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Ten thoughts on the 2017 NFL Draft

Dan’s pre-draft column on Mitchell Trubisky, James Conner, Chad Kelly, and small-school players.

Today’s the day, Bills fans! The NFL Draft cannot arrive soon enough. After months of speculation and reams of written analysis, here are ten thoughts I think I thought about this year’s draft:

What’s going on at the top of the draft?

The Cleveland Browns have long been expected to take Texas A&M star Myles Garrett with the first overall pick, and then trade up for quarterback Mitchell Trubisky afterward. In the final hours before the draft, the perception is now that Trubisky is the guy at number one overall. What’s the deal? Here are some thoughts:

If you think you have an honest-to-goodness franchise quarterback, he’s worth the first overall pick. Let’s be real. No position, not even an edge rusher, impacts your winning like a great quarterback. If the Browns have convinced themselves Trubisky is good enough, his position trumps everything else.

The Browns may not have found a trading partner. Perhaps the Titans looked at Cleveland’s host of draft picks and set an exorbitant price for Cleveland’s trade proposal. The Browns have a lot of capital, but they also need to use it to make the roster better.

Maybe the Browns don’t think Trubisky would last regardless. While the Jets and Bills have been the nominal front-runners for Trubisky’s services, it’s possible that Cleveland believes Chicago or San Francisco might be prepared to take him. If Trubisky is high enough on their board, they can’t risk it.

My thoughts on Buffalo’s draft plans

I think the Bills are really hoping to emerge from the first round with one of the two top safeties available. Jamal Adams would give them a Brian Dawkins for their defense, an incredible leader with great range who can bring the hurt on tackles. Malik Hooker would be their Earl Thomas, smothering the backfield with his incredible coverage. If enough quarterbacks land in the top ten, it’s possible one of these players could be available.

If not? Haason Reddick makes a lot of sense as an athletic, versatile linebacker to upgrade Buffalo’s defense. Perhaps O.J. Howard, if he’s on the board? His talent would allow the Bills to run a 2 TE offense like the Patriots prefer. Reuben Foster, maybe?

The third option is that they trade down. That requires a dancing partner, though. Buffalo’s worst case tonight will be if the top four players are off the board and they draft a player like Cam Robinson without being able to recoup some value in the form of draft picks.

Expect the Bills to pick a non-FBS player

In the three drafts that Doug Whaley has helmed Buffalo’s front office, the team has only chosen two players from outside college football’s Power Five conferences: Randell Johnson from the Sun Belt’s Florida Atlantic, and Dezmin Lewis from FCS Central Arkansas. That should change this year. Four of the 13 players reported as pre-draft visitors to Buffalo came from lower-division schools:

  • Chad Williams, WR, Grambling
  • Derek Rivers, ER, Youngstown State
  • Marcus Sayles, CB, West Georgia
  • Grover Stewart, DL, Albany State

In addition, the Bills showed significant interest in scheduling private workouts for these lower-division players:

  • Brandon Barnes, TE, Alabama State
  • Jordan Morgan, OG, Kutztown
  • Brad Seaton, OT, Villanova

This is the clearest sign of Sean McDermott’s influence on the draft board. Expect the Bills to dip into the small school players this weekend.

Is there a better under-the-radar fit for the Bills in this draft than Pitt running back James Conner?

With Mike Gillislee gone to the Patriots, the Bills are down to Jonathan Williams as their primary backup to LeSean McCoy. Williams showed some skill in college, but had an uneven rookie season.

The 6’1” 233 pounder is a bruiser who would return Gillislee’s element of short-yardage success to Buffalo’s offense. It would also give the Bills two viable developmental options to have on hand when McCoy’s contract is up.

But the real fit for Conner is his background. Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, he grew up a short drive down I-90 from Buffalo. Conner was a two-star defensive end recruit who got a scholarship offer to Pitt after attending one of their football camps, then switched to running back when the Pitt coaches asked him to.

Conner went from one of the most productive backs in college football to a hospital bed when a torn MCL revealed a cancer diagnosis in the first week of his junior season. All he did was go through his cancer treatments and return to the football field without missing a game of his senior year, and he still rushed for five yards per carry and 16 touchdowns. By his own admission, Conner was 60 percent in his senior year. If he has room to get better: watch out. With his impeccable character, Conner would be a great fit for McDermott’s team. Not to mention, his alma mater would play well with McCoy.

The Bills could use an offensive lineman

Buffalo’s offensive line is fragile - and they know it. Jordan Mills isn’t a good player. Richie Incognito will be a likely cap-saving cut in 2018, assuming there’s a replacement available. While Ryan Groy and Patrick Lewis are decent backups for the interior, the team could use stability at tackle and a long-term replacement at left guard.

