We're less than three weeks away from day one of the 2010 NFL Draft, and you don't need me to tell you that the Buffalo Bills have their work cut out for them. I'm tired of waiting. I planned on holding this post until much closer to draft time, but I'm seeking the cathartic release of getting this post out there, taking my public beating, and simply waiting for Buddy Nix to get the ball rolling on his first critical draft class as Buffalo's new GM.
I'm no expert in the art of evaluating NFL Draft prospects, and my short-lived track record of extreme amateur scouting is spotty at best. I did, however, spend my fall Saturdays stuffing my DVR full of college football, so I like to think that I've seen and gleaned a bit more than usual about the top prospects entering the professional ranks this year. Years from now, this post and the rankings you'll find after the jump will be horribly inaccurate. Luckily, I won't be alone in that department.
The entire purpose of this post is for me to share with you the ten prospects that I believe are the ten best possible choices for the Bills at the No. 9 overall pick. There are four important factors at play here - draft philosophy, trade likelihood, prospect availability and 'need v. value' among them - that we'll discuss. It's time for full disclosure. Let's make this a fun, productive discussion, folks - I'm looking not only for comments on the post itself, but your own personal big boards as well. Let's do this.
Philosophy: BPA at critical need positions
I've written in the past that good NFL teams take the best player available at critical need areas on draft day. That's a philosophy that both Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have spoken about over the past couple of months, and it's not exactly a stretch to expect the Bills to apply this philosophy to their own big board, particularly very early in the draft.
That's the ideal plan, but draft day rarely goes according to plan. Nix and Gailey can speak until they're blue in the face about the team being close to contending, but while they do have some good young players, their needs are at the game's most critical positions. There also isn't enough depth anywhere on the roster - with the possible exception of the entire defensive backfield - to get comfortable at any one position. I believe Gailey referred to it as "stacking players on players" earlier this week, and it's precisely why fans shouldn't focus too heavily on particular positions. Buffalo can't be too choosy, and if a tremendous value presents itself at a non-need position, Nix probably won't hesitate to pull the trigger.
Philosophy can't exclude 'need v. value'
In that light, the majority of our list below will contain players that play Buffalo's critical need positions. But the list doesn't exclude top value players, nor should it. For the purposes of this list, we'll use the four positions that have been well-established in this community over the past several months as the Bills' biggest needs: quarterback, offensive tackle, nose tackle and pass-rushing outside linebacker. You'll see players at other positions sneak onto the list. (Two, to be exact.)
The trading conundrum
Every fan wants the man running their favorite team's war room to be a genius - wheeling and dealing, moving around draft picks like they're on a heater in Vegas. It's true that, aside from obvious gaffes (like Dallas' trade for Roy Williams, for instance), trades can benefit an organization. In a year in which blue-chip prospects aren't numerous, but depth is incredible, Nix and company could do much worse than stockpiling picks through the first three or four rounds to get as much value out of the depth of this class as possible.
For the purposes of this big board, however, my plan is not to advocate for a trade down. (I think it's safe to say that a trade up from the ninth pick is monumentally unlikely, so we won't even discuss that here.) Rather, in laying out the list of ten prospects, I'll simply denote the point where value at No. 9 and reach at No. 9 occurs; that spot will be the time at which a trade down would be ideal for the team if the opportunity presented itself.
You get the idea. We're focusing on four critical need positions without being so narrow-minded to suggest that the Bills have to pick a player at one of those positions. Those positions, as you'll see, are heavily considered here, but they don't exclude other players. We'll be explicit about where value outweighs need, as well as where value blurs into reach territory. We've only got one thing left to do before unveiling this puppy - crossing prospects off the list.
The 'likely to be gone' group
Waiting for eight players to be selected is hard enough, but in a year where blue-chip prospects are hard to come by, Buffalo's poised to miss out on the cream of the crop this year. I've got a list of five players that Buffalo would need lottery-level luck to be fortunate enough to select, and I'm leaving those players off of my big board.
Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford - Very likely to be the top overall pick to St. Louis.
Oklahoma State OT Russell Okung - Could go as high as No. 2 to Detroit, but shouldn't last past pick 6.
Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh - Top overall prospect this year will be a huge trade priority if he starts to slide.
Oklahoma DT Gerald McCoy - See Suh, minus the allure to every NFL team - he's not scheme versatile like Suh.
Tennessee S Eric Berry - Shouldn't last past Cleveland at No. 7, unless they decide to go QB.
Yes, these are the only five players that I believe are absolutely certain of being gone when Buffalo picks. There are other players that come close, but not close enough.
That's it. All criteria has been laid out. Without further ado...
