The list of NFL players that plays every snap of his team's games is small. First, injury must be avoided. Second, you'd better be a well-rounded player that makes a lot of big plays, or you'd better play on a good offensive line. Third, you'd better not have a talented teammate in need of reps behind you.
Knowing this to be true - that every-down NFL players are going the way of the dodo bird, particularly on defense - it's tough to construct an argument based on the idea that a bad team, like the Buffalo Bills, should only be drafting every-down players. It's important to note at the top, then, that that's not the argument I'm making.
What's the argument I'm making, then? It's simple: the Bills need to start drafting players that can, in theory, be every-down players with their premium draft picks. Those players are building blocks, and up until very recently, the team was too focused on more specialized players with their top picks.
The Bills haven't been to the playoffs since 1999. This April, they'll be picking in the Top 10 of the NFL Draft for a third straight year, as well as three picks in roughly the Top 75. They need to do a better job of drafting players that can play in all football situations. That's not easy to do - as football becomes a more specialized sport, the number of players that can legitimately be every-down players dwindles - but they're in position to find those players with their premium draft picks.
To GM Buddy Nix's credit, the Bills did better in this area than they did in his first year as GM, when they really struggled in this department. Let's take a look at the six Nix draft picks in question:
2010 Round 1, Pick 9: C.J. Spiller, RB, Clemson. Spiller was an unbelievably productive collegian with skills rarely seen in the NFL, but Nix drafted him into a running back situation already featuring Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. Spiller was immediately going to be a part-time player. Nothing changed when Lynch was traded; in fact, Spiller had already lost reps by that point. When he finally got his chance to be a featured back after nearly two full years as a little-used understudy, Spiller still didn't record 20 carries in a game. Instead, Chan Gailey gave some of his reps to Tashard Choice. It's unclear if the Bills will ever view Spiller as an every-down back.
2010 Round 2, Pick 41: Torell Troup, NT, Central Florida. Troup wasn't even an every-down player in college, as he was routinely off the field in passing situations. Very few zero-technique nose tackles in this league are on the field in passing situations anymore, and Troup was never going to be a part of those packages as a pro. The team did need a zero-tech nose tackle for the 3-4 they were planning on running, but Troup was set to split reps with Kyle Williams. Flash forward two years: the oft-injured Troup is coming off of back surgery, the team is playing far more 4-3 and has a 40-front coordinator running the show in Dave Wannstedt, and the team has made further additions at his position. It's tough to envision Troup being anything more than an occasional run-down defender from this point, even after a promising training camp pre-injury.
2010 Round 3, Pick 72: Alex Carrington, DE, Arkansas State. Here, the Bills had some potential for an every-down type player, as Carrington had played 4-3 end in college, was the prototypical size for a 3-4 end, and could conceivably slide inside and play some three-technique in passing situations. Carrington has made a few plays here and there over two years, but his development has been slow, and his impact minimal. He's a good reserve at this point; can he ever emerge as a starting-worthy producer?
2011 Round 1, Pick 3: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama. Not only was Dareus a slam dunk as a prospect, he was also a slam dunk as an every-down player. You'll be hard-pressed to find many more versatile linemen than Dareus, who can play inside and out in any alignment (the one exception being 4-3 defensive end, where he could play, but would be limited athletically). Dareus already is an every-down player, coming off the field essentially only when fatigued, and is a true building block for the defense.
2011 Round 2, Pick 34: Aaron Williams, CB, Texas. Williams was drafted into a sub-package role in which, at best, he'd emerge as a nickel cornerback. In actuality, he started the year as the dime back, but was immediately pressed into action after Terrence McGee was injured. When healthy, Williams played a lot in 2011, eventually becoming a starter almost by default. He looks like he'll be a starter in 2012, as well; even if he's not, the Bills play so much three-corner defense that Williams can easily be considered an every-down player, as well. He, too, is a building block.
2011 Round 3, Pick 68: Kelvin Sheppard, ILB, LSU. Very few linebackers in this league are every-down players, as linebackers come off the field in lieu of defensive backs to match up against multiple-receiver packages. As long as Nick Barnett is in Buffalo, Sheppard won't be an every-down player, as Barnett's one of the rare every-down 'backers thanks to his solid coverage skills. Even if Barnett leaves at some point, it's tough to envision Sheppard being more than a run-down linebacker. He's a good player and oozes leadership potential, and that's not a bad thing at all to get in the third round; an every-down player he is, however, not.
There are, of course, exceptions that the team should make to this every-down argument I'm making. The most obvious one (and perhaps the only one): anybody that can rush the passer. If the team wants to take a pass rusher of any kind, that's fine, because golden rules of the field (i.e. protect your passer, disrupt theirs) trump golden rules of the draft any day of the week. Beyond that, the team would do well to find more building blocks, rather than little-used potential difference-makers.