Like a benevolent father, Buddy Nix begins every draft luncheon by dispensing wise advice to callow young men. Nix has spent half a century in football, so you listen. Besides, who can get enough of that drawl?
"I tell you this every time, and you don't listen and you don't believe me," the Bills' general manager said last week. "But I'm going to tell you any way. Don't get pinned down by connecting the dots. It's fun. I enjoy reading it.
"But it's fantasy football."
Buddy is right, of course. There might be more of America's intellectual energy expended on the draft than the presidential election. To draft lovers, the big debate isn't Obama vs. Romney, it's Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III. What's more vital, four years running the country or 12 years running an NFL offense?
You can twist yourself up in knots trying to figure it all out. It's an eternal puzzlement to me how players' stock can rise and fall when they haven't played a game in months. As Nix says, we shouldn't read too much into what the experts say, or trust the countless mock drafts.
The main thing is to have fun, and to remain open to surprise. That's why we do this. I don't have a clue who the Bills are going to pick at 10th overall tonight. OK, I'm pretty sure it won't be a running back or a punter.
I can say this much: It's a crucial draft for the Bills. It's Year Three for Nix and coach Chan Gailey. They've had two years to build. They've spent big money re-signing their own key free agents. They gave $100 million to Mario Williams to upgrade their pass rush.
Expectations are soaring, along with the pressure. Nix got credit for spending Ralph Wilson's money. But it didn't take a lot of ingenuity to hand $100 million to the best defensive player on the market. Nix has to stack another good draft on last year's. He needs to find more starters.
Nix has improved the roster. But the jury is still out on his first draft. Last year's showed great promise. Marcell Dareus should be a star in the league. The others need to prove they can be solid, long-term NFL starters.
The Bills still have questionable depth. Of course, most teams in the league can say the same. If they nail this draft, hitting home runs on several of their 10 picks, they could have a roster that rises to the elevated public expectations.
Signing Williams was a great start. They're fortunate he decided to stay here, because the crop of pass rushers isn't very strong in this draft. Getting Williams (and Mark Anderson) gives them the luxury of addressing their other pressing needs in the draft.
Nix said he'd like to get a starter, a playmaker, a difference-maker. That could be a wide receiver, a linebacker, a cornerback or safety, even a quarterback.
When I asked Nix if offensive tackles were playmakers, he said yes. He even revisited the subject at the end of the draft luncheon. People didn't know quite what to make of it. Nix warns us not to read into things, but I got the impression he wasn't looking to go tackle at 10th overall.
There probably won't be a left tackle available who is worthy at 10. Southern Cal's Matt Kalil will likely be gone. Some mock drafts have the Bills taking Iowa's Riley Reiff. But he could be more suited to right tackle.
The Bills are thin at tackle. But Nix might figure he can get one later, assuming he doesn't move up for Kalil. He said most elite tackles get drafted "in the first eight or nine picks." Was he hinting that he didn't expect a future Pro Bowler to be there at 10?
I'm not sure about Chris Hairston on the left side. But the O-line was a bright spot last season. The Bills led the league in fewest sacks allowed and were fifth in yards per rush. Does that sound like an emergency?
There's a more pressing need for a speed receiver. The Bills signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and Stevie Johnson to extensions. They have an offensive-minded coach in Chan Gailey, who likes to spread the field and use a lot of multi-receiver sets. Nix owes it to the offense to put a viable speed receiver on the field.
"I don't owe them nothing, they get paid once a month," Nix said. "But I'll tell you this, we do need one. We do need some speed outside."
Notre Dame's Michael Floyd has great size and speed and is a fine blocker. But he has three alcohol-related offenses on his record, which is a bit more troubling than, say, writing "Happy New Year" on your undershirt.
Nix said drafting players with dubious character is a gut thing. College kids can be immature. "But if it's a repeat offender and it's the wrong kind of trouble then we stay away from it."
He didn't define "wrong kind of trouble," but Nix said the receiver position is deep (it is), so the Bills might feel they can get a good wideout, and a more reliable citizen, later in the draft.
So what will happen tonight? All things being equal, Nix likes to take the best player on the board, especially at a position of need. The more I think about it, the more I think he's going defense.
The Bills allowed 58 TD passes the last two seasons. Only Oakland (60) and Minnesota (59) were worse. It's not all pass rush. They need to get better in coverage. They might be tempted by South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore, the second-rated cornerback. Some say the Bills should take Mark Barron of Alabama, the top safety.
I'm intrigued by Luke Kuechly, the Boston College inside linebacker. Kuechly (pronounced 'KEEK-ly') was a college tackling machine. He has good speed (4.58 in the 40) for an inside 'backer and excels in pass coverage.
Mike Mayock of NFL Network calls Kuechly the best pass-dropping inside linebacker he's ever seen in college. He says Kuechly defies the prototype of inside 'backers, who are often run-stoppers who come out on passing downs. Kuechly makes sense. The Bills are still weak at linebacker. Nick Barnett is solid, but he'll be 31 next month. Kirk Morrison, the presumed starter on the strong side, played 5 percent of the snaps a year ago. Kelvin Sheppard is developing. How much longer can Nix wait for Shawne Merriman to justify his faith?
If the Bills plan to contend right away, they have to deal with Tom Brady and the Pats. That means matching up with the young tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. You don't stop Brady with pass rush alone.
The Bills need a young, elite linebacker. They missed the boat three years ago, remember, reaching for Aaron Maybin when Brian Orakpo, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews were still on the board. All three were instant stars.
They've been trying to catch up ever since. Nix wants an impact player in the first round. Imagine how good the Bills can be if they get a linebacker with the impact of Matthews, Cushing or Orakpo.
Buddy says not to connect the dots. I'll do it, anyway. The dots lead from the '09 draft to Kuechly, a linebacker who can cover the middle of the field for the next 10 years. If I'm wrong, well, at least it was fun.