The regular season is officially over, which means it's time for Mel Kiper and Todd McShay to awaken from their coffins and start their annual draft debates.
Of course, when you root for a team like Buffalo, the draft season begins a lot earlier. As the Bills have plodded through another season, I've been catching up on college players and trying to figure out where the team could go in the upcoming 2014 draft. Here's my current "what I might do" mock draft. This will probably change quite a lot over the next 5 months.
Round 1: Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech.
With Khalil Mack and the other top defensive players off the board, I decided that the best way to upgrade the team would be to focus on offense. This narrowed it down to three options for me: Amaro, Mike Evans (the WR from Texas A&M), and Cyrus Kouandjio (OT from Alabama). Ultimately, I decided to go with Amaro.
Jace Amaro is the top talent in a TE class that has good top end players this year but very little depth behind them. At 6'5" and 250 lbs, he has plenty of length to make difficult catches, and is a stellar receiver, with 98 receptions, 1240 yards receiving, and 7 touchdowns this season. He played both inline and flexed to the slot, and was a matchup problem no matter where he went. While he's not a traditional style blocking TE, he knows how to use his body to get in the way of a defender and will improve with better technique. He would instantly become the starting TE, even over Scott Chandler were he re-signed. His catch radius would be a great boon to an offense that struggled in the red zone and on deep passes. He's faster and more dynamic than Austin Seferian-Jenkins (though not as good a blocker) and has better hands than Eric Ebron (though he isn't quite as fast).
Mike Evans has gotten plenty of good words from me over the last couple months, but I decided that I would pass even with him on the board. My reasoning comes down to this: There are a lot of tall receivers in this draft, and though Evans is elite at blocking and elite with his catch radius, the risk of not getting a good TE in the draft was too great. There are only 3 names (four if you count Colt Lyerla) who are considered to have the potential to become Pro Bowl type players, and it's entirely possible they all get drafted before Buffalo picks in round 2. There haven't been many great TEs in recent drafts, so when a guy like Amaro is available I'd think you have to take him.
With Kouandjio, while I consider him a great prospect who reminds me a lot of Cordy Glenn, I again believe that there is plenty of line depth in this draft and I'd rather upgrade a position with less draft depth in round 1.
Round 2: AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
I think it's fairly apparent that I'm not sold on either EJ Manuel or Thad Lewis. I think that the front office should be trying out new QBs every year until they find someone who sticks - you can't build up a team for 4 years and hope that your one shot in the dark turns out to be the right guy. McCarron represents a great opportunity for the Bills to take someone of a different style than EJ and see how he fits the team.
AJ McCarron is not considered one of the top QBs in the draft - that honor goes to Bridgewater, Carr, and Hundley/Bortles if they enter the draft. I can understand why he doesn't get the draftnik love - his arm strength is average-to-above-average (going up against some cannons with Carr/Bortles/Hundley), and playing for a team that does nothing but win, it's easy to say that he succeeded because he was never really challenged. Ultimately, I have to disagree and say that McCarron really excites me. He's a fantastic leader and rarely if ever makes mistakes. I've seen plenty of savvy plays, and he has a knack for hitting his receivers in stride on passes even when the mechanics start to break down. He reminds me a lot of Tom Brady - he does the important stuff well (not make mistakes, hit open receivers) and because of that the other stuff doesn't matter. If McCarron is available here, I'd snap him up in a hurry.
Otherwise, the second round could be the time to draft an OL replacement. But in my book, the QB trumps other priorities.
Round 3: James Hurst, OT, North Carolina
Here's where I get to address the o-line. Thanks to a deep class of both tackles and guards, a guy like James Hurst who might sneak into the top of round 2 in another year could fall to the middle of round 3 this year. It's our benefit, as he has the size and strength to step in to either the RT or LG position and be an effective player. Ideally, I'd make Hurst the RT and get a free agent LG to battle with Chris Hairston and Doug Legursky for the starting job. I'm of the belief that you always draft tackles, and if they can't play tackle, they'll still play guard.
Round 4: Cody Hoffman, WR, Brigham Young University
I mentioned earlier that wide receiver was another deep class in this draft. Cody Hoffman is one of my prospects that stood out when I was randomly clicking through film. I'm not sure why there's a lack of buzz about him - there's not much to dislike. He's 6'4", 210 lbs, has 33 receiving touchdowns and 3612 receiving yards in 4 years as a starter at BYU, and has a knack for making tough catches, even when being interfered with. He has the classic body control that allows him to use his size and get to the ball where smaller receivers couldn't. He probably won't start immediately, but represents an investment in size that started with Jace Amaro. It'll allow EJ to get more success even if he continues to struggle with accuracy.
Round 5: Shaquil Barrett, OLB, Colorado State University
Barrett doesn't get a lot of buzz, being a tweener and a smaller school prospect, but I'm a big fan of his. At 6'2" 250 lbs, he's built like a slightly smaller version of Courtney Upshaw - which is the comparison I like to make. He's not the biggest or the fastest, but makes do with the athleticism he has. There's a wide variety of pass rush moves in his repertoire, and he has a non-stop motor, but I actually think his best attribute is the run defense. He's skilled at sealing the edge, and is strong enough to manipulate the lineman and close up any gaps in the run game. I haven't seen him on special teams, but I'd hope he could be an effective player there as well.
Round 6: Kirby Van Der Kamp, P, Iowa State University
Because we need a punter, and if Buffalo drafted arguably the top kicker in last year's draft, why not draft arguably the best punter in this year's draft? Kirby has a 42.4 career punting average and 99 career punts downed inside the 20. Not much more to say here.
Round 7: Tim Flanders, RB, Sam Houston State University
Fred Jackson isn't getting any younger, and Buffalo will always need a more traditional-style running back with CJ Spiller as the pace changer in this offense. What better way to look for Jackson's future replacement than to go back to the small school, lower division football? Enter Tim Flanders. At 5'9, 210 lbs, he's a small but powerfully-built runner who uses his tough legs and jump cuts to run past arm tackles and earn the difficult yards. He started at Kansas State, but transferred to SHSU in 2010 when he was buried on the depth chart. He became a starter in his second game there, and has started the four years since then. In that time, he has racked up an amazing 5664 yards rushing with 66 touchdowns on 999 carries - a 5.66 YPC average. He's a quiet leader on his team who helped turn SHSU into an FCS powerhouse, and has had success even in games against teams like Texas A&M (running for 170 yards and 2 TDs this year). He appears to have the mental and physical makeup to take over for Jackson over the next couple years.
With the way this draft works out, Either Chandler is re-signed and Amaro starts, replacing Gragg on the roster, or Chandler becomes expendable. Tuel is replaced with McCarron, and if McCarron has a good trial year then Thad Lewis can leave in the following year. Hurst starts at RT and takes Pears out of the equation (maybe off the team altogether). Hoffman becomes a depth receiver to start out, Barrett becomes depth in the OLB rotation (giving Buffalo an elite player in Williams, an all-around guy in Lawson, a great pass rusher in Hughes, and a great run defender in Barrett). Van Der Kamp becomes the new punter, and Flanders battles it out with Wingo for the third string job.