of "boom or bust" into the fold. The bust would be tragic. The boom could yield multiple championships. In Buffalo: He might be used right away, but only in special packages that Gailey might design for him to exploit his running ability. Newton might require two full years to transition from the rudimentary spread-option to anything resembling a pro offense.
Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU (JR). Bar none, Peterson is the most impressive athlete available this year. He's got great size and even better speed, and while he can be a bit robotic at times in his movements that worry scouts, he's too much of a playmaker to ignore. Some are questioning the position Peterson should play because of his stiff hips; I don't see this as a worry - if he doesn't meet expectations at corner, you've got an elite free safety. You draft Peterson early because he's an outstanding football player that is special at not only getting the ball in his hands, but doing something with it. In Buffalo: Would likely start off as the nickel back behind Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin (assuming Drayton Florence leaves), and would be in the conversation at both kick and punt return spots, as well.
Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina (JR). I am admittedly worried about his lack of experience and his year off from football, but I am not worried one iota about Quinn the person, nor Quinn the football prospect. In case you haven't heard, Mike Mayock on Tuesday called Quinn "one of the most dominant edge rushers I've ever seen on tape". I will also continue to maintain that Quinn is a better fit as a 4-3 end, but he has the natural athleticism to stand up and be a rush-only 3-4 outside linebacker, with the requisite size and strength to set the edge as a run defender. He might not be instant-impact, but he has the potential to be one of the best four or five pass rushers in the NFL in due time. In Buffalo: Quinn would be started out slow, as the Bills have numbers (but not necessarily comprehensive talent) at the position. He is scheme versatile, and like Kelsay would line up standing up and with a hand in the dirt as a rush-first player.