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Buffalo Bills’ team needs: Pre-combine edition

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Outlining the positions of need for the Bills and potential players to fill those needs.

The NFL Combine will invade your TV later this week, unofficially signifying the start of the offseason. Before it begins, let’s map out the Buffalo Bills’ biggest needs and provide some options Doug Whaley and his crew to consider over the next few months.

Wide Receiver

Assuming the Bills pick up Tyrod Taylor’s contract option, giving him legitimate weapons is priority No. 1. It’s a situation in which the business side and football side perfectly mix. With the option picked up, Tyrod’s cap hits will be $15.9M in 2017 and $16.7M in 2018, not expensive relatively to what starting quarterbacks are paid today, but those figures aren’t small.

Therefore, in hopes of maximizing Tyrod’s production over the next two seasons, it’s logical for the Bills to acquire as much pass-catching talent for him as possible. Right now, the only wideouts under contract on Buffalo’s roster are Sammy Watkins, Walt Powell, Marcus Easley, and Kolby Listenbee.

At times in 2016, the Bills in-game receiver group consisted of Robert Woods, Justin Hunter, Marquise Goodwin, and Brandon Tate. In the present offense-centric league, Doug Whaley and company would be wise to add a few wideouts they believe can be productive NFL starters to get the best idea of how good Tyrod really is over the next few seasons.

Plausible free-agent options: Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Brian Quick, Vincent Jackson, Michael Floyd, Ted Ginn, Kamar Aiken

Plausible draft options: Mike Williams (CLEM), Corey Davis (WMU), Jalen Robinette (AF), John Ross (WAS), JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC), Taywan Taylor (WKU), Zay Jones (ECU), Chad Hansen (CAL), Carlos Henderson (LTU), Malachi Dupre (LSU), Ardarius Stewart (ALA), Ish Zamora (BAY) Dede Westbrook (OKLA), Cooper Kupp (EWU), OJ Howard* (ALA), Evan Engram* (OLE), David Njoku* (MIA)
*listed as TEs, but their size, speed, and athleticism make them WR - TE hybrids


Safety

Even when Aaron Williams was on the field in 2016, the back end of Buffalo’s defense struggled to limit big plays. When Aaron Williams went down, the Bills were exceptionally vulnerable to intermediate pass plays over the middle and deep shots down the field.

Once again, Corey Graham was a fine strong safety, mostly roaming and making plays in the box. But at his age, he doesn’t have the range in coverage anymore, and Buffalo’s safety depth is almost nonexistent. With Williams’ future up in the air, and considering Graham’s age, like wide receiver, the Bills have to add more than one starting-caliber safety this offseason.

Plausible free-agent options: Bradley McDougald, Tony Jefferson, Nate Allen, Barry Church, Rashad Johnson, Rafael Bush

Plausible draft options: Malik Hooker (OSU), Obi Melifonwu (UCONN), Jamal Adams (LSU), Budda Baker (WAS), Jabrill Peppers (MICH), Marcus Williams (UTAH), Josh Jones (NCST)


Cornerback

This is assuming Stephon Gilmore departs in free agency. Without Gilmore on the roster, the Bills will have a gaping hole at one of their outside cornerback spots. Sean McDermott saw the impact of his defense losing its best cornerback in 2016 — Josh Norman — and had to make it work in the defensive backfield with two rookies playing major roles.

Buffalo won’t be in that predicament thanks to the presence of Ronald Darby, Nickell Robey, and Kevon Seymour, but a lockdown cornerback to pair with Darby is near the top of Buffalo’s priority list, especially with only four corners currently under contract for 2017 (Charles Gaines is the other).

Yes, McDermott’s defense is zone heavy, but that doesn’t mean any cornerback can easily play well in it. Zone coverage still has its difficulties, the responsibilities are just different than man. Awareness, play and route recognition, and ball skills are emphasized for McDermott’s cornerbacks. Length is important too.

Plausible free-agent options: Alterraun Verner, Prince Amukamara, Captain Munnerlyn, Morris Claiborne, Dre Kirkpatrick, Josh Robinson, DJ Hayden

Plausible draft options: Marshon Lattimore (OSU), Sidney Jones (WAS), Teez Tabor (UF), Marlon Humphrey (ALA), Desmond King (UI), Jourdan Lewis (MICH), TreDavious White (LSU), Cordrea Tankersley (CLEM), Gareon Conley (OSU), Quincy Wilson (UF), Rasul Douglas (WVU), Fabian Moreau (UCLA), Ahkello Witherspoon (COL), Kevin King (WAS)


Right Tackle

Jordan Mills had his moments in 2016. Fleeting moments of powerful dominance and many more moments of matador blocking. For a former street free agent, Mills performed well in Buffalo, but there’s no legitimate reason for the Bills to re-sign him to be a starter, especially as the offense transitions to a zone-blocking scheme that asks its offensive linemen to be fleet of foot.

Cyrus Kouandjio had a fine third season filling in at left tackle for Cordy Glenn, but questions remain regarding his ability to man the right tackle position. And what does the future hold for Seantrel Henderson? He was a liability as a starter anyway. Quite clearly, Buffalo needs to address that spot on its offensive line.

Plausible free-agent options: Ricky Wagner, Riley Reiff, Menelik Watson, Cameron Fleming, Mike Remmers

Plausible draft options: Ryan Ramczyk (WIS), Cam Robinson (ALA), Garrett Bolles (UTAH), Taylor Moton (WMU), Roderick Johnson (FSU), Antonio Garcia (TROY), Adam Bisnowaty (PITT), Chad Wheeler (USC), Erik Magnuson (MICH), Will Holden (VANDY)


Off-Ball Linebacker

This is listed as the lowest priority simply because there hasn’t been any report indicating which way the Bills are leaning regarding free-agent linebacker Zach Brown. If he’s retained, Buffalo can — and likely will — roll with Brown, Preston Brown, and Reggie Ragland as its three off-ball linebackers in 2017. While not the springiest, sideline-to-sideline group in the NFL, there’d be plenty of talent in that trio to operate productively in McDermott’s defense.

If Brown isn’t re-signed, the Bills will have a noticeable void at a vital position, which would make this spot a much higher priority this offseason.

Plausible free-agent options: A.J. Klein, Josh Bynes, Jelani Jenkins, Keenan Robinson, Malcolm Smith, Justin Durant, Perry Riley, Kevin Minter

Plausible draft options: Reuben Foster (ALA), Raekwon McMillan (OSU), Zach Cunningham (VANDY), Jarrad Davis (UF), Anthony Walker Jr. (NW), Jayon Brown (UCLA), Haason Reddick (TEMP), Duke Riley (LSU)