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Cracking the pre-draft visitor code

My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.

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I want to be able to figure out who Buffalo is going to draft before the draft begins. It's a fun exercise. We already know that the list of pre-draft visitors is a valuable predictive tool. Every Buffalo first round pick under the Nix/Whaley regime has visited Buffalo in the past. In addition, multiple picks and UDFA signings have been past visitors to One Bills Drive. But how close can we get to figuring out who Buffalo is targeting?

Today, I will attempt to do the impossible. I will assemble Buffalo's pick list, from the list of pre-draft visitors. If I hit on 3/6, I consider myself lucky.

Follow me down the rabbit hole!

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First round picks

We know that Buffalo's MO has been to bring in the players they want to consider picking in round 1 for a visit. Every pick, from CJ Spiller to EJ Manuel, visited the team before being drafted. In addition, the Bills tend to bring in several names who could potentially be picked, which helps hedge their bets a little. Let's summarize from the information we know, with all the players who visited Buffalo and were first round picks:

2010: Jason Pierre-Paul, Tim Tebow, CJ Spiller, Anthony Davis (Other first round picks couldn't be confirmed)

2011: Cameron Jordan, Marcell Dareus, Nick Fairley, JJ Watt, Robert Quinn, Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Von Miller, Ryan Kerrigan, Gabe Carimi, Patrick Peterson (holy first round picks, Batman!)

2012: Trent Richardson, Matt Kalil, Justin Blackmon, Morris Claiborne, Mark Barron, Ryan Tannehill, Luke Kuechly, Stephon Gilmore, Fletcher Cox, Bruce Irvin, Dre Kirkpatrick, Melvin Ingram, Shea McClellin, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Whitney Mercilus (and you thought 2011 was top heavy)

2013: Dion Jordan, Barkevious Mingo, Kenny Vaccaro, EJ Manuel, Jarvis Jones, Cordarelle Patterson, Alec Ogletree

For 2014, the question is if the cycle will continue or if Buffalo will use this opportunity to set a smokescreen, leaving out a first rounder in hopes that a team will assume they are off of Buffalo's radar. Right now, I'm inclined to believe they will bring in their first round pick. But my uncertainty hinges on one guy, that being Mike Evans. I'll explain later.

Here are the players Buffalo has brought in, who could be considered in play to be picked in the first round:

Odell Beckham Jr. - Has jumped in front of Marqise Lee in the eyes of many scouts, and some place him ahead of Mike Evans as well. He's a complete wide receiver, a sort of Sammy Watkins-lite, with speed, body control, good hands, great route running, and the will to win. At only 5'11" and 198 pounds, though, he's lacking the great measurables that some people desire in a receiver. Likely picked in the 12-24 range.

Eric Ebron - Considered the best tight end prospect in this draft, and one of the best tight ends to enter the draft in recent years due to a healthy portion of athletic ability and skilled running after the catch. He's not the perfect prospect, but his athleticism could carry him up near the top of the draft. Should be picked in the 8-16 range.

Jake Matthews - At one point considered a potential number one pick, Matthews has done nothing wrong in the draft process - he's a technically perfect tackle who does his job perfectly. But the raw athletic talent of players like Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson, Sammy Watkins, and Khalil Mack, combined with the lack of need for tackles in the top of the draft, could push him down boards slightly. Will be picked somewhere in the top 10.

Ryan Shazier - A hyperathletic LB prospect from Ohio State. Ran a 4.39 40 at his pro day. An aggressive, smaller sized linebacker who sometimes finds himself out of position, but has the range and strength to be a three down defender in the NFL. Probably picked in the 24-32 range.

Bradley Roby - In some ways similar to Leodis McKelvin, Roby is an athletic cornerback prospect from Defensive Back University (Ohio State). He needs to improve his technique and awareness, especially locating and making a play on the ball when the pass arrives. If he gets in the first round, it's likely in the 24-32 range.

