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Mel Kiper Jr.: Bills' evaluation of Lamar Jackson will be key to draft plans

The Buffalo Bills’ scouting report on Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson could dictate how aggressive they are in pursuing a trade up in next month’s draft.

That’s the opinion of ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. Speaking Wednesday on a national conference call, Kiper was asked how he would solve the Bills’ quarterback conundrum.

“They have to decide how much of a difference is there between Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield or Josh Rosen,” Kiper said, referencing the perceived “big four” of the draft class.

In Kiper’s latest mock draft – which was released Wednesday and does not project trades – he has Wyoming’s Allen going No. 1 to Cleveland, Southern California’s Darnold going No. 2 to the New York Giants, UCLA’s Rosen going No. 3 to the New York Jets and Oklahoma’s Mayfield going No. 5 to Denver. That scenario would leave the Bills boxed out, meaning their evaluation of Jackson could determine whether the team adds a quarterback in the first round.

The Bills are “going to have a guy sitting anyway. I mean, let’s say AJ McCarron’s going to be their starter,” Kiper said. “So do you want to go up, and have to give up all which you’re going to have to give up to go up to get one of those quarterbacks, those elite quarterbacks, or we can sit where we are at pick 12 or maybe at 22 and get him?

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“Now, if you wait to 22, you could lose him to Arizona, ok? I mean, Baltimore could be another team in the mix for a quarterback at some point. So you’ve got Baltimore at 16, Arizona at 15 could look at Lamar Jackson, particularly Arizona. So you might be forced because of that to think about him at 12. You just may be forced to. If you wait until 22, maybe he gets there, maybe he doesn’t.”

Kiper has the Bills passing on Jackson in his mock draft, instead taking Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds with the 12th pick. Jackson then goes off the board to Arizona at No. 15 before the Bills pick Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander at No. 22.

“I think how they evaluate Lamar Jackson is key to this whole thing,” Kiper said of the Bills’ front office, “because you don’t have to give up anything to get him. You’ve got the 12th pick, you’ve got the 22nd pick. Take Lamar Jackson there and don’t give up anything. Or if you feel like there’s a big difference between the top, the elite, down to where Jackson is in the middle of the first – there’s a big gap there in terms of grade – then you go up and get your guy. So I think that depends upon their ratings board.”

What if Buffalo elects to pass on quarterback entirely in the first round? Kiper had some options for the team in Round Two, during which the Bills are scheduled to pick twice, at No. 53 and No. 56.

“Mason Rudolph from Oklahoma State … would be in that next tier as well with Kyle Lauletta from Richmond and Mike White from Western Kentucky,” he said. “So you have to decide: Do you want to wait until the second round and look at Rudolph or Lauletta, or do you want to go in the first round and look at a quarterback there? Say, ok, what are we going to do as far as the quarterback position?”

Kiper compared Jackson to former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon.

“People were looking at Rich Gannon as a defensive back, wide receiver, running back,” Kiper said. “He went in the fourth round to a team in New England who wanted him to play another position, he didn’t. They traded him to Minnesota. He goes there as a quarterback, ends up being a really, really good quarterback in the NFL for a long time. Had some great years out there with Jon Gruden in Oakland. So I think he’s that Rich Gannon type. Unlike Rich, who was a fourth-round pick, he’s going to go in the first round. The ability to make any throw, he can do that. He’s just got to be, like I say, more accurate.”

Jackson has also dealt with some analysts suggesting he would be better off at a different position, most notably when former Bills GM and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said he should move to wide receiver.

The question that has loomed over Jackson during the pre-draft process centers on his accuracy. Kiper called him an “in-the-area” thrower during Wednesday’s call.

“He’s got to improve his accuracy. That’s a fact,” Kiper said. “That 57 percent, you haven’t seen any improvement off of that. The combine, he was still all over the place with those throws, so that’s where you know he’s going to need some time and some work. He’s got a great attitude, he’s tremendously competitive, so I think Arizona or Buffalo in the first round, like I said, he’s going to be no different than the other guys. On the shelf for a year or two, and then asked to be the starter after that.

“You’re still talking about the 15th pick if he goes to Arizona. That’s pick No. 15. That would be a great opportunity, no different from what the other guys are going to be. They’re going to sit, watch and learn for a year, and in Arizona he would be afforded that same opportunity. If he went to Buffalo at pick 12 or Buffalo at pick 22 he would be afforded the same opportunity there because they have AJ McCarron.  I think those would be two good landing spots for Lamar.”

Interestingly enough, Kiper has Allen as the No. 1 overall pick, despite the same main concern with his game. Allen completed just 56.3 percent of his passes for Wyoming in 2017.

“I don’t think the completion percentage matters anymore," Kiper said. "That’s history now. It is what it is. I think people have moved past that. From a positive and negative. I think people that don’t like that are going to never move past it. There’s nothing he could do. You saw during his workout. If you didn’t like him, people looked like they were going to cry, because he was doing a lot better than they thought.

"Considering his so-called accuracy issues, he didn’t show any of that during the combine or his pro day or the bowl game, when he missed only one throw in the Central Michigan game. Or the Senior Bowl game. So he has made dramatic improvement, and he has silenced all those critics who said you can’t draft a guy in the first round who completes 56 percent of his passes.”

Kiper thinks wide receiver is a position the Bills could target in the second round. In particular, he mentioned Memphis’ Anthony Miller as an option with the 53rd overall pick.

“He’s going to run well. He’s going to be a guy I think that people are going to become enamored with him as we move through the next two or three weeks,” Kiper said. “Buffalo would be a team that would be a good fit for him at 53 in the second round.”

In addition to Miller, SMU’s Courtland Sutton, Oklahoma State’s James Washington, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk and LSUs D.J. Chark were all mentioned as second-round possibilities at receiver.

“I think you’re going to see five to six wide receivers come off the board … in Round Two,” Kiper said.

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