Trading up for elite talent is a risky game - The Buffalo News

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Trading up for elite talent is a risky game

At the recent NFL draft luncheon, Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said this is the one time of year when teams use the media to their advantage, by feeding them information that can deceive and mislead their league rivals.

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint the rest of the personnel men in the league, but they’ll get no real clues from me. I left the annual draft session more confused than ever – although I did enjoy the hearty free lunch.

I have no idea what the Bills will do Thursday night. I’m not a draft guru. I watch very little college football. I don’t do mock drafts. I don’t bolt out of bed every morning, waiting to see if Todd McShay or Mel Kiper has gifted the world with Mock Draft 86.0.

There are a lot of talented and dedicated draft nuts out there. Some of them actually work for teams. But the draft has to be the most overhyped and overanalyzed event in the history of man. There’s been more time spent studying Johnny Manziel’s footwork than the outbreak of World War I.

A lot of the draft intelligence is people regurgitating the expertise of others. There are few original thinkers in this world. It’s a lot safer to embrace the collective logic of “experts.” There’s a cloud of uncertainty and then – voila! – everyone decides Manziel is going No. 4 to Cleveland.

Whaley put on the typical show at the luncheon. He told us everything and he told us nothing. Sure, they might move up, if they’re in love with a guy and can get the deal done. They might stay put, of course. They could move down, though it takes two to tango. They’ll keep their options open.

Could they take a quarterback in the first round? Never say never, the GM advises. Manziel is special, so you can’t rule him out. They could use a big, agile (am I the only one who says “agile” anymore?) wide receiver who can stretch the field. Who couldn’t?

Of course, Whaley said right tackle is an option. It’s a copycat league, remember, and people will be borrowing from the Seahawks “NASCAR” defense, sending pass rushers from all angles. You need strong, agile right tackles as well as left.

The Bills could use another safety or cornerback. There are lots of good corners, and you can never have enough of them. And hey, with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller in the final year of their contracts, they need a young running back. Then there’s the trend toward speedy, dynamic tight ends.

Whaley said the Bills have improved their roster to the point where they can take the best player available in the first round. The question is who will be that player, and whether they’ll trade up to make sure he’s available to them.

There’s been a lot of murmuring about the Bills wanting to trade up. That makes me suspicious. Maybe they want people to believe it, as a smoke screen. As Whaley said, this process is largely about rumor and deception.

But if they see a guy they really covet and decide to trade up, they’d better be sure. I wouldn’t use next year’s first-round pick to move up from No. 9 overall. They’ve given away future No. 1’s in the past and lived to regret it. This is a scary thought, but they’ll need their No. 1 next year if EJ Manuel doesn’t pan out.

The current wisdom says that there are a handful of “elite” prospects in the draft. Jim Monos, the Bills’ director of player personnel, said there are “five or six.” He acknowledged that it would be tempting to move up.

I’m assuming the elite half-dozen includes defensive standouts Jadeveon Clowney, wideouts Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, maybe one or two of the offensive tackles. I’m not even sure what qualifies as elite. Why five or six? Why not a dozen? It seems like this year’s chic draft concept, the so-called elite six.

Again, there’s this assumed knowledge about how good these players truly are. Go back to some past drafts and see who got it right. See if the NFL properly identified the half-dozen elite guys. It’s not as scientific as they pretend.

Five years ago, quarterback Matthew Stafford went No. 1 overall. Here’s the next seven players who were taken in the ’09 draft: Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith, Darrius Heyward-Bay, Eugene Monroe (Aaron Maybin went to the Bills with the 11th overall pick).

How many of those guys strike you as elite? Now here are some of the players who went ninth or later in that 2009 draft: B.J. Raji, Brian Orakpo, Brian Cushing, Alex Mack, Percy Harvin, Clay Matthews, Jairus Byrd, LeSean McCoy.

Trading up can improve your chances to get a superstar, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. I can guarantee this, however: If the Bills stay at No. 9, there will be elite talent still on the board, future Pro Bowlers. History proves that’s the case.

So I’m wary of the idea that the Bills need to move up. There’s an inordinate amount of attention paid to the top of the draft. You need to nail high picks to build a contender, but the top teams are the ones who hit on their later picks and stack deep, successful drafts.

Some of the Bills’ best draft picks in the last five years have been second-rounders: Byrd and Andy Levitre in 2009; Cordy Glenn in 2012; Robert Woods and Kiko Alonso a year ago.

I’d be reluctant to give away a precious second-round pick, too, unless you’re absolutely sure you’re getting a star. The Bills can keep all their picks, stay at No. 9, and get an elite player. My guess is that it’ll be one of the offensive tackles.

They’ve picked an offensive tackle in the first round only once in 20 years. That was the regrettable Mike Williams, the No. 4 overall pick in 2002. Williams turned out to be a bust. At the time, of course, the experts had him pegged as elite.


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