So far, the only players who have visited Buffalo who could be considered in play at the number nine pick are Ebron and Matthews. For now, consider those to be the top targets.

Adding visitors, regardless of round

From here on out, I'm only going to be referring to the lists from 2011 to 2013, as they give us the most complete picture. 2010 was not well-reported, so it's hard to know the full groups of people the team was targeting.

Another thing we know about the Bills is that they don't just bring in their first round picks to OBD. They'll often bring in other players they pick up. At the very least, a player projected as a second or third day pick who visits Buffalo should be considered a viable option for their picking.

2011: Along with Dareus, the Bills added Kelvin Sheppard, a pre-draft visitor.

2012: Cordy Glenn and Tank Carder both visited the team before being drafted.

2013: Jonathan Meeks was another draft choice of Buffalo, who also added two UDFAs (Da'Rick Rogers and Jeff Tuel) who had visited the team.

With the general trend that has formed, it can be assumed that 1 to 2 of Buffalo's day 2 and 3 picks will come from the list of pre-draft visitors.

Adding teammates of pre-draft visitors

In Chris Brown's recent profile of the days leading up to Buffalo's drafting of Kiko Alonso, he had a useful quote:

Forsyth took the time to talk to Oregon DE Dion Jordan about Alonso when he was on a pre-draft visit with the Bills in Orchard Park last April

Keeping in mind that the Bills may have chosen some of their pre-draft visitors not just to consider them for the team, but to ask about their teammates, the perspective of the draft shifts.

Here is a list of the players drafted by Buffalo who did not visit the team, but did have teammates visit during the same year:

2011: Da'Norris Searcy and Johnny White (Bruce Carter, Robert Quinn, Quan Sturdivant), Chris Hairston (Da'Quan Bowers)

2012: Ron Brooks (Morris Claiborne)

2013: Robert Woods (Matt Barkley), Kiko Alonso (Dion Jordan), Marquise Goodwin (Kenny Vaccaro), Dustin Hopkins (EJ Manuel), Chris Gragg (Tyler Wilson)

It's actually pretty easy to see why this is helpful, when you think about it. If you ask a quarterback "who do you like to throw to?" He'll tell you all about his favorite receiving target. If you ask a defender "who is hardest to tackle," he'll give you a great athlete. Few people know better about a player than his own teammates.

This is where the Mike Evans situation comes into play. If Buffalo does not end up bringing him in on a pre-draft visit, I'm still not taking him out of my draft projection. That's because, along with the other praise they sent his way, Buffalo has already brought in his teammate on the offense for a visit. The Bills may have decided they've seen enough, and used Matthews to get more insight into Mike Evans as a teammate. This lets them keep up a smokescreen (since their previous 4 draft choices were visitors) and gives them a slightly increased chance that Evans falls to them, assuming that's what they want.

Who are some other teammate pairings to keep in mind for the draft this year?

