If you ask a Bills fan or an expert analyst, you are likely to hear the same response from them regarding the Bills draft needs: WR, TE, OT. Throughout the off-season Buffalo has been linked to prospects such as Eric Ebron, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Khalil Mack, Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, and Taylor Lewan. All of those players are certainly possible targets. However, those positions do not satisfy the biggest need of the Buffalo Bills.
The offensive scheme has not radically changed from last season. The team did make two new hires in Jim Hostler (Senior Offensive Assistant) and Todd Downing (Quarterbacks). These two coaches were added to improve the efficiency of the offense, but not to create any widespread changes (that we know of). There were also no significant losses on the offensive side of the ball. The Bills were able to hold onto Frank Summers, re-sign Scott Chandler, and sign LG Chris Williams, formerly of the St. Louis Rams. If anything the continuity is a positive step for this offense, but that does not mean there aren't areas of need that could be addressed. Here is a look at the unofficial offensive depth chart at this point in the off-season:
|QB||E.J. Manuel||Thad Lewis||Jeff Tuel|
|RB||Fred Jackson||C.J. Spiller||Anthony Dixon
|FB||Frank Summers||Evan Rodriguez|
||Tony Moeaki||Lee Smith||Chris Gragg|
|WR1||Stevie Johnson||T.J. Graham||Chris Hogan|
|LT||Cordy Glenn||Chris Hairston|
|RG||Kraig Urbik||J.J. Unga|
|WR2||Robert Woods||Marquise Goodwin||Marcus Easley|
This is where the usual three draft needs are found. While there is some talent at the receiver position, there is no true #1 receiver that creates match-up nightmares. The position is also lacking ideal size and impacts the team's success and failures in the Red Zone. The same can be said at the tight end position. While the team resigned Scott Chandler and Mike Caussin, they are not considered to be playmakers by any means.
Then there is the offensive tackle position. Erik Pears has a cap hit of $3.1 million, which is pretty pricey for a below average starter. Some have hinted at drafting a top tackle at #9 and moving Cordy Glenn to the right side. The Bills have basically said they don't foresee that happening as they're very happy with Glenn's performance. But the team could still decide to address the right tackle position here.
However, this is still not Buffalo's most pressing need. Despite having a much better defense than offense, the biggest need at this very moment is on the defensive side of the ball. Obviously that need could be fixed between now and draft day, and the offensive side could really use some weapons to help put some points on the board. But because it's the off-season and we have 7 weeks until the draft, I'm going to discuss the area in which we need the most help.
First, lets discuss the new defensive scheme we will witness in 2014. The system installed by Mike Pettine was very exciting for Bills fans. We saw a lot of blitzes, sacks and turnovers. We ended up being a top 10 pass defense, despite starting Justin Rogers for several games (and making Geno Smith look legendary) and forcing Aaron Williams to move back to cornerback temporarily. While that defense would've provided more excitement in 2014, we unfortunately are on our fourth defense in four seasons.
Enter Jim Schwartz and his defensive scheme. His philosophy on defense is winning the one-on-one match-ups. The assignment for each player is rather basic: beat your guy. There aren't many exotic blitzes, actually there aren't many blitzes at all. The defenses run by Schwartz have traditionally depended on the front four defensive lineman to disrupt the offense and generate pressure. Therefore, the defensive line is the most important aspect of the defense (as long as Schwartz is still our DC that is).
Schwartz actually fell into a great situation to install his defense. The Bills had three Pro Bowlers on the defensive line in Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. In the new 4-3 scheme run by Schwartz, Jerry Hughes will actually be the starting right end and he is coming off his breakout 10 sack season. But it's actually Hughes that is the weak link on this defensive line despite his success in 2013. At 6'2", 254lbs he is a bit undersized to be a defensive end.
That is not to say that Hughes can't be successful as he obviously showed that he is great at rushing the passer. However, Schwartz's defenses are best known for their ability to shut down the run, an area that Hughes does not exactly excel at. Because of that the team will be utilizing Manny Lawson as a hybrid OLB-DE in 2014. Lawson was another player who really stood out for Buffalo in 2014 and he is nearly the polar opposite of Hughes. Lawson proved to do well at containment and was not too bad in coverage.
Both players were better suited in Mike Pettine's system as outside linebackers in the hybrid 3-4 defense that he ran. Can Buffalo make due with the combination of Hughes and Lawson at right end? Yes. Can they create the type of pressure necessary with these two players? I don't think so. That is not to say that Buffalo will draft a defensive end in the first round. They may elect to address the offensive side after all. There really isn't a defensive end that stands out, outside of Jadeveon Clowney. Kony Ealy and Dee Ford are far from guarantees in this year's draft.
Even if Buffalo doesn't invest a first round pick into a defensive end, lets take a look at the position. Here is an unofficial depth chart at this point in the off-season:
|DT1||Kyle Williams||Alan Branch||Stefan Charles|
|DT2||Marcell Dareus||Corbin Bryant|
|LOLB||Kiko Alonso||Nigel Bradham|
|MLB||Brandon Spikes||Ty Powell|
|ROLB||Keith Rivers||Manny Lawson|
|CB1||Stephon Gilmore||Corey Graham||Ron Brooks|
|SS||Da’Norris Searcy||Jonathan Meeks|
|FS||Aaron Williams||Duke Williams|
|CB2||Leodis McKelvin||Nickell Roby||Brandon Smith|
You probably noticed the lack of defensive end depth on the Bills roster right now. That is clearly a cause for concern. We all remember the 2007 New York Giants for their ability to create pressure on the quarterback. They sacked Tom Brady five times in the Super Bowl and dismantled the New England Patriots perfect season. Yes, it was 7 seasons ago, but that type of pressure is still present today amongst the top NFL defenses.
The problem at this point is that we have absolutely no depth at the defensive end position. If Mario Williams went down, we would be forced to start Jerry Hughes at left end and Manny Lawson at right end. That is not the type of personnel that is required by Schwartz's defense, or any defense for that matter. Without proper depth at the DE position, all of Buffalo's eggs are in a very tiny basket.
Buffalo saw how devastating it is to not have proper depth as they experienced it in the secondary at the beginning of last season. To enter 2014 without a stable of proven or reliable defensive ends, or at least players who have the potential to make an impact, the Bills would be repeating their costly mistakes with no lesson learned. The NFL today is a pass happy league. We are seeing new records broken almost every year and rule changes in recent years have made it easier for the offense to continue putting points on the board.
In lieu of having two shutdown corners, teams really need to have a stable of effective pass rushers at defensive end, not only for depth purposes, but to keep them fresh throughout the game. While Buffalo may not invest a top ten pick in this position, there's no doubting that it is one of the most pressing needs this off-season. It comes as a surprise that it has yet to be addressed through free agency, which reaffirms the notion that the Bills may be looking at targeting players in the draft.