The Buffalo Bills believe they’ve positioned themselves to draft the best player available when their turn comes up next month in the first round of the NFL Draft.
“We can go any position,” General Manager Doug Whaley said Friday during the Bills’ annual pre-draft luncheon. “We’re set up. If a guy is there with our pick, whenever that pick is – be it one, eight, nine, 20 – if he’s the guy we think can get us to the playoffs, there’s nothing that will preclude us from taking that guy. That’s the beauty of how we set it up this year.”
Whaley said not having a position crying out for an upgrade makes the job easier.
“When you have a pressing need, guys tend to get pushed up the board. When you push guys up the board, that’s when you have a greater chance of making mistakes.”
While stopping far short of giving any concrete clues as to which way the Bills might be leaning with the No. 9 pick in the first round, Whaley did make it clear that giving quarterback EJ Manuel every bit of help possible is a high priority.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league, so we’re going to” look at “every avenue and every piece of the puzzle to surround EJ and make him as successful as possible,” Whaley said. “What we did this offseason affords us the opportunity to go any way and every way in this draft. Our main focus is making sure EJ progresses.”
Whaley said the pre-draft process is a time “where we can use you guys to our advantage,” referring to the media.
“There are things that you put out there to see if someone bites and there are some things you put out there that are true. You have people read between the lines and you don’t want to show your hand. I’m sure everyone is doing the same thing,” he said.
At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Whaley said the team would not draft a quarterback in the first round. Of course, if deception is an admitted part of the process, why should that be believed?
“Will it happen? I will always say to you guys to never say never. We don’t plan on it, but there are a lot of things that can go down where we may be staring at a guy and he is the best person for us … and it may be a quarterback, so it may happen,” he said.
Whaley reiterated the franchise’s belief in Manuel has not wavered.
“The injury situation, you can’t do anything about that. It’s part of football, but we believe that when we needed him most, he always put us in position to win,” he said. “We’re excited about that and you can build off of that, that ‘it’ factor.”
In keeping with that every-option-is-on-the-table theme, Whaley didn’t close the door on a possible trade up in the draft, perhaps even as high as No. 1 overall with the Houston Texans, as has been speculated in recent weeks in two national publications.
“We’re going to keep every option open,” Whaley said. “To tell you the truth, why would I back myself into a corner and say, ‘no, we’re going to stay here or move down or move up?’ You always have to keep options open because you never know what is going to come across your desk or on your phone. One of the early lessons I learned was: Don’t say no until you hear what is being offered to you.”
Whaley said paying the surely steep price to move that far up in the draft wouldn’t necessarily run counter productive to his philosophy.
“It depends on what you mean by mortgaging our future. We give up our whole draft? You’re mortgaging our future. If we give up a second round or a pick next year … it’s a calculated decision. I would say it all depends on the deal.”
Other highlights from the 45-minute session with Whaley, director of player personnel Jim Monos, coordinator of college scouting Doug Majeski and director of college scouting Kelvin Fisher:
• The perceived notion that the draft is deep at both wide receiver and offensive tackle is accurate, according to Monos.
“I think both positions have high-end talent and depth,” he said. “Those are good positions in this year’s draft.”
Fisher said the top tackles available in the draft – Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Notre Dame’s Zack Martin – have the flexibility to play either left or right tackle.
“In this league today, you’re getting the same pass rusher from both sides, so it really doesn’t matter what side they’re on,” Fisher said.
Whaley further explained why the traditional thinking that left tackle is more important than right tackle is changing, by using an example from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
“They have a ‘NASCAR’ package. That’s a package where they have a lot of speed on the defensive line coming at you in passing downs. That is what ‘Fish’ is alluding to. You need a right tackle nowadays as athletic as your left tackle,” Whaley said. “We’re excited about the depth at that position. … As soon as someone does something and has success with it, other people are going to start studying it and start copying it.”
Whaley said the idea that a right tackle isn’t good “value” at No. 9 is misguided.
“If he can plug and play and we forget about him for 10 years, why wouldn’t you? You’d have two bookend tackles.”
• The trend of athletic, pass-catching tight ends as a vital part of a successful offense is going to continue, according to Whaley.
“Just look at the production of the tight end, like Jimmy Graham and all those guys. It’s trending toward those basketball, athletic guys that can position their body, go up and get balls, take balls away from smaller defenders,” he said. “There’s less of an emphasis on the blocking at the tight end position nowadays. That’s the way it’s going, and you’ve got to get with the times.
“Every offense is different, but I know a tight end and a running back are great friends to a quarterback.”
Monos called the consensus tight end in the draft, North Carolina’s Eric Ebron, a playmaker. “He blocks. He gives great effort. He’s strong. He’s got good size,” he said.
Ebron is a notch above other tight ends like Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, according to Monos, because he’s more athletically advanced.
Asked if he had the potential to be the next Graham, Monos chuckled and said “if everybody knew that, he might be the No. 1 pick. Does he have the potential to be that? Yes.”
• Whaley cited the need for more depth at defensive end and linebacker after the switch to a 4-3 base scheme.
“We could use more defensive end depth, but we signed some guys that are unproven, so we’re excited and we just have to wait and see there,” he said. “Linebacker … we have a lot of guys that will give us depth, but they’re still a little unknown because they haven’t been out and shown us what they can do on the field.”
• Monos said there are “five or six” players in the draft considered “elite” prospects. He didn’t name them, but it’s a good bet Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is one of them. Monos said Watkins was “on par” with Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Atlanta’s Julio Jones in terms of talent.
“His style is more like Percy Harvin, with the ball in his hands, he’s special like that. Those guys were just so big, but, yeah, he’s right on par with those guys,” Monos said.
• Whaley called it a “delicate balance” in determining when to address a position in case of a future potential need. For example, both of the Bills’ running backs, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, are entering the final year of their contracts.
“You want to get somebody who can come in and contribute right away, but you also have one eye open for the future,” he said. “It’s nothing that’s going to weigh on us heavily and say ‘we have to do this because of the future.’ But you’re definitely cognizant of what’s going on after this year.”
To that end, Fisher addressed the running back class in general terms.
“You have all different types of sizes,” he said. “You have big guys, fast guys, short guys … there’s a good depth of running backs who can contribute early, and they’re going to have good production as far as running back and special teams.”
Whaley said the entire organization feels the pressure to hit on this year’s draft picks.
“This is a results-based business. This draft is critical for us to add more pieces to get us over the hump,” he said. “Now that the guys are back in the building, you get a sense and a feel that they believe the same thing because they know what is expected of them. … I think everybody from top to bottom in this organization sees that this draft is important to take that next step.”