  • Jeremy Hill and Odell Beckham Jr. have two teammates considered good offensive draft prospects in Jarvis Landry and Zach Mettenberger, though I wouldn't consider either to be great fits for Buffalo's offense. Alfred Blue is a bit of a dark horse draft prospect as a running back who split time with Hill. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention guard Trai Turner, regardless of how much Buffalo has indicated they want a guard. On defense, Lamin Barrow could fit as the MLB Buffalo is seeking, and Craig Loston is a good strong safety prospect, although Buffalo hasn't shown interest in safeties with their visitors.
  • Obviously Ohio State has already had several players visit. Jack Mewhort is a name to keep an eye on, as an offensive tackle prospect who could also play guard or even center if needed.
  • Lache Seastrunk had a few interesting teammates at Baylor. Offensive Guard Cyril Richardson has had an up and down stock this offseason, but with Buffalo bringing in zero guards I wouldn't pay close attention. Same goes for Ahmad Dixon, the Baylor safety. Tevin Reese is a wide receiver with intriguing speed, but I'd say he's not a target given that Buffalo already has two speed guys on the roster. Jordan Najvar is a TE prospect with great size, but with slow speed and below average athleticism, I doubt he's on Buffalo's radar even as a late round pick.
  • There's not a lot of talent on the Hoosiers football team, but Cody Latimer's teammate, running back Stephen Houston, put up some great athletic numbers at his pro day, and might have caught Buffalo's attention during the season.
  • At North Carolina, offensive tackle prospect James Hurst and defensive end Kareem Martin could both be names I wouldn't be surprised at hearing on draft weekend. Center Russell Bodine and safety Tre Boston are less likely targets.
  • Troy Niklas isn't even one of the two biggest names at Notre Dame, where NT Louis Nix and DT/DE Stephon Tuitt have gotten most of the press to this point. But Buffalo doesn't seem interested in adding a defensive tackle this time around, nor a 5-technique end like Tuitt. OT Zach Martin is a name to keep an eye on, as is cornerback Bennett Jackson.
  • At Washington, the big teammate to keep an eye on is RB Bishop Sankey. He's a grinder of a running back who would probably fit the mold the Bills are looking for in the backfield.
  • I already mentioned Mike Evans as a potential add from Texas A&M. Johnny Manziel has to be mentioned just because he's Johnny Manziel. Other than those two, there's not much else, except possibly running back Ben Malena.
  • At Mississippi State, guard Gabe Jackson has received plenty of accolades, though he might not be playing a position the Bills want. RB Ladarius Perkins warrants a mention as a late-round prospect.
  • Out of Oregon State, WR Brandin Cooks is considered a first round caliber prospect, but he is a lot closer to the Tavon Austin mold as a small, incredibly dangerous receiving threat. Cornerback Rashaad Reynolds is a potential day three pick.
  • Preston Brown had a few teammates at Louisville who should be getting connected to Buffalo. The biggest name is safety Calvin Pryor, whom some consider to be the top safety in this year's class. He's a first round prospect. Also, defensive end Marcus Smith is a day two prospect with excellent speed and fluidity.
  • Clemson had plenty of talent on its roster, and Bashaud Breeland could probably name quite a few teammates worth picking. Obviously Sammy Watkins is the star here. Martavis Bryant is a name to keep an eye on, as a 6'4" 217 pound receiver with plenty of speed. Brandon Thomas is an OT/OG prospect who was in line to be a day two pick before tearing his ACL last week. Tajh Boyd is a polarizing QB prospect, but so far Buffalo seems to be passing on QBs this year after bringing in visitors for the past three years.
  • There's not really any great talent at Duke other than Ross Cockrell, but keep an eye open for Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike. At 6'5" 260 pounds, the 6th year player who began as a tight end could be considered a potential 7th round pick or UDFA.

Adding a position that was scouted with visitors

Another thing we've come to expect from Buffalo's visitors is that they represent a litmus test showing which positions the team is likely to target in the draft. Of the 26 players Buffalo has added in their last three drafts:

  • 21 of the 26 picks had a shared position of a visitor to One Bills Drive or was a visitor himself.
  • 2 of the remaining 5 picks were kickers (don't expect Buffalo to be using any visits on specialists).
  • 2 of the other remaining 3 picks had nebulous positions (OL Mark Asper and DB Da'Norris Searcy), and it could be argued that Buffalo saw them in a similar position grouping as other visitors (offensive tackles for Asper's case, cornerbacks in Searcy's).
  • The last remaining player was Johnny White, who we already saw was teammates with three of Buffalo's visitors in 2011, so the connectionz are there.

In short, if you're looking to project the picks Buffalo will make in the draft, just follow the positions they brought in for visits. You'll hit on a lot of those picks. That being said, you won't be right if you just pick one from each category.

In each of the three drafts Buffalo has had thus far, they have had categories where they brought in visitors and drafted no one. They have also drafted multiple players from the same category in every draft.

