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Mixed signals make Bills tough to figure

There are two widely accepted assumptions about the Bills as we get ready for this year’s NFL Draft extravaganza:

One, they need to add at least one defensive stud who can make an immediate impact and help break the 16-year playoff drought in a critical year for head coach Rex Ryan and General Manager Doug Whaley.

Two, they need to find a quarterback who could become their long-awaited franchise guy in the event that Tyrod Taylor flames out or eventually bolts as a free agent.

Contemplating those two issues, I can see how objective fans might feel a bit conflicted about the state of the team. After spending through the nose to go 8-8 last season, are the Bills a true contender or a team in decline?

As a hardened skeptic, I’m not optimistic on either front. If they’re still unsure about Taylor, as Whaley admits, and the defense has regressed, it’s hard to make the case that the Bills are in better shape than they were a year ago.

I don’t believe they’re a true contender, or that Ryan’s defense will magically reassert itself in his second year in Buffalo. And I don’t think Taylor is the long-term answer at quarterback.

The Bills had their chance a year ago and blew it. The window was open. They had a favorable schedule and a solid veteran defense. Taylor played better than most people would have imagined in his first season as a starter.

Whaley paid for a contender and came up short. The Bills wound up in the sort of salary cap box you’d expect from a team that actually won something. Now, Whaley has to rebuild his defense and hope Taylor is the answer − with the GM and Ryan under an ultimatum from the Pegulas to produce a winner now.

So what’s the move for Whaley with the 19th overall pick in the draft? Does he dip into a deep pool of defensive linemen, giving Ryan the sort of elite player who can fortify an eroded defense and help validate Rex’s genius?

Or does he take the best available talent on the Bills’ draft board, banking on some of that defensive talent being available later and adding a potential star at another position – maybe wide receiver or even quarterback?

Any GM would tell you he drafts for both the present and future, in the long-term interests of the franchise. But the urge to make a splash and win right away can have devastating consequences. You could argue that the Bills are still trying to recover from Tom Donahoe trading for Drew Bledsoe in 2002.

Using the 19th pick on a defensive lineman or outside linebacker makes a lot of sense, for the present and future. The Bills haven’t drafted an edge rusher of any consequence in the first round since − are you ready for this? − Bruce Smith back in 1985.

That’s pretty remarkable. They whiffed badly a couple of times (Erik Flowers in 2000, Aaron Maybin in 2009) and hit on several second-rounders (Phil Hansen, Marcellus Wiley, Aaron Schobel) along the way. But it’s about time they added an outside rusher in the draft.

They haven’t used a first-round pick to address the defensive front seven since Marcell Dareus five years ago. In the last three drafts, they’ve reached for EJ Manuel at quarterback, traded up for wideout Sammy Watkins and forfeited last year’s No. 1 as part of the Watkins trade.

The defensive erosion wasn’t solely because of Ryan’s obstinate nature. Whaley deserves much of the blame for investing an inordinate amount of his resources in the offense – reaching for Manuel, doubling down with Watkins, overpaying for running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay.

In the space of roughly a year, Whaley took a team with a borderline elite defense and mediocre offense and tilted the competitive and financial balance toward the offensive side of the ball.

Whaley says franchising left tackle Cordy Glenn and giving an extension to left guard Richie Incognito was equivalent to signing a couple of top free agents. True, but it makes it even more imperative for the offense to perform at a higher level and justify the enormous investment in talent.

That brings us back to the quarterback. Whaley said at the annual draft luncheon that he planned to draft a QB at some point. Presumably, it will be someone they feel can eventually become their franchise guy if Taylor doesn’t pan out.

The question is, when do they take the quarterback? There’s a lot of sentiment out there for taking one in the second round. But the chances of finding a great QB with the 49th pick of the draft are remote at best.

There are draft experts (and how do you define that, exactly?) who believe the only quarterbacks with first-round talent (Jared Goff and Carson Wentz) will be gone to the Rams and Eagles with the first two picks.

But according to Peter King, there are people in the league who are certain the Bills will take Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg with the 19th pick, because they feel he will become a terrific NFL player.

I’m sure that has Bills fans shuddering at the memory of the Bills taking Manuel at No. 16 overall three years ago. Manuel was rated a third-round talent on many teams’ boards. In retrospect, that might have been too kind.

After a generation of bumbling, the Bills don’t inspire much confidence on draft day. But if they actually believe there’s a quarterback on the board who will become a star, they should take him at 19. It would be in the best interests of a franchise that isn’t ready to win now. They could even move back and pick up an extra pick, as they failed to do when they jumped on Manuel in 2013.

Personnel men are notorious liars around draft time. At the draft luncheon, Whaley was asked: If you draft a quarterback in the first round, would he be competing for the starting job?

“No,” Whaley said. “Tyrod is our starting quarterback.”

Really? Whaley and the Bills aren’t sold on Taylor as the franchise guy, and aren’t ready to pay him the big bucks. But if they shock the world and take a quarterback with the 19th pick, he doesn’t compete for the No. 1 job?

It’s hard to fathom that the Bills would have enough faith to take a quarterback with the 19th pick, but not enough to let him compete for the job with a guy who has started 14 games in his NFL career.

That’s classic Bills, wanting it both ways. They want to believe they’re one defensive rookie away from making a Super Bowl run with Rex, but they’re going to cover themselves at quarterback in case the whole thing blows up.

I’m guessing they go defensive line at No. 19 and take the quarterback later. If you believe they’re one player away, best of luck to you.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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