The Buffalo Bills didn't have a good season last year, but they did have a good draft last weekend. And maybe, just maybe, that portends something better for a club that hasn't been to the playoffs since 1999 and produced one winning season in 11 years.
I hedge because the Bills play in the same division as New England and the New York Jets, and if people aren't conceding the AFC East to the Patriots again they're talking up the Jets. No one is pushing Buffalo, but they should for one weekend because the Bills just aced the 2011 draft, drawing the only A+ from the Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin.
Baltimore was the only other club to pull down an A from Gosselin, but what's new? The Ravens annually are among the best and brightest at circling the draft board. The Bills are not. At least not until now, and I'm not sure how they did it. Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix does know how, and he's here to explain what just happened.
At the third spot, the Bills were ideally situated to take a quarterback or one of the top three defensive players -- linebacker Von Miller, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus or cornerback Patrick Peterson. When Carolina opened by taking Cam Newton, and Denver followed by picking Miller, Buffalo's decision was a snap. It took Dareus, the wise and necessary choice for a club that ranked 32nd against the run.
Nix: "We had opportunities to trade out here, with many calls -- eight or 10 -- from people wanting to move up. But we're getting to the point [where we don't do that]. It's been two years now, and if it keeps going this way people are going to quit calling because our answer is, 'No.' My experience has always been if you have a guy in mind and say, 'Oh, yeah, we can get him at this pick so we'll move back,' inevitably he is gone. It happened more times than one. So we're inclined not to do it. Now, did we consider a quarterback here? Yes, we did. But we did our work as well as we could on every quarterback, and we passed. We also considered [LSU cornerback Patrick] Peterson. He was in the mix. The thing fans don't realize is that we had one pick. They say, 'Well, you didn't get a quarterback,' but you only get one pick. Going into the draft, we thought we had three guys who would absolutely help our football team. So we were very relaxed and took the one who fell to us -- and we were lucky it was who it was. But we would've gotten a good player either way. We were not going to pass on one of those guys because, hopefully, we don't pick that high again for awhile. Fortunately, the guy we all love was there, so we took him. It was a no-brainer for us because he fits a big need. I know there's no such thing as a safe pick, but, if there was, it would be this guy. I know I'm supposed to say how big he is and how athletic he is and how fast he is, and, obviously, that's why we started looking at him. But we need somebody in Buffalo who has a swagger about him; someone who is not intimidated by anybody. This guy thinks he's the best, and he thinks he'll be the best. We needed that. There's high character, he's a great kid and we're looking forward to what he'll do for our city."
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Second round Again, the temptation was there to jump for a quarterback. Most observers figured Cincinnati would take one with the 35th pick, so, at 34, Buffalo was perfectly set up to beat the Bengals to the next quarterback on the board or to trade the choice to someone who would. Only it didn't, passing on both options. Instead, it chose Texas cornerback Aaron Williams, and with cornerbacks Ashton Youboty and Drayton Florence scheduled to become free agents, Leodis McKelvin underwhelming and Terrence McGee coming off two injury-plagued seasons, it's easy to see why.
Nix: "Again, we fielded trade offers, but, as I said earlier, we're just not inclined to do that. The situation with the quarterback was the same as it was in the first round. Just to take a guy ... and not that these are just 'guys' because we had them at the Senior Bowl, so our staff was around them all week and really got to know them ... but had we thought there was one who could come in and be our quarterback we might have done it. Instead, we felt like we had greater needs and that we could get more of an immediate impact rather than looking down the road for a quarterback -- which is why we took Williams. This league has gotten big at wide receiver, and it gets bigger and faster every year. So you better get big corners. If you've got 5-8-1/2 or 5-9 corners, you're in trouble. They can't jam, and they can't disrupt the route. But this guy [Williams] is over 6 feet tall, weighs over 200 pounds and is a very versatile player. We'll start him out at corner, and if he can be one of our top two he'll be a starter. If not, he'll be our third guy and move inside on the slot. But if you get in a bind ... and we don't look to do this ... we think he can move in and play safety because he's a good tackler and a smart guy. We felt very fortunate to get him where we did -- so much so that we had our mind made up before we got to the pick. He's almost like a first-round pick, so we wanted to make it count. And we think we did. We took the guy we thought would be the best help for us."