In 2011, the team brought in 6 DE/OLBs and 3 QBs without drafting any. In 2012, a whopping 7 DE/OLBs and 4 QBs with none drafted. In 2013, they brought in 3 DE/OLBs and drafted 0.

In short, just because a position had a ton of visitors doesn't mean Buffalo will end up drafting anyone who plays that position. Don't be surprised if Buffalo drafts 0 cornerbacks or 0 running backs this year.

It might be less likely with Buffalo only having 6 draft picks this year, but they like to double-up on picks. They drafted 2 DTs, 2 LBs, and 2 CBs in 2011. In 2012, 2 OTs, 2 LBs, and 2 CBs. In 2013, 2 WRs and 2 safeties.

Look for Buffalo to double up on a position in this year's draft, probably in an area lacking depth. I would not be surprised to see 2 OTs or 2 DEs drafted this year.

Small School exceptions

Most of the exceptions to the rules we've found so far are in the case of small schools, such as the MAC, CUSA, FCS, and Division II schools.

In general, Buffalo has very rarely brought in a player from a small school for a visit to later add them to the team. The only one for that to be the case was UDFA Da'Rick Rogers, who used to play at Tennessee before transferring to Tennessee Tech. Nor do they bring in small school guys just to add their teammates in that same year.

I wouldn't put stock into any of the players Buffalo brings in from small schools to visit. There just isn't a history of those players eventually joining the Bills. I don't know if it's because Buffalo only values them as late picks or UDFAs, or because the Bills are just setting up smokescreens, but it doesn't seem to pan out.

So with that in mind, Terrance Cobb, Walt Aikens and Phillip Gaines - probably not on the radar.

Big School Smokescreens

While Buffalo uses their visits to find out about a player or his teammates, they also will sometimes bring in several players from the same school, only to draft none. Last year, the Bills brought in 4 Tennessee Vols, and the year before that, 5 members of the Crimson Tide. None of those 9 were drafted.

It's interesting, because in the time leading up to the draft in those years, there was plenty of hype for the players from both schools. Cordarelle Patterson was a popular first round choice for Buffalo last year, and Justin Hunter a popular second round option. In 2012, Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick often traded placements with Buffalo in mock drafts, while Dont'a Hightower was considered a potential day two pick.

With that in mind, it might be prudent to note the two schools with the most names visiting this year: LSU and Ohio State. Don't be shocked if one or both of those schools is completely ignored by Buffalo on draft day.

Draft Pick Table of CONNECTIONZ

Following is a table of every Buffalo draft pick from 2011 to 2013 and the connections I could uncover between them and the players who visited One Bills Drive that year. Of note is that 2011's visitor list is incomplete, so there may have been a couple teammates who visited that I didn't find.

For the connectionz column, here is the key to what each label means:

V - Visited
T - Teammate visited
P - Position visited

Name Position College Connectionz
EJ Manuel QB Florida State V
Robert Woods WR USC T,P
Kiko Alonso LB Oregon T,P
Marquise Goodwin WR Texas T,P
Duke Williams S Nevada P
Jonathan Meeks S Clemson V
Dustin Hopkins K Florida State T
Chris Gragg TE Arkansas T,P
Stephon Gilmore CB South Carolina V
Cordy Glenn OT Georgia V
TJ Graham WR NC State P
Nigel Bradham LB Florida State P
Ron Brooks CB LSU T,P
Zebrie Sanders OT Florida State P
Tank Carder LB TCU V
Mark Asper OG Oregon
John Potter K Western Michigan
Marcell Dareus DT Alabama V
Aaron Williams CB/S Texas P
Kelvin Sheppard LB LSU V
Da'Norris Searcy S North Carolina T
Chris Hairston OT Clemson T,P
Johnny White RB North Carolina T
Chris White LB Mississippi State P
Justin Rogers CB Richmond P
Michael Jasper DT Bethel P

All in all, 24 of the last 26 picks (25 if you consider Asper to have been drafted as an OT, and at 6'7" 325 pounds I won't argue with you) were connected with Buffalo's pre-draft visitors either because they visited, a teammate visited, and/or someone of the same position visited the team. If you're looking for Buffalo's draft priorities, you can pull your pick list from the set of players who fit that criteria.