The team has poked around a number of different options on the offensive line this year. Do they have a particular player in mind? We’ll see.

The Bills want a kick returner - or at least, a player who makes plays with the ball like one

Buffalo’s special teams units were mediocre last season, but one area of surprising strength was the return game. Brandon Tate averaged a career-high of 11.6 yards per punt return last season, which helped Buffalo rank 6th in punt return average. The kick returning game was more pedestrian, ranking 19th in the league.

Tate returned to the Bills, but Buffalo’s pre-draft movements suggested an interest in dynamic returners. Whether it’s to upgrade the kickoff return game, replace Tate, or grab a playmaking wide receiver, consider the following:

  • Syracuse receiver Brisly Estime, who privately worked out for the team, led the nation in punt return average.
  • Alabama safety Eddie Jackson worked out for the Bills, and had two punt return touchdowns and a pick-six in eight games before an injury ended his senior year.
  • The Bills attended Louisiana Tech’s pro day; Receivers Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor are both dynamic talents.
  • Buffalo held a private workout with Mitchell Trubisky throwing passes to Ryan Switzer, who has seven career punt return touchdowns.
  • The Bills met with safety Jabrill Peppers at the Combine, who had a punt return this season and also added three rushing touchdowns as a Wildcat quarterback.
  • Finally, while he didn’t excel as a cornerback, Marcus Sayles led the nation in blocked kicks over the course of his career, with 17(!)

Don’t be surprised if the Bills dig up someone with speed and agility as their new playmaker during the middle of the draft.

I’ve made my peace with Chad Kelly

I still believe Kelly is an incredible risk who is more likely to flame out in spectacular fashion than to turn into a franchise quarterback. But if the Bills take him, at least they took a swing. Kelly has more natural football acumen than any mid-round pick. He needs to get his decision-making under control, both on and off the field.

A Bills mock draft

By being published before observing the outcome of the draft, this draft is both correct and incorrect at the same time. It also has irrevocably altered the fate of the draft by its existence.

Round 1: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State

Does Hooker last until the tenth overall pick? It’s not likely, but it’s possible, especially if teams like the Bears and Jets take quarterbacks. Hooker’s injury history, inexperience, and positional value may push him down the list. If they do, remember: he’s unquestionably an elite talent.

Round 2: Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina

I could see the Bills adding a linebacker, offensive lineman, cornerback, or receiver with their second round pick. I assume that the top four quarterbacks will be off the board before Buffalo’s turn. At that point, where do they turn? Jones is an athletic, reliable receiver who could start immediately for the Bills.

Round 3: Rasul Douglas, CB, West Virginia

The Bills should be expected to draft a cornerback in the top three rounds. Douglas doesn’t have much experience, but he nabbed eight interceptions this year and has a long frame.

Round 5: Jordan Morgan, OG, Kutztown

It’s possible that the small-school linemen Buffalo likes, such as Morgan, are gone before round five. Five teams worked out Morgan privately, and three more met with him at the Senior Bowl. I think he has a 50/50 shot to last until day three of the draft. The Bills would sure like to add him as Richie Incognito’s heir apparent.

Round 5: Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss

I believe Kelly is Buffalo’s backup plan, gambling on his innate talent with the understanding that they aren’t likely to get one of the top four names. He could battle with Cardale Jones for the backup spot, and gives McDermott two good options if Tyrod Taylor leaves in free agency. In round five, the risk roughly meets the potential value.

Round 5: Marquel Lee, LB, Wake Forest

I think the Bills exit the draft with a new linebacker. I wanted to slot them a player earlier, but couldn’t find an ideal fit. Lee isn’t an excellent athlete, but he’s an outstanding run stopper who racked up 105 tackles, 20 for a loss during his senior season.

Round 6: Jeremy Cutrer, CB, Middle Tennessee State

I think the Bills could double- or triple-dip in the secondary in this draft, given how their depth vanished. Cutrer is a project player who needs to bulk up, but had six interceptions, 23 pass deflections, and seven tackles for loss in the last two seasons.

I think there’s real traction to the PFT report about Buffalo’s scouts being in jeopardy

The writing seems to have been on the wall for months. Doug Whaley has been fighting reports about his impending firing dating back to last offseason. With the continued reports about Sean McDermott’s growing voice in the front office, it wouldn’t shock me to see a front office overhaul in May. I almost titled the Whaley opinion piece in my draft guide “Why Doug Whaley will be fired after the draft.” Even if Whaley holds onto his job while the scouts beneath him are rearranged, I think his days are numbered at One Bills Drive.

I think some rookies have made some excellent endorsement choices.