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Wise college juniors hurt Bills' draft prospects

Gresham, other big names staying in school (

The 2009 NFL Draft was supposed to be the richest draft in recent memory in terms of junior-eligible talent. Some of college football's biggest names were going to make big bucks and bring big expectations to NFL cities everywhere - and with the eleventh overall pick in this April's draft, the Buffalo Bills were poised to take advantage of that development.

Then the juniors decided to stay in school.

Sure, there are plenty of top-flight underclassmen who made themselves draft-eligible, including Georgia QB Matt Stafford, Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree and Florida State DE Everette Brown. There's still a lot of talent available this year. But several players that opted to play out their senior seasons in college have depleted the draft pool, particularly at the top of the first round, and those decisions might come back to hurt the Bills in April.

Players the Bills might have chosen
First of all, let me clarify something: I'm not bitter in the least at any college junior that returns to school to finish out their college careers. For each one of those guys - yes, even Florida QB Tim Tebow - there is always more to prove. In an era in which athletes more often than not make an attempt at riches too soon, these athletes should be applauded for making smart decisions.

But man... talk about what could have been.

No less than eight returning college stars would have been early-round considerations for the Bills this season: Oklahoma TE Jermaine Gresham, South Florida DE George Selvie, Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy, Alabama DT Terrence Cody, Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy, Boston College OLB Mark Herzlich, Florida ILB Brandon Spikes and S Taylor Mays all would have been significant upgrades over current personnel in Buffalo.

Gresham and Spikes in particular are key losses; I've got good word that Gresham has been held in high regard by Buffalo's scouting department for a while now (how could he not be?), and Spikes may have been the first linebacker taken this year. Both are supreme talents that, at an absolute bare minimum, were first-round picks this year. Both might have been at or near the top of Buffalo's draft board.

Considering the fact that other prospects such as Tebow, Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, LSU OT Ciron Black and Kentucky CB Trevard Lindley might have eventually been Top-20 picks, that means that talent that might have fallen to Buffalo will slide up the ladder. Again, it's great that these kids decided to stay in school, but in terms of the talent available in this year's draft class, nobody (in the NFL) wins.

Where the Bills go from here
Obviously, considering that this particular off-season development is completely out of the control of the Bills or any NFL team, it's tough to get too upset about what might have been. All of these names will eventually be available in the draft, and knowing the Bills' penchant for putting up 7-9 seasons, they're likely to be picking in the Top 15 in 2010 anyways.

There will still be a lot of talent available to the Bills at #11, particularly at a position where the Bills' need is so desperate that it trumps all others (at least in my opinion) - defensive end. As it stands now, there are four top-flight talents at the position - Texas' Brian Orakpo, Florida State's Brown, Georgia Tech's Michael Johnson and Penn State's Aaron "Project Mayhem" Maybin - and it's anticipated that at least one of those players will be available when the Bills pick in the first round. Other talents such as California C Alex Mack, Boston College DT B.J. Raji and Wake Forest OLB Aaron Curry are all premium players at positions of need that would add a degree of toughness to Buffalo's milquetoast roster.

Still, all signs clearly point to a defensive end being the top pick at this point in time. If those four talented ends aren't available, Buffalo may also explore a trade down - with just seven picks (minus possible compensatory selections) in the draft, Dick Jauron and the Bills' front office have the fewest number of picks available to use since they've been here. This is a franchise that values draft picks, so a move down to stockpile selections seems like a strong possibility as well.

The draft field is largely set, with early entrants declared as of Thursday. Make no mistake about it, this is a talented draft class in many areas. But those pesky, oh-so-wise juniors - while their decision is commendable - have severely depleted what might have been one of the richest draft classes in NFL history.