Today is the final day that NFL teams can bring in 2014 NFL Draft prospects on pre-draft visits. Unless the Buffalo Bills have another last-minute visit scheduled for today, it's looking like they'll end their spring with 29 visitors to One Bills Drive, one short of the maximum allowed of 30. In fact, GM Doug Whaley hinted on Friday that they likely were done with that part of the pre-draft process.
"We're keeping that open, but that last day is Sunday so we probably won’t have anybody else," Whaley told reporters on Friday. "League rules, the last day to have pre-draft visitors in is Sunday."
For at least four years running now, the Bills' first-round draft pick has made a pre-draft visit to Orchard Park - C.J. Spiller, Marcell Dareus, Stephon Gilmore and EJ Manuel all made the trip. There is still no guarantee that the trend will continue, of course - the Bills do a nice job of bringing in a variety of early-round prospects, but have to be aware that we've cottoned on to the pattern - but for the sake of this post, let's assume that the Bills' first-round pick will be part of this list for a fifth straight year.
Who, then, might the Bills be targeting among the group with their first-round pick? They've set themselves up to take a good player regardless of where they ultimately select in Round 1.
The trade-up crowd
One player on the list stands alone in his elite-ness: Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, whose chances of sliding all the way down to No. 9 are about equal to my chances of replacing Leodis McKelvin in the starting lineup at cornerback. Watkins is very likely going to be a Top 5 pick, and if he is the apple of the Bills' eye, they'll have to orchestrate a trade up to pick him. Watkins is a highly athletic wideout that plays much bigger than his 6'1" stature and has elite ability with the ball in his hands.
The pseudo-elite crowd
Reporters speaking with league sources this week have gleaned that there is a crowd of four elite prospects in this draft class: Watkins, Auburn tackle Greg Robinson, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack. The Bills, however, see it slightly differently.
"I would say we’re in the five to six range of guys that we would consider elite," Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos told reporters at Friday's pre-draft luncheon.
The two best-regarded prospects in the class, outside of the quartet listed above, are Texas A&M teammates: wide receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews. In various mock draft scenarios throughout the spring, each has fallen to the Bills on several occasions - but both are so well thought of that it's no guarantee at all that they'll be there at No. 9 overall. The Bills may not have to trade up as far as they would to nab Watkins for these guys, but they'd be quite lucky if either slid out of the Top 8, and it would involve a lot of quarterback reaching on the part of the teams ahead of them.
Evans, the 6'5" monster with 35-inch arms and a ton of college production, might not last past Tampa Bay at pick No. 7, while Matthews - son of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews - is the rock solid, pro-readiest player in the draft class that might also land in the Top 5.
The No. 9(-ish) crowd
If the Bills stand pat at their current drafting slot and none of Watkins, Evans and Matthews remains available, the Bills will be left to pick from seven more prospects that are locked in for Round 1. Five of them are among the hottest names in the draft class, and seem destined to be picked within the Top 20.
North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron is the most often discussed (and projected) to the Bills, given their need to modernize at the position and to give Manuel that proverbial "safety" target that the offense currently lacks. Ebron is a polarizing figure, but he will be picked early because of his top-level athleticism and upside.
Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley was an early favorite for the Bills in mock drafts, but some of that subsided when the team signed free agents Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers. Mosley is a much better prospect than either; he's a three-down defender and capable in coverage, which would immediately put him ahead of both Spikes and Rivers on the depth chart. He remains a dark horse candidate to be picked by the Bills.
LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. is not as physically gifted or unique as Watkins or Evans, but he has the look of a player that will be picked earlier than expected due to his playmaking ability. Similarly, Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller is a hot name at the moment, to the point where it would not be surprising if he either cracked the Top 15 or became the first cornerback selected. Keep an eye on Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin, as well; off-field concerns for Michigan's Taylor Lewan could lead to teams valuing a plug-and-play starter like Martin all the more on draft day. In fact, people are already saying that it wouldn't shock them if Martin cracked the Top 10.
The trade down crowd
Any of those names listed above, perhaps excepting Ebron and Mosley, are players that could be targets in a trade down, as well, depending on how the board falls. Two more strong bets as first-round picks bear discussing, as well, and they're Ohio State teammates: linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby.
You might end up seeing a late rise from Shazier, a slightly undersized but otherwise extremely dynamic linebacker that will be able to play in any defensive situation at the NFL level. Linebackers like that are not particularly easy to find in today's NFL - it's why teams have run-down specialists like Spikes, and play safeties at linebacker in obvious passing situations - and Shazier can play both roles.
Roby is not a particularly polarizing player; he is widely considered a top-level athlete for his position that did not do enough with his talent at the college level. His iffy, inconsistent game tape could relegate him to the second day of the draft, but the prevailing notion is that somebody late in the first round will fall in love with his athleticism and talk themselves into coaching him up. His upside is tremendous.
Buffalo brought in a slew of other early-round prospects, but that's a discussion for another day. For now, which of the potential first-round targets on the Bills' pre-draft visitor list are you most interested in seeing them pick? Which do you consider the most likely target of the team?
|Carlos Hyde||RB||Ohio State||5117||230||4.66|
|Jerick McKinnon||RB||Georgia Southern||5087||209||4.41|
|Odell Beckham, Jr.||WR||LSU||5112||198||4.43|
|Mike Evans||WR||Texas A&M||6046||231||4.53|
|Eric Ebron||TE||North Carolina||6043||250||4.60|
|Troy Niklas||TE||Notre Dame||6064||270|
|Zack Martin||OT||Notre Dame||6041||308|
|Jake Matthews||OT||Texas A&M||6054||308||5.07|
|Charles Siddoway||OT||Mississippi State||6053||301||5.07|
|Scott Crichton||DE||Oregon State||6030||273||4.84|
|Ryan Shazier||LB||Ohio State||6010||237|
|Kyle Fuller||CB||Virginia Tech||5116||190||4.49|
|Bradley Roby||CB||Ohio State||5110||194||4.39|