Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix said he's looking for a "franchise impact" player -- regardless of the position -- with the third overall pick in the NFL draft.
While acknowledging the obvious fact the Bills still have "a ways to go" in their building effort, Nix says he's encouraged by the competitiveness the team showed last season.
He thinks the Bills probably have to add a quarterback to the roster at some point in the draft. He says the team is committed to sticking with the 3-4 defensive scheme. He likes Demetrius Bell as the starting left tackle, and he thinks Eric Wood is probably going to shift from guard to center. He also is confident linebacker Shawne Merriman will revive his career.
Those were the highlights of an interview with Nix on Tuesday afternoon on the sidelines at the Senior Bowl. It was Nix's first extensive commentary on the Bills' season since the 4-12 campaign ended.
By picking in the top five of the draft for the first time since 2002, the Bills have a chance to get a rare talent. Nix knows it's crucial the team gets the pick right.
"Absolutely," he said. "I hope we're never in that position again, but since we are, we need to take advantage of it. I know when you say it's critical and there's pressure you're right. In that respect, it's a big deal for us. We need to do it."
Nix reiterated the recent comments by coach Chan Gailey on the Bills' quarterback situation. They believe they can win with Ryan Fitzpatrick but they will keep all their options open in the draft.
"We certainly like Fitz," Nix said. "[His performance] wasn't more than we expected because I knew Chan would get him to play better. We counted on that and he did. I really like him. I think he's got a lot of qualities you need. We just need to keep putting good players out there."
Do the Bills need to take a quarterback somewhere in the draft, or with the third pick?
"Yeah, probably," Nix said, referring to the draft in general. "To answer the question of third pick, whoever is there that we think is going to be a franchise impact player for us is the guy we'll draft. Where anybody thinks it makes sense [in terms of position], it doesn't matter to me. If it's a guy that we think long-term's an impact guy, no matter what the position, we'll take him."
How intrigued is Nix by Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, the Heisman Trophy winner and the one quarterback in the draft who might have No. 3 overall talent?
"We've done some work on him," Nix said. "We've got two more months to go, and that'll answer all the questions."
The Bills closed the season with back-to-back 31-point losses to the Patriots and the Jets. What did that say about how far Buffalo has to go?
"It says if you turn it over 13 times, you'll lose to a 4-A high school," Nix said. "I don't know what it tells you. We got a ways to go. They talk about the Jets playing their second team. We played our second and thirds, too. But it tells you something about our depth. We need more depth. We need more good players. We've said that all along."
The most encouraging thing about the season in Nix's eyes?
"I think we got competitive. That's the first step. You got to be able to compete with those guys. You look at the playoffs. I think six or seven of the final eight we played, and lost to maybe four of 'em by three points. So that part's encouraging. Now then you've got to learn to close those games and make the plays to win."
What needs to be done to fix the Bills' 32nd-ranked run defense?
"I'll tell you one thing, if we're ever gonna win, we gotta fix it," Nix said. "You don't win if you don't, and you don't have to worry about them throwing it because they won't throw it until you make 'em. We've gotta do that, and some of it is to get bigger and stronger. We had 13 guys on IR. I think seven of 'em were linebackers. We had gotten small around there -- 225- and 230-pound linebackers -- and it's hard to stop the run with that. We gotta get bigger."
The Bills' defense started the season with a three-man line but played four down linemen most of the second half of the year. Gailey said he expects the team will use multiple fronts next year. Nix said that will not change the way the Bills scout players. They still will be looking for prospects to fit the 3-4 scheme.
"We can't start over every year. You can not do that. We're a 3-4. We're scouting for a 3-4. And if we wind up with people we need to play in a four-man front some, we will. Now I think that's really what everybody [in a 3-4 scheme] does. But you gotta have a goal that this is what you're trying to get to defensively."
Nix said he was encouraged by the play of rookie defensive linemen Torell Troup and Alex Carrington and thinks they will play more next year.
"I think they're both going to be good players," he said. "Carrington didn't play as much as we'd have liked him to, but toward the end of the year he was gettin' it."
On the other side of the trench, Nix expressed optimism about the talent on board. Wood started the last four games last season at center and looked good in place of injured Geoff Hangartner. Wood started the first 20 games of his Bills career at guard. But the Bills are inclined to put Wood back at his most natural position.
"We think Eric Wood was the best center in the draft coming out [in 2009], and obviously he wasn't healthy [last season]," Nix said. "But when he gets healthy there's a good chance that's where he'll be."
What does that mean for Hangartner?
"We'll just see. We'll play the best ones," Nix said.
Nix thinks the Bills enhanced their depth on the offensive line with the in-season acquisitions of Kraig Urbik, Chad Rinehart, Erik Pears and Mansfield Wrotto. All but Wrotto, due to be a free agent, are under contract.
"We picked up two third-rounders in Urbik and Rinehart, and Wrotto was a fourth-rounder. Then we got Pears who started at tackle for two years against us at Denver [when Nix was in San Diego]. We got bigger and we got better and we got younger."
Bell started all 16 games at left tackle despite the fact his rehabilitation from knee surgery caused him to miss all offseason work and part of training camp.
"Listen, there's one thing about that guy that we know for sure, he won't bail out on you, because if he was going to he would have done it this year," Nix said. "He played hurt the whole year. He'll get stronger and be healthy and be a good player."
It's no surprise that Nix expects Merriman to be healthy. The Bills signed the veteran linebacker to a two-year contract extension just before the season finale. Nix said Merriman's rehabilitation from a chronic Achilles tendon injury is going well.
"People said when we picked him up on waivers, he'll never play a down there, he will not sign with Buffalo, he doesn't like Buffalo, you can't sign him. But we did," Nix said. "He can be the catalyst that makes everybody else better on that side of the ball -- if he can get healthy."