Projections

Alright, wondering who Buffalo is going to pick? Let's break it down for you, connectionz-style. First, the rules of the game:

  1. Buffalo's first round pick ideally will have visited the team. If they did not, they should have had a teammate visit. The team should also have brought in players at the same position, if not bringing in the player himself.
  2. The list will be comprised mostly of players who visited or notable teammates of players who visited who play a position of need.
  3. The only positions to be listed will be ones where the Bills brought in a player for a visit. If no DT's were brought in, DT will be left off the list. Ignore specialists because everyone else does.
  4. If a small school player was brought in, ignore them, unless said player is considered a first round pick. Otherwise, Buffalo is probably not serious about drafting them.
  5. After the pick list has been filled in with teammates and visitors, begin adding players who play positions of need.

Day 1 picks:

Name Position School Connectionz
Jake Matthews OT Texas A&M V
Eric Ebron TE North Carolina V
Mike Evans WR Texas A&M T,P
Sammy Watkins WR Clemson T,P
Greg Robinson OT Auburn P
Jadeveon Clowney DE South Carolina P
Khalil Mack LB Buffalo P
CJ Mosley LB Alabama P

Day 2 picks:

Name Position School Connectionz
Carlos Hyde RB Ohio State V
Bishop Sankey RB Washington T,P
Lache Seastrunk RB Baylor V
Cody Latimer WR Indiana V
Martavis Bryant WR Clemson T,P
Troy Niklas TE Notre Dame V
Austin Seferian-Jenkins TE Washington V
James Hurst OT North Carolina T,P
Marcus Smith DE Louisville T,P
Kareem Martin DE North Carolina T,P
Scott Crichton DE Oregon State V
Bradley Roby CB Ohio State V
Ka'Deem Carey RB Arizona P
Billy Turner OT North Dakota State P
Michael Schofield OT Michigan P
Ja'Wuan James OT Tennessee P
Jackson Jeffcoat DE Texas P
Demarcus Lawrence DE Boise State P
Shayne Skov LB Stanford P
Jordan Zumwalt LB UCLA P

Day 3 picks:

Name Position School Connectionz
Jeremy Hill RB LSU V
Isaiah Crowell RB Alabama State P
Branden Oliver RB Buffalo P
Andre Williams RB Boston College P
Ladarius Perkins RB Mississippi State T,P
Alfred Blue RB LSU T,P
Jack Mewhort OT Ohio State T,P
Charles Siddoway OT Mississippi V
Laurent Duverney-Tardif OT McGill P
Wesley Johnson OT Vanderbilt P
Taylor Hart DE Oregon P
Lamin Barrow LB LSU T,P
Bashaud Breeland CB Clemson V
Ross Cockrell CB Duke V
Bennett Jackson CB Notre Dame T,P

Obviously this set of tables changes as Buffalo's visitor picture becomes clearer.

So how might the Bills build their draft this year? Here are some mock draft possibilities:

Jake Matthews/Troy Niklas/Kareem Martin/Ross Cockrell/Isaiah Crowell

Eric Ebron/Carlos Hyde/James Hurst/Jack Mewhort/Bennett Jackson

Mike Evans/Austin Seferian-Jenkins/Bashaud Breeland/Lamin Barrow/Taylor Hart

Basically, I'm playing a big game of Keno/Quick Draw here. I think the players Buffalo will draft are contained (mostly) in these tables. It's up to the prognosticators to pick the right names off the tables.

What do you think? Want to try building a mock from the players listed here?

Just another great fan opinion shared on the pages of BuffaloRumblings.com.

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