Brian's Top 10 2010 NFL Draft Targets for the Buffalo Bills
1. Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame. There are players I'd take before Clausen. I don't think any of those players will be available. I get why folks are wary of Clausen - really, I do. I believe there is a degree of legitimacy to the intangible concerns that scouts have about this kid. I also think that what Clausen offers as a prospect, and what he did on the field as a junior at Notre Dame, blow those concerns into oblivion. Purely from a football standpoint, he's not perfect. But for a junior entrant, Clausen's mechanics and overall game have an amazing amount of polish, and he really is a very skilled quarterback. I think he's got the arm to get him by in a cold-weather city like Buffalo, particularly working with a solid, understanding play-caller like Gailey. Buffalo's need for a franchise quarterback is dire, and there's way too much to like about Clausen as a prospect for the team to be fussy, if you ask me. Clausen could start for Buffalo from day one, and given who I believe will be available, if Clausen's on the board, I don't think there's a better pick for this team. I make no promises about his future, but I'd be one happy camper if Clausen became a Bill on April 22.
2. Anthony Davis, OT, Rutgers. Yep. I'm putting two guys with serious off-field question marks at the top of my big board. The reason is pretty simple - Buffalo needs the best players they can find, and I think both Clausen and Davis are guys that should assimilate well to a strong-minded locker room. Davis' off-field concerns, to me, are much more significant than Clausen's. No one should question Clausen's work ethic. That's the single biggest question mark for Davis. He's only 20 years old, so his immaturity is to be expected, even if it's disappointing. His motor and weight issues are concerns as well. On a team that lacks veteran leadership on the offensive line, taking a player like Davis represents a much bigger risk than for teams with established vet(s) in the trenches. Still, Davis is second on this list - that should give you an idea of just how talented he is. No blocker has as much going for him on the field and athletically as Davis. If he keeps his head on straight and reaches his potential, he'll become one of the most well-rounded, balanced left tackles in the league. Gamble? Yes. Gamble worth taking for the Bills? In my estimation, absolutely.
3. Bryan Bulaga, OT, Iowa. I'm not as high on Bulaga as the majority of Bills fans from an on-field standpoint. Bulaga is slightly rough around the edges - he's technically sound, but lacks polish. His pass protection needs work, as he'll need to be supremely technically proficient to make up for his barely passable reach. He comes into the league with a lot of hype, but wasn't as dominant as a junior as he could have been. He might struggle with NFL speed rushers, particularly early in his career if a team drafts him as an immediate starter on the left side - which Buffalo would obviously be doing. Where he makes up for all of that is in his head - Bulaga is supremely intelligent, understands blocking assignments and angles, and can absolutely dominate opponents simply by being a step ahead of them mentally. Add that to solid (if unspectacular) athleticism and footwork - not to mention excellent college coaching and great program pedigree - and Bulaga is quite clearly the safest pick the Bills could make on draft day. Particularly considering the type of smash-mouth offense Gailey plans to run, Bulaga would be a great fit for Buffalo, and an instant starter.
4. Dan Williams, NT, Tennessee. Williams is a guy that snuck up draft boards after an outstanding showing at the Senior Bowl - and he got so high in some mock drafts that I went back to some saved UT games (which I kept mostly for Eric Berry footage in the event of a Donte Whitner trade, FYI) to see what all the fuss was about. Williams was supremely average as a junior in 2008; he might have been a mid-round prospect entering his senior year. He's not a guy that will fill up the stat sheet, but for the purposes of Buffalo's 3-4 defense, he'd be an excellent fit. He's a great athlete, first and foremost, and given his scheme versatility, he wouldn't be your typical 3-4 nose that'd have to come off the field on third downs - he actually has potential (albeit limited) as a pass rusher. He's a classic two-gap run-stuffer with a wide base, excellent girth and strength, and the capability to eat up two or more blockers on every play. Given Buffalo's solid depth up front, Williams wouldn't need to be an every-down lineman as a rookie, but he might be capable of it. There's a slight bust factor here - Williams was a late bloomer at UT, to be sure - but this would still be a relatively safe investment for Nix.
5. Derrick Morgan, OLB, Georgia Tech. There are mixed reviews on Morgan's athletic prowess and whether or not he'd be able to make the switch from college DE to pro 3-4 OLB. I firmly believe - and this is a fairly universal opinion - that Morgan would be at his best at end in a 4-3. In that capacity, his run-defense skills would be at the forefront, and obviously his solid pass-rushing skills would be of use, as well. In a 3-4, his lack of top-notch agility and change-of-direction skills would be exposed, but he's a solid enough athlete to handle a rush role in that scheme. He's not an elite pass rusher, but he's very polished in that department, and will be a productive player for a long time regardless of the scheme he's in. Again, this pick would represent a very safe investment for Nix and the Bills, and considering Buffalo's dearth of pass-rushing talent and the possible retirement of Aaron Schobel, they'll need as many good pass rushers as they can get. Should Morgan go to a 3-4 team, he'd be asked to shed about 10 pounds to maximize his athletic prowess. His connection to Chan Gailey, Giff Smith and Eric Ciano doesn't hurt, either.
6. Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma. Strangely, if I had to pick any one of these ten players for the title of "most likely to be gone when Buffalo picks," I'd go with Williams. His name is hot right now, and he put up unexpectedly excellent numbers at the Combine. Those two facts alone make him a priority target for Oakland at No. 8; everyone projects Bruce Campbell there, but Williams' workout numbers were just as impressive, and he's far better looking on the field of play than Campbell. I still have serious reservations about Williams' ability to play the left side at the NFL level. He certainly has the natural talent and athleticism to do it, but he was much less than stellar on the blind side at Oklahoma. There were extenuating circumstances, yes - including some minor injuries - but I'd like to be sure a guy can do what I plan on asking him to do before giving him millions of dollars. Part of me wouldn't mind seeing Buffalo take a shot on this guy, simply because their need at OT is that great. A bigger part of me hopes that my read on the 2010 version of Al Davis is accurate.
It is at this point, folks, that I'd like to point out that aforementioned deliniation between value and reach. The following players aren't necessarily reaches (particularly No. 7 on our list), but it's at this point that Nix seeking a trade down would be ideal - if he can swing it.
7. Rolando McClain, ILB, Alabama. This is the first of two instances in which value outweighs positional need. McClain is quite simply an excellent pro prospect. He's got excellent size, supreme athleticism, great program pedigree, benefited from superb coaching, has great intangibles, and offers schematic versatility. McClain will be at his best at ILB in a 3-4 defense in the pros, and he'd fit into Buffalo's scheme quite nicely. McClain will be a coveted commodity on draft day, and given Buffalo's depth at inside linebacker (Paul Posluszny, Kawika Mitchell, Andra Davis), McClain might be a bit too luxurious for Buffalo to take despite his grading out so well. Were McClain to be available, he'd offer the Bills much more value as trade bait than as a potential future star at inside linebacker. Still, there are much worse picks that the Bills could make on draft day, despite his skills creating a redundancy of talents at ILB.
8. Brandon Graham, OLB, Michigan. The only thing that truly stands out about Graham as a prospect is his production. In his last three years at UM - a program increasingly inflicted with mediocrity over that time span - Graham put up 8, 10 and 10.5 sacks against pretty stiff Big Ten competition. He added 55.5 tackles for loss in that same time frame. Everything about Graham athletically - from his short height to his average agility and uncomfortable look in space to his lack of overall explosion - screams "low ceiling." But there may not be a pass rushing prospect more NFL-ready than Graham, and if put in a favorable situation should be one of the league's most productive freshmen in 2010. NFL teams value production in power conferences, and despite his being a fairly average athlete, his Big Ten production will get him drafted fairly highly. He'd be a great fit as a power-rushing 3-4 OLB opposite the far more athletic Aaron Maybin; those two players' respective skill sets complement the other well.
9. Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State. If you're asking me who the most talented offensive skill player available this year is, I'm involuntarily screaming 'Dez Bryant' back in your face at warp speed. His potential is ridiculous. His college production was borderline ridiculous, too. His size, speed, hands, leaping ability and instincts are second to none in this class, and rank among the best in each category of any receiver that's come out over the past 5-10 years. He truly is an incredibly impressive football player. But like with Anthony Davis, questions about Bryant's work ethic and dedication to the game are hard to ignore. This is an especially risky game to play at receiver, where egos are the biggest in the NFL, as are salaries. I'd have no problem with my team taking Bryant if it was full of established veteran leadership. The lack of exactly that quality on Buffalo's roster is concerning. Bryant is an outstanding prospect, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing him in a Bills uniform, but he's a much safer investment for a better team.
10. Sergio Kindle, OLB, Texas. Kindle is coming off of a disappointing senior season in which he registered just 5.5 sacks after moving to DE to replace departed teammate Brian Orakpo (he registered 10 at OLB as a junior). Like his former teammate, Kindle is a very chiseled, top-notch athlete that didn't quite reach his full potential at Texas. I'm not sure he's the elite edge rusher that he's made out to be, either - he's certainly athletic enough to wreak havoc down in and down out, but he's very streaky in this department, and will look dominant on one play and lost on the next. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and attribute some of that to the position switch, but something about him still gives me pause. I don't think he's scheme versatile - he's a 3-4 OLB or he's nothing in my view - but that's not really a factor given Buffalo's defensive system. I also don't think he's a particularly fine complement to Maybin, much the opposite of Morgan and Graham. Kindle's a pretty safe pick - there's enough athleticism here where you're probably going to be able to milk solid production out of him at some point - but he's too rough around the edges for me to consider him in the Top 15. I could get on board with Kindle in Buffalo, but I'd be happier doing it in a trade down.
Questions? Comments? Your own big boards to share? The comments section is yours - let's make this an epic discussion thread, shall we?