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Mock Draft: It’s quarterback time for the Buffalo Bills

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Tyrod Taylor failed his audition for Sean McDermott. Who is the new candidate?

It’s been about a month since my last mock draft, so let’s take a renewed look at the Buffalo Bills. At 6-6, the team is still “in the hunt” for playoff contention, but if they lose another game, their chances will plummet, and it’s time to start talking offseason.

Tyrod Taylor was given a one-year audition with Sean McDermott’s new coaching staff, and the outcome was a clear failure. While Taylor will always have fans around the league for his tendency to avoid turnovers, he’s finishing year three as a starting quarterback and still can’t reliably create offense for his team. He’s taking sacks at the highest rate in his career, has a career-worst net yards per attempt, and passed for fewer than 200 yards in eight of his twelve games this year. It’s been four years: the Bills need to invest in a first-round quarterback again. How will they do it? Here’s my latest projection.

1. Cleveland Browns: Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

I imagine that someone in Cleveland’s front office is about to get canned. Will it be Sashi Brown’s nerd herd? Or will it be Hue Jackson, whose 9-35 career win-loss record (1-27 with the Browns) is fast approaching historic territory? Maybe both.

The Browns need a leader in the clubhouse. DeShone Kizer claimed the starting role as the youngest QB in the league, but his rookie year was a clear failure. Rosen would be their answer. He’s elevated UCLA to bowl eligibility despite playing with the 118th-ranked scoring defense and a coach who was fired before the end of the season. He’s a smart pro-style quarterback with a great arm.

2. New York Giants: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

The Giants are a mess. Both Ben McAdoo and Jerry Reese were deservedly fired on Monday. Eli Manning is still a franchise icon, despite his weak season, but if the Giants are picking this high, it’s time to think about the future.

Mayfield began this season as an interesting footnote, a productive QB whose 6’1” size would turn scouts off. Now that he leads college football in yards per attempt, has 41 touchdowns against 5 interceptions, and earned a reputation as a hypercompetitive (if somewhat immature) team leader, I expect he’ll become a highly coveted prospect. He’s exactly what the Giants need.

3. San Francisco 49ers: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

The 49ers got a head start on their offseason, trading for Jimmy Garoppolo at the deadline. He made his way onto the field against Chicago, and while he went without a touchdown in his first start, throwing for nearly 300 yards while completing 70 percent of his passes will play in this league. The 49ers could use some help in the secondary, but no one (aside from Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick) really stands out as a Jalen Ramsey level talent.

Instead, they add an extremely talented running back who doubles as a dynamic receiver and returner. Barkley would be feared in Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

4. TRADE: New York Jets from Denver Broncos: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

The Jets and the Bills are in a weird state. They were expecting to tank and pick up a franchise QB, but both rosters outperformed those expectations. Now they need to trade if they want a top talent. The Broncos are also facing a tough question. Trevor Siemian clearly isn’t the answer at quarterback. Last year’s first round pick, Paxton Lynch, spent most of his second year on the injured list. Do the Broncos spend their high pick on a QB? I think John Elway punts and picks up future picks with a trade down.

Between Quincy Enunwa (injured), Robby Anderson, and Jermaine Kearse, the Jets have a solid receiving corps. What would make this team even more dangerous would be college football’s number one offensive threat. Jackson has more career rushing yards (and a better yards per attempt) than Barkley, AND he has scored 93 touchdowns in his past two seasons (with one game remaining this year). The Jets were already incorporating some Air Raid concepts into their offense with Josh McCown. Jackson and his arm talent would flourish in that scheme. Moving from tenth to fourth overall will likely cost the Jets their 2018 and 2019 first round picks, along with a mid-round 2018 pick.

5. Indianapolis Colts: Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB/S, Alabama

The franchise turnaround has begun, but it’ll be a long process for Colts GM Chris Ballard. Adding Malik Hooker last year was a wise move, but while he’s been injured, the Colts have remained the league’s worst passing defense.

The 6’1” 200 pound Fitzpatrick will work in whatever role the Colts envision. Starter on an island as an outside cornerback? “Big nickel” slot specialist? Robber safety? He’ll start creating turnovers and stop opposing success rates.

6. Chicago Bears: Connor Williams, OT, Texas

The Bears added a talented franchise quarterback this year in Mitch Trubisky, but he has no receiving help, an unhelpful coaching staff, and is being sacked one of every ten times he drops back to pass.