The Bills didn't budge again, this time staying at the 68th spot to choose an inside linebacker to solidify their run defense -- and did I mention it was porous? How about poorest? Anyway, there were other considerations here, but when Kelvin Sheppard -- the leader of the LSU defense -- stayed on the board the Bills knew where they were going. Nix: "An advantage here was having him in the Senior Bowl where our guys coached him. I went to LSU and did him early in the year, and he played under three defensive coordinators there. He was not a guy you'd come away and say, 'Wow, this guy can start for us immediately.' But by the time the Senior Bowl was over, we were really high on him. He has leadership ability, he's 6-2 and 250 and he can run. Plus, he's a smart guy who is about as instinctive as anybody in the draft. It was a no-brainer again. It was a need for us, and he happened to be there. We knew him, and we feel like he'll compete for a starting job. As I've said before, there were two or three guys we were looking at here, but you better do that at every pick. We just got the guy we thought was the best pick for us."
At last, Buffalo went for offense, but only after choosing another defensive back, safety Da'Norris Searcy, with the first of two fourth-round picks. Searcy became the fourth straight defender to join the Bills, and that happens when your team surrenders more than 26 points a game. At the 133rd position, they finally looked to the offense, taking Chris Hairston -- who blocked for C.J. Spiller at Clemson -- to solidify their right tackle position. For the moment, Eric Pears looks like the starter there, but Buffalo needs right tackles like Duff's needs napkins. Count on Hairston to make Buffalo stronger at a weak position, even if it takes him time to develop.
Nix; "Da'Norris was another guy we had in the Senior Bowl. I keep bringing that up, but what an advantage it is. I don't want to lose to have to coach in it, but I do wish we coached in it every year. Anyway, we've played with smaller safeties, and that's great because we have good ones. But when they have to go down in the box and take on a cut-back or fill the 'A gap,' that's a lot of pounding they take from bigger people. This guy weighs 225 pounds, and he can run. He has played corner, but we're going to play him at strong safety because we think he has enough ball skills and speed to be interchangeable back there. Sometimes, offenses will change formations on you to get you in a position where the free safety has to play strong. You try to keep them from doing it, but every so often they can. So we try to get guys who can play either safety position, and we think he fits that bill. As to what this means for Donte Whitner [who can become a free agent] I think this: I can't put words in Donte's mouth. All I can go by is past actions, and I'm not sure Donte wants to be a Buffalo Bill. All I know is that if that's true, he won't be.
"Hairston is 6-6 and 330 pounds and a real intelligent kid who played in a good league. We saw him at the East-West game, then went in there [Clemson] two or three times, and our scouts liked him. People think we don't have a right tackle, but we have a guy [Pears] who started two years in this league for the Denver Broncos when they were winning and who is almost 6-8, weighs 310 pounds and we think can be a good right tackle for us. But we want competition there. We want somebody battling him for the job, and that's what we expect Hairston to do. If he wins it, he'll start. If he doesn't, he'll give us good depth. We've still got [Mansfield] Wrotto there, too, so we're a little deeper and a little better than people think we are in the offensive line."
By this time, it was clear the Bills would stick with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their quarterback and fill in around him. What wasn't so certain was where they'd go next, and where they went was offense -- with UNC running back Johnny White the choice. White makes sense only because running the ball in Buffalo makes sense. I mean, if you're a cold-weather club that can't run effectively, you're in trouble. And Buffalo was, last season ranking 18th in running after a 16th-place finish the year before. Something had to be done to improve the running game, and maybe something was.
