First off, I just want to say how excited I am for this year's first round. Assuming Buffalo stays pat and Doug Whaley isn't a complete hack, there is a near guarantee that they end up with an elite caliber player. For the record, I consider the following names to be elite or potentially elite: Jadeveon Clowney, Jake Matthews, Teddy Bridgewater, Khalil Mack, Sammy Watkins, Greg Robinson, Mike Evans, Aaron Donald. That's eight names, and Buffalo picks 9th. With several teams needing a QB before Buffalo, if Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, or other players (Anthony Barr, a cornerback, CJ Mosley, a safety) get selected early, someone great is dropping to the Bills.
The theme of this version of the draft is "help EJ." I'm adding targets and blockers to make it easier for our young quarterback to complete his passes. Hopefully this improves the offense heading into year two.
Round 1: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
In this scenario, the Bills manage to snag Sammy Watkins, who is quite possibly the best receiver in the draft and the best receiver to come out of the draft since AJ Green and Julio Jones were in it.
Sammy Watkins is the complete package as a wide receiver. He has blazing speed, incredible agility, and the core strength to fight through tackles and get extra yards. He's a tenacious blocker who doesn't give ground. Despite only average (6'1") size, he has excellent body control, capable of stretching up to his full extension to grab passes 7 feet in the air without breaking stride and snagging passes from behind him with a beautiful hands catch. He's dangerous on reverses and screens, and has excellent vision and instincts that allow him to set up routes and runs like few others can do. Also, the Buffalo Bills were his favorite team growing up. There are only two knocks on him - the lack of elite size, and that he was arrested in 2012 for possession of pot and pills. Watkins was suspended for 2 games that year while the case was taken care of, but he had no trouble this year and it seems like he's cleaned up his act.
Watkins becomes the foil to the steady and savvy Robert Woods, much like Marqise Lee was in 2012 at USC. He takes the top off the defense and gives EJ Manuel a dynamic target who can catch most any pass and make some magic with it. Woods and Stevie Johnson can patrol the middle of the field. TJ Graham can give out the Gatorade.
Round 2: Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Going with a new tight end this time around, a name I haven't heard around these parts. Assuming Ebron, Amaro, and ASJ are gone, this guy is my 4th rated tight end, and I gave him a second round grade. Nicknamed "Hercules," he is a massive 6'7" 270 pound man who is the next in a line of highly-rated tight ends coming from Notre Dame, including Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. He's leaving school early, only having one full season as a starter, but is athletic and looks ready for the NFL.
Niklas is a complete 3 down tight end, if a bit unrefined. He has a strong core and is impressive blocking on the run and pass, but inconsistent at times with his technique. He'll just as often accidentally run past his man and turn around to try and connect on the block as he will get a hat on a guy and drive him 2 yards downfield. With more coaching, he can eliminate the misses and become a great blocker. The size and strength are already there.
As for pass catching, Niklas is similarly unrefined but flashes potential. He only had 32 catches in his junior season, and 5 the year before that. Much of his promise hinges on the all-important 40 time. If he's in the 4.8 range, he's probably limited to catching short passes mostly on "X and Goal" and blocking. If he runs a 4.7X or even a 4.68, he will be intriguing as a receiver. Niklas ran a full route tree at Notre Dame, from inline as a TE or split out into the slot or even as a split end or flanker. Niklas is a hands catcher, although he doesn't like to extend his arms out from his body unless the pass is out of reach - this is bad because a defender is able to use more of their reach to break up a pass, so he'll need to learn not to do that. If a pass isn't on target, Niklas is good at extending his body to the full 6'7" height to make the catch - especially helpful in the red zone. He is physical running routes, which helps him against tight coverage, but hurts him on deep routes because he often gets slowed down by bumping unnecessarily into defenders. That physicality also makes him a fan favorite once he's caught a pass - he is very difficult to bring down, and there were a few plays where it took 3 or 4 defenders to pull him down after another 5 yards were gained.
In short, Niklas is a higher potential Scott Chandler - better blocking, more physical, still a good pass catcher. He would have been the top tight end in a weaker class, much like Rudolph and Eifert were. Instead he's the fourth best option and should easily be available when Buffalo picks.
Round 3: Anthony Steen, OG, Alabama
I know I said I like to draft tackles over guards, but truth be told, I'm running out of tackles in the middle rounds whom I'd consider potential future starters - especially considering that other guys are also putting out mock drafts, and I don't want to reuse any names wherever possible! So here's an offensive guard for a change.
Anthony Steen reminds me a lot of Andy Levitre - not physically dominant, but a solid, consistent player who doesn't let guys past him and doesn't make mistakes. At 6'4" and 310 lbs, he has mostly maxed out his frame, with maybe room for 5-10 more pounds of muscle. The first thing that stands out to me on film is his game awareness - his head is always on a swivel, especially in pass blocking, and he has a good understanding of where the rushers are and will slide over to block a blitzing man if there is one. He's mobile enough to get out to the second level and block on a LB or S. His strength is good, but not outstanding - he'll be better at blocking a guy on an angle to get him off balance than trying to go mano-a-mano and push him downfield.
