The 2013 NFL Draft didn't go the way many people thought it would. The quarterback class was treated the same as all the other positions for the first time since 2000. Teams went for linemen instead of skill at the top of the draft, and the Buffalo Bills picked potential over safer picks. 2013 had a very different feel to it than past drafts.
2013 was the first year since 2000 that a quarterback class got picked in the same manner as every other position. Normally, quarterbacks are all selected higher than their rating. Much higher. After the first few get selected, teams can start a run on quarterbacks, hoping not to miss out on a passer. 2013 was different. For most other positions, a few players get overdrafted due to need, some get drafted right in their natural range, and some fall. That's what happened this year for the quarterbacks. Many analysts thought the second round would be the place for the quarterback run, not the fourth round. Weird year; it didn't follow the norm.
Bills fans should hope that the results of this weird draft year don't mimic the last draft where quarterbacks were picked in this manner: the 2000 NFL Draft. That was not a very good draft year for the Bills. Reviewing the rounds, here are my thoughts on the newest Bills. Again, I think the Bills selected potential over safe picks, with a special eye towards their new coaching staff.
E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
This draft was about preference at quarterback. The Bills obviously like Manuel. Why? Buddy Nix, Doug Whaley, and Doug Marrone are planning for the future. Manuel has a lot of franchise quarterback traits, but needs a lot of development. Kevin Kolb can hold down the position while Manuel develops. The puzzle pieces fit together. I think Manuel, along with Mike Glennon, had the highest upside of the quarterbacks in the draft. Buffalo is betting on developing Manuel to that level. Buffalo swung for the fences with Manuel, and it's hard to knock the franchise for doing so.
The key to this pick is letting Manuel develop. There's no need to rush him to play. Marrone should take Jim Harbaugh's approach with Colin Kaepernick: sit Manuel for a year (or more) and let him learn at a comfortable pace. Kolb is a capable starter for a year or two. Manuel has all the tools, and it's paramount not to rush him. In hindsight, Buffalo made a mistake passing on Kaepernick two years ago. With a Kaepernick-like plan, Manuel could atone for the sins.
Robert Woods, WR, USC
Fantastic selection by Buffalo, who had Stevie Johnson as their lone proven, starting receiver on the roster prior to the start of the draft. Woods can, and likely will, start on opening day. He reminds me of a cross between Cris Carter and Torry Holt. Woods is a multi-level threat, like Holt was, that can get vertical. He is savvy and works the short and intermediate zones well. The danger with Woods is that he's a jack-of-all trades, but master of none, who doesn't pull coverage away from Johnson. That said, Nathaniel Hackett's offense needed a versatile receiver, and Nix got a good one in Woods.
Kiko Alonso, LB, Oregon
This pick surprised me. I had Alonso outside of my top 100 and in the fourth round. Buffalo passed on Gavin Escobar (a Jason Witten type tight end that interestingly went to Dallas), Margus Hunt (a nice scheme fit) and Jamar Taylor (a good cover corner) to take Alonso. Nix also passed on Arthur Brown, another linebacker, though I'm not sold on that criticism. Both Alonso and Brown are fast-flow scheme linebackers that won't stack well against offensive guards. The Bills really needed more stout play out of their inside linebackers - something neither Alonso or Brown would've given the Bills.
That said, Alonso is a good player. Nix is betting on potential with Alonso. He's a great athlete that can be a game changer - see the 2011 Rose Bowl for proof. He's got elite range for a linebacker, and takes no quarter on contact. I also think that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine isn't going to use Alonso as a strict inside linebacker. Alonso is built more like an outside linebacker - tall and angular. I wouldn't be surprised to see Pettine use Alonso in a number of positions. This pick could surprise if Alonso stays healthy.
Marquise Goodwin, WR, Texas
Questionable selection. I had Goodwin in the third round, so he's not a huge reach. Buffalo needs more receivers with size that can get vertical - Markus Wheaton was still on the board, but Nix passed. Goodwin isn't a luxury pick like Roscoe Parrish was in 2005, though. Goodwin is small and fast, but he's not strictly a gadget receiver and special teamer. I think Goodwin might be better outside than in the slot. He's got speed to run by man-off coverage. And Goodwin has room to grow, since he wasn't a full time football player at Texas due to track commitments. I see Goodwin's upside, but Wheaton was more of a sure thing. Again, Buffalo took a risk on player upside.