Nix: "People say, 'Well, you didn't need a running back because you already have two.' But that's not enough. You need three backs, and you need a guy who is versatile, who can play on special teams, catch the ball and pass protect -- which is why we think this guy is a perfect fit for us. He's been an all-conference special-teams player; he's played wideout; he's played running back; and we think he will really help us and will compete for playing time He has a physical aspect to his game that's important to us, but I would think his versatility is the most important thing."
It's another defensive player, and, yes, there's a theme here. For Buffalo to make a move in the AFC East it must shore up the league's 24th-ranked defense, so the Bills went for inside linebacker Chris White in the sixth round. Mississippi State's leading tackler last season and an all-SEC choice, White is another player coached by Chan Gailey and his staff at the Senior Bowl -- and tell me of one game that paid more dividends in a draft than the Senior Bowl did for Buffalo.
Nix: "Chris White is a throwback. He's like 6-4, 245- to 250-pound guy who came up through the junior-college ranks out of a small school in Mississippi and whose junior-college coach played for me. He's not a guy who wows you, but he's a blue-collar worker -- a tough guy and a smart guy who has played outside and inside and whom we think will be an inside backer for us. Again, we had him in the Senior Bowl, so we got a good feeling for him in the meeting rooms and things like that. I would be totally shocked if he doesn't make our team and contribute. As you know, we were really thin on defense, and this draft was strong in the areas where we were weak in depth. With two inside backers in this draft, people ask me what it means for someone like Danny Batten. Well, it's a possibility that Danny stay outside. Danny is 6-3 and 255, and he can play inside or out. When you go to a 3-4 scheme, you do a lot of projecting of guys in college who are edge rushers and had their hands on the ground. Danny has adjusted very well to standing up, and we think he has a bright future in either place, but his place could be outside now."
Two more picks and two more picks for the defense. In Richmond's Justin Rogers the Bills have a defensive back with return skills and someone who can help a secondary that could lose Whitner, Drayton and Youboty. In Michael Jasper, they chose a massive lineman from Bethel (Tenn.), who projects as a defensive tackle and who last year played –- and this is no typo –- at 6-feet-4, 432 pounds. The Bills challenged him to lose weight, and he did. Now he's theirs.
Nix: "Let's talk first about Jasper. When you get to the compensatory pick in the seventh round, if you can take a guy who has a redeeming quality you've probably done pretty well -- because you have a chance with him. And by that I mean at least he's not a guy who comes in with nothing and someone you have to cut the first week of camp. That is not this guy. He's huge, over 6-4, and he's down to 378. And he's a freak as far as athletic ability. He can vertical jump 33 inches. He long jumped 9'5". He ran a 5.32 40. He can dunk a basketball with both hands. And he's played offense and defense. On top of all that, he's a very bright kid -- someone who was high on the Wonderlic test and who had a 3.0-grade-point average -- so we're going to give him a chance. We found him when one of our scouts, Matt Hand, dogged him for about a year and told him, 'If you want your numbers in our system you get below 400. Then I'll come in and work you out. But if you don't get below 400, I won't be there.' Well, he's down to 378, and Matt went in to work him out. In fact, I think he was the only one there. We said, 'Heck, he's got a chance, so let's give him one.' Honestly, he's more of a developmental player. If he could make that adjustment quickly and help you in the first year it would be surprising.
"Moving on to Rogers, what appealed to us about him is that we think we have good players in our secondary but we also think we're starting to get a little age back there. You don't want to get old -- and old being a relative term for football -- but you don't want to get old at one position at one time. So we needed some young guys. This guy can cover. He's a four-time All-American at the 1-AA level. He has excellent ball skills. He's a good returner. And he can compete for us and at least give us depth at corner if he doesn't win a position. My feeling about defensive backs is that you better add one or two a year every year because they're hard to find. My feeling about this draft is that we're better -- at least on paper it looks that way. You never know until you're two or three years down the road, but these guys have a body of work that projects well and says they'll probably do it again. All I know is that we added competition at places that I think will make our team better."