This draft doesn’t have a super-talented receiver to work with, but it does have a solid group of offensive tackles. Texas left tackle Williams would be the best combination of athletic talent and technique for Trubisky’s mobile style. He had a weak junior season due to some lower body injuries, but looked like a franchise cornerstone as a sophomore.

7. Cleveland Browns: Derwin James, S, Florida State

Franchise quarterback: Check. The Browns had lousy production from their receivers in 2017, but you can pin some of the blame on the passer. It’s also important to consider that their most talented players were injured (Corey Coleman, missed six games) or suspended (Josh Gordon, Goodell Purgatory) or a rookie (David Njoku). That’s enough to carry over through the first round.

The defense is in better shape than you’d expect. The defensive line is playing great, and between Joe Schobert, Christian Kirksey, and Jamie Collins (injured), Cleveland has a nice group of linebackers. The secondary needs help, though. Jabrill Peppers, playing as a deep free safety, looks extremely uncomfortable.

James is an extremely athletic player with a five star background from one of college football’s best programs. In a way, he’s a similar versatile player to Peppers, but James plays better in space than Peppers, who’s better working downhill. Either way, this adds a useful piece for Cleveland’s next defensive coordinator.

8. TRADE: Buffalo Bills (from Tampa Bay Buccaneers): Sam Darnold, QB, USC

For the moment, let’s assume Darnold will enter the draft. He had his best game of the season against No. 15 Stanford, and if he wins against No. 5 Ohio State, he could make the call that his stock will never be higher.

The Bills will need to trade up if they want a franchise quarterback in 2018. This franchise doesn’t need half-measures. Adding a Riley Ferguson or Ryan Finley with a Day Two pick won’t generate the reboot the team needs - it’ll just prolong the purgatory. Already winning six games has knocked Buffalo out of the top ten, but on the bright side, this trade won’t come with a long-term cost: both of their first round picks, and their fifth round selection this year.

Darnold is a gutsy, aggressive quarterback who excels when the play breaks down. He’s coming from a great program at USC, has a strong career track record, and has a fine character background. If Buffalo waited any longer, he’d probably be snapped up by Arizona or one of the other middle tier teams.

Round 2, pick A: Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State

At long last, we’re starting to see Zay Jones grow into his element. He’s not separating consistently, but his body control gives him a nice catch radius and he rediscovered his catching prowess. Kelvin Benjamin is part of Buffalo’s long-term plans, while Jordan Matthews (who most recently played fewer snaps than Deonte Thompson) is likely not.

The Bills could use an agile route runner as their “Z” receiver, and Gallup is one of the better ones in this draft. He’s a Biletnikoff Award finalist, and has averaged 1300 yards receiving and 10.5 touchdowns in his two years at CSU since transferring from junior college. Rather than a deep threat like James Washington or a player with a bigger reputation as a punt returner in Dante Pettis, Gallup has a more well-rounded skillset that will work in whatever scheme the Bills want to run.

Round 2, pick B: Brian O’Neill, OT, Pittsburgh

Bills fans should prepare for a shakeup on their offensive line. With three starters over the age of thirty, and Cordy Glenn (while still under contract) losing almost an entire season to a mystery foot ailment, the only lock for 2018 is Dion Dawkins - and he isn’t even a full-time starter.

O’Neill, a redshirt junior, is in his third straight season as a starter. Listed at 6’5” 300 pounds, his tackle projection will largely depend on arm measurements, but the Bills were happy to use six-foot-four Dawkins (with his 35 inch arms) at left tackle this season. In the best case, Glenn returns to full health, and Dawkins and O’Neill will each claim a starting spot on the right side of the line next year.

Round 3: Micah Kiser, LB, Virginia

After picking a quarterback and building around him with two more offensive rookies, the Bills turn to their defense and add the senior Cavalier. Both Preston Brown and Ramon Humber are free agents next year. While the Bills may be satisfied promoting Matt Milano to a full-time starter at weakside linebacker, they need a middle linebacker at a minimum.

Kiser has been a tackling machine at Virginia, and started for the past three seasons. During that time, he has 178 solo tackles (385 total tackles), 32.5 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, eight forced fumbles, and 13 passes defended. At 6’2” 240, Kiser is built a little thicker than most modern NFL linebackers, which makes him a good candidate for an inside or strong side linebacker. He’s not an outstanding athlete, but he’s good enough to stick on the field when surrounded by faster players. His intelligence and physicality can make him a useful piece in maintaining gap integrity against the run.