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