Last year, the Buffalo Bills set a franchise record by accumulating 57 sacks as a team for the season. 23 (40.4 percent) of those sacks came from the team's top two edge pass rushers, as one would expect. Why, then, is defensive end a fairly prominent need for the team entering the 2014 NFL Draft? They're changing schemes again, with former Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz becoming the fourth Bills defensive coordinator in the last four years.
If you were one of the fans fairly wondering if the team would, in fact, be switching back to a more predominant 4-3 look, GM Doug Whaley settled that matter at Friday's pre-draft luncheon - while confirming the notion that this position is one of the team's weakest areas in terms of depth.
"I think with the switch to the 4-3 we could use more defensive end depth," said Whaley, "but we signed some guys that are unproven, so we’re excited, and we just have to wait and see there.
Talent on hand
Mario Williams is not unproven; he has played over 85 percent of the defensive snaps in his two seasons with the Bills, registering 23.5 sacks (including 13 last season) and making the Pro Bowl. He remains the highest-paid defender in NFL history, and his role will not change for the foreseeable future.
Jerry Hughes is less proven than Williams, but was the more reliable pass rusher for the Bills last season, picking up 10 sacks on nearly 400 fewer snaps than his counterpart. That playing time disparity is cause for concern; Hughes was a package-specific, passing-downs-only player under previous coordinator Mike Pettine, and while he has tremendous value to the team as a pass rusher, it might be unwise for the team to consider giving him an expanded role, as he does not have the look of a consistent, quality run defender from a three-point stance.
Beyond those two players, we're into that "unproven" territory that Whaley spoke of. Whaley has talked up the ability of Manny Lawson to platoon at end, but the 241-pound veteran has proven in his NFL career that he is a better fit as a more traditional linebacker. The Bills can do better. The team also retains the services of defensive lineman Corbin Bryant (6'4", 300), and signed free agent Jarius Wynn (6'3", 285) to a one-year deal. Those two players do not have the athletic range to play outside in traditional 4-3 end techniques on a consistent basis, but would be viable options in a 4-3 Under look similar to the base defense Pettine deployed last year (and with which Schwartz has experience).
Need assessment: Wave Depth
Williams and Hughes are locked into their specific roles. The team has alignment-specific options to use, but none inspire confidence. Buffalo does not necessarily need an every-down player, but if they're going to use more 4-3 (and Wide 9, specifically) looks under Schwartz, they at least need one or two players that can play right away as rookies - and it would be particularly helpful if one could play the run-down complement role to Hughes. Even if those ends only play 30-40 percent of snaps each, they would be tremendously useful additions to the club.
Despite the crying depth need, the Bills only brought in one pre-draft visitor at the position: Scott Crichton, a junior from Oregon State. Lacking elite athleticism, Crichton is still a well-regarded prospect with a nicely rounded skill set that, given the importance of his position, seems like a lock to be selected in or before Round 2. He will very much be a name to keep an eye on if he is still available with the Bills' No. 41 overall pick.
Rumors have been swirling for exactly a month now that the Bills are open to trading up, perhaps even as far up as the No. 1 overall pick. The feasibility of such a move is iffy, but it's also fairly clear that Whaley wants people to think he's seriously considering it, given his glowing remarks about the consensus top end in the draft - Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina - last week.
"If you're gonna miss, I'd rather take a chance on a guy that's 6'5", 270, that runs a 4.5," Whaley told WGR 550 last Friday. "Now think about this, you have Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jadeveon Clowney. I mean, that's gonna strike fear in a lot of offenses. And if they go max protect, you can't double everybody, and if you do you've gotta put eight in the box. And then that helps our DBs and everybody involved. Is he gonna be a cornerstone? You never want to say absolutely, because there have been big misses before. But if I'm gonna miss, I'm gonna miss on a guy like that."
Yeah, those rumors aren't going away any time soon.
Behind Clowney, who based on talent alone should be the unquestioned No. 1 player on every team's draft board, there are a bunch of question marks at end. Crichton is the most well-rounded prospect, arguably, but lacks top-level athleticism. Kony Ealy of Missouri has program pedigree working in his favor, but is not as explosive as Tigers predecessor Aldon Smith. He's considered a mid to late first-round pick. Dee Ford of Auburn and Demarcus Lawrence of Boise State are both 250-pound speed rushers, so while they'd add depth, they may have trouble usurping Hughes for the designated pass rusher role. Kareem Martin of North Carolina is a highly talented athlete that could sneak into Round 2 based on that alone.
Bottom line: considering the way the league works, if the Bills want an end that can come in and play immediately, they may not be able to wait past the third round - or maybe even the second - to find him.
Here, have a photo. (Yes, it features - and comes courtesy of - Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore.) How high is too high to go get that guy?