The day after Super Bowl XLV was played, I took to this space to lay out exactly how I felt about the Buffalo Bills positional needs well over two months in advance of the 2011 NFL Draft. With less than three weeks to go before the draft begins, I thought today would be a good time to re-visit that needs list, and to apply it to this year's draft class. Let this serve as the first post in which I've gone all-in on laying out exactly how I feel about the Bills and the decisions I'd like to see them make starting April 28.
If you recall, I broke the positional needs list up into three tiers: needs at which elite players should be sought, needs at which the team needed starting-level talent, and needs at which depth was required. What follows are my personal opinions on the class of talent at those positional needs within those tiers. (If you're confused, hopefully it'll make more sense as you proceed.)
ELITE NEEDS: Positions at which the Bills should target elite players.
1. QB: Sorry, folks, but I don't see an elite quarterback this year. You're all aware of the big-name guys at the position. I don't think there's a player available that I'd consider a safe bet to become one of the league's best quarterbacks.
2. OLB: There are two players at the top of the draft that have the ability to become elite edge rushers from the 3-4 OLB position. First and foremost, there's Von Miller, the "hot horse" that is a truly rare athlete with the potential to be an elite-level pass rusher. He's also got the tools to play the run adequately, as well. I'd also count Robert Quinn in this group, as he has unique edge-rushing ability, as well - though the medical questions surrounding a benign brain tumor are enough for me to rank him well below Miller. I also believe Aldon Smith will be an elite pass rusher in this league, but while he's claimed he'd like to play in a 3-4, I don't think he's got the movement skills to do it. I see him as a 4-3 defensive end, at least to start out.
3. CB: I got a fair amount of resistance to placing CB here simply because it's a high body volume position; lots of very good teams have gotten by with adequate depth rather than star power. I firmly believe that having an elite, lock-down cornerback can be just as valuable to what you do defensively as strength at any other positional group. I also firmly believe that there are two players on the verge of becoming elite cornerbacks in the NFL: Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara.
IMPROVEMENT NEEDS: Positions at which the Bills should target starting-level players.
4. ILB: This position was a major problem last year, but don't expect a lot of upheaval at the top of the depth chart, because this year's group of inside linebackers doesn't have a single player I consider an immediate starter - even in Buffalo. The Bills need one player here, perhaps even two, and there are several intriguing names with starter potential. I just wouldn't take any of them before the third or fourth round, and none of them will start right away unless there's an injury. The closest to that goal, and a player that I think has a chance to emerge as a starter sometime during his rookie season, is Quan Sturdivant of North Carolina.
5. OT: My evaluation of this position is clearly different than Buddy Nix's, because the Bills GM seems pretty content to pencil in Erik Pears as his starting right tackle. I'd rather the team bring in a rookie to not only compete with Pears for that starting job, but to provide the team the depth it craves at the position at a bare minimum - and on both sides of the line. To my eye, Anthony Castonzo and Derek Sherrod are the two players that offer that type of starting upside and positional versatility, while Gabe Carimi offers the same starting upside, but only at right tackle. There are other high-upside players at tackle, but this year's crop features a lot of guys that will need development time - probably including the three names I mention.
6. DE: There's some necessary delineation to make here, simply because there are a ton of starting-level (and slightly above) options for the Bills in a very end-rich draft class. Marcell Dareus is an experienced and versatile five-technique end that would play that technique in 3-4 looks, but would need to kick inside to defensive tackle in 4-3 looks, creating something of a logjam inside. J.J. Watt is a prototypical five-technique that would likely only play inside at the three-technique on passing downs in 4-3 looks, somewhat limiting his upside. Cameron Jordan is, to me, clearly the best schematic fit for the short-term, as he's also a prototypical five-tech with the athleticism and experience to kick out to 4-3 end as a pass rusher. Da'Quan Bowers has similar versatility, but is more of a 4-3 power end that would be best in one-gap 3-4 schemes as an end, playing either the three-technique or, occasionally, the five. Nick Fairley could also excel in a one-gap 3-4 scheme, but knowing the Bills are aiming at being a two-gap defense, his upside is limited in Buffalo, though he'd be dominant as a pass rusher in 4-3 looks. Cameron Heyward, like Watt, is a five-technique that doesn't offer a lot of scheme versatility, but who could start immediately in Buffalo. There are a few extremely intriguing, high-upside projects at the five-tech spot, as well.
7. S: This is an incredibly weak safety class, and there isn't a starting-caliber player in the lot. To be frank, I wouldn't even waste my time drafting one.
8. TE: I mentioned last week that Kyle Rudolph is perhaps my favorite prospect in this year's draft class; not only could he start at tight end in Buffalo instantaneously, but he'd be a huge asset to Buffalo's running and passing attacks offensively. Given the dearth of talent at TE in Buffalo, there are a lot of players that could play right away, but only Rudolph and Luke Stocker look like every-down players capable of run blocking right out of the gate.
DEPTH NEEDS: Positions at which the Bills should target quality depth players.
9. OG/C: I'm not sure that I'd spend a draft pick here, given that the team has its long-term center on the roster and plenty of options elsewhere.
10. NT: There are a few intriguing nose tackles available this year, but the team just spent a second-round pick on one last year, and they've also got a Pro Bowl-caliber player that plays a lot of nose, as well.
11. RB: A third running back is needed, but to be honest, I haven't researched this position at all, because I'd be happy with any competent late-rounder or priority free agent (should that option exist) as a deep reserve, as long as there's some upside.
12. WR: This is actually a pretty strong year for wide receivers, as there's a considerable amount of mid-to-late round depth. I'm not certain that the Bills will add any receivers this year, but if they do, they'll be getting an intriguing prospect, to be sure.