Duke Williams, S, Nevada
Williams may have been the best player on Buffalo's board at this point. I'm not a fan of the selection though. While he wasn't a reach, Buffalo could've done a lot more with this pick. With the break between the third and fourth rounds, teams get a chance to re-evaluate how the draft progressed and make changes to their draft plans. The quarterbacks still on the board after the third round ended was hard not to notice. Only Manuel, Geno Smith, and Glennon were off the board. Buffalo could've made a solid asset management choice here and selected one of the remaining quarterbacks. Washington did this last year with Kirk Cousins, who played well when Robert Griffin III was injured. Cousins may end up getting traded for more than his draft value sometime in the future.
What Washington did in 2012 is exactly what Buffalo should have done in 2013. Ryan Nassib, Landry Jones and Tyler Wilson were all on the board at the Bills' pick at No. 105 overall. Buffalo passed for Williams, who is a Pettine-style physical safety with coverage skills, so he's a good scheme fit, and he's a talented defensive back. That said, while Williams gives Pettine and the Bills some safety depth, picking another quarterback was the best choice.
Jonathan Meeks, S, Clemson
I hope Meeks was Buffalo's top rated player; otherwise, I don't like the pick. I understand that Pettine is going to run a defensive back-heavy scheme that features three safeties at times. I also understand that Nix might have had Jairus Byrd's contract situation in mind making this selection. But at this point in the draft, Buffalo already had Jairus Byrd, Aaron Williams, Da'Norris Searcy, Duke Williams and Mana Silva on the roster. All of those players except for Silva figures to get more snaps than Meeks. Buffalo could have done more with this pick. They could've taken a flyer on Brandon Jenkins' potential, for example. I would have preferred many of the players selected after Meeks in the fifth and sixth rounds.
Dustin Hopkins, K, Florida State
A lot of folks don't like this pick. I do. Hopkins was the best kicker in the draft and one of the best to come out in years. He's accurate and has a big leg. This kid isn't John Potter. Potter had a big kickoff leg with potential to be a good field goal kicker. Hopkins is a good field goal kicker with a big leg - definitely big enough to kick in Buffalo's crazy winds. If Hopkins replaces Rian Lindell, he'll have more impact that most sixth-rounders.
Chris Gragg, TE, Arkansas
Gragg is a great seventh-round pick. Aside from injury concerns, I had Gragg rated higher than Meeks. Gragg falls into the Dustin Keller-type of tight ends: more receiver than blocker. A good athlete, Gragg can legitimately threaten the safety-cornerback coverage seams, and most linebackers will struggle to keep up with him. He can also flex into the slot and run many of the routes that departed David Nelson ran two years ago. The league moved to mobile, pass-catching tight ends. Gragg fits the mold, and I think he makes the final 53-man roster.
I see two themes in the draft for the Bills: Buffalo went for high-ceiling players over higher-floor players. The Bills also trust their coaching staff. You can describe nearly every player the Bills picked by those two themes. The noteworthy exceptions are Woods and Hopkins, who could both start.
If you do an "at best, at worst" analysis of the other players, you find extremes. For example: at best, Manuel is a franchise quarterback in the Kaepernick mold. At worst, Manuel is Vince Young or Heath Shuler, an athlete that never translates his talent into the quarterback position at the professional level. The Bills clearly valued what could be in the future over safer players. For a team that needs to make a leap to compete with New England, that's not a bad strategy, though it comes with the inherent "bust" risk. This is acute in Manuel's case. He's got to become the franchise quarterback Buffalo needs.
Nix trusts Marrone and his staff. He gave Pettine the players he needed to make the new defense work. With all the potential in this draft, the Bills must have confidence that these players can be coached to their performance ceiling. That's a far cry from past seasons, where the Bills took fewer risks on potential.
In the end, this draft falls on Manuel's shoulder pads. If he succeeds, not much else will matter. If he busts, and most of the rest of the draft works out, it could still be looked at as a failed draft. Buffalo took a different swing at the ball - a heavier and riskier swing. If they connect, especially with Manuel, this draft is a home run.