There's one challenge with Steen, and not having played football I can't say how hard it would be - Anthony Steen was a RG this year, and Buffalo's main need is at LG. Assuming he can make the switch, he could take over for Legursky right away, I'd say. If the top 4 guards (Richardson, Sua-Filo, Jackson, Yankey) are all taken, I think Steen might be the next best pure guard. While he may never be an All-Pro type of player, he will be one of those guys you forget about until you realize he's played all 16 games and only given up 3 sacks. On a line that needs some consistency, Anthony Steen should be a good fit. As a side note, Steen had surgery for a partially torn labrum (shoulder muscle) back in December, so he didn't play in Alabama's bowl game against Oklahoma. He might be recovered in time for the Combine, if not by his Pro Day.
Round 4: Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee
If Aaron Donald (see my last mock draft) is the prototypical three technique pass rushing tackle, then Daniel McCullers is the ultimate 0-technique nose tackle. A hulking 6'7" and 350 lbs, McCullers is the guy you count on to plug up two gaps on the offensive line. He's so strong that he usually needs to be double teamed, because even with the disadvantage of his tall height, he still is capable of pushing a center directly to his quarterback. His long arms allow him to grab a runner coming past him while he's engaged with a lineman and still finish a tackle because of how strong he is.
McCullers obviously isn't the perfect tackle - he's going in the fourth round because his size makes him naturally weak against the pass - he doesn't take plays off, but he simply doesn't have the burst and quickness to rush the passer. He will eventually push through and collapse the pocket, but it might take 4 or 5 seconds. McCullers' benefit comes from the ability to use his size and strength to dictate the flow of the offensive line.
Even if we aren't adding to the offense, one way to help EJ Manuel is to buff up the run defense, especially in the red zone, where if we could convert some of those opponent touchdowns into field goals, there would be less pressure on the offense. McCullers can act as a subpackage tackle (and honestly, he has the length that he might be worth a look as a 5-technique defensive end) that can clog up the running lanes and prevent some of those tough yards.
Round 5: James Stone, OC, Tennessee
With their 5th round pick, the Bills take a player who may or may not be available in the fifth round. I honestly don't know where James Stone will wind up - he could end up in the third round, or he could end up in the seventh round, where a bunch of analysts are placing him. At 6'4" 310 lbs, he has good size for the position, and is a four year starter for Tennessee. He's a smart player with good vision, experienced at making line calls and picking up blitzes. He also is a mobile lineman and has good balance. There is core strength there that he can work with. Right now his main weakness is that he's not the kind of guy to finish his blocks. He mostly just tries to hold his own one on one and not be pushed around. If he followed through and improved his power, he'd be more effective, especially in the run game.
James Stone gives the Bills more needed offensive line depth. He can fill in at center or either guard position, and will be a decent backup in his rookie year, with the potential to develop into a starter down the line if necessary.
Round 6: Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State
The offense continues to get a boost with this running back. Crowell is an interesting case because he used to be an extremely highly-rated recruit entering Georgia a few years ago - he is very talented, and was getting compared to some of the all-time Georgia greats when he joined the team. But in the summer of 2012, he was caught with unregistered guns in his car and arrested on felony weapons possession charges. The charges were later dropped, and Crowell left the Georgia team, transferring to Alabama State for a fresh start. He has kept out of trouble since then, but it may help to have a couple of strong mentors like Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller to keep him on track.
As for skill, there's no denying that Crowell is a talented running back. He reminds me a lot of Marshawn Lynch (the Beast Mode version) and I am especially impressed by his vision and patience - even as a freshman, he was effective at setting up his blocks and then making the cut upfield. (Side note: it was a lot of fun going back to watch Crowell's 2011 game against South Carolina when he was still at Georgia. Crowell with Cordy Glenn lead blocking against Stephon Gilmore and Jadeveon Clowney. Good stuff) Crowell is very fast, maybe a 4.45 runner, and accelerates to top gear in a hurry. He's tough to tackle and not afraid of contact. He's an "edge of your seat" runner, and should be a fan favorite and a great change of pace to CJ Spiller, if not a future feature back in his own right. The key is ensuring that he has matured since his Georgia days (and he appears to). For a 6th round investment, getting a player as talented as Crowell is a coup.
Round 7: Kyle Bryant, OT, Youngstown State
You didn't think I'd end this draft without taking an offensive tackle, did you? In my philosophies, there are two positions at which a team should always have a developmental prospect on the practice squad: quarterback and left tackle. They represent some of the positions with the highest upside if a prospect works out, and also some of the most technically difficult positions to master. At 6'5" and 310 lbs, Bryant is yet another athletic small school tackle who has shown flashes on film but needs major technique refinement before he could be ready. Like Demetrius Bell and Jason Peters before him, he'll struggle through practices, probably be cut once or twice, and have trouble staying with the practice squad. But if things click, he's athletic enough to be a starting tackle in the league, and that represents plus value at this spot in the draft.
Buffalo comes out of this draft with some revamping done on the offensive side. They have a new starter at LG and two developmental backups, one for the interior and one at tackle. They get a backup RB who has star potential, a star WR, and a starting TE. They also add a run stuffing nose tackle. With new pieces surrounding him, EJ Manuel will be in a better place to succeed, and should hopefully develop his passing skills in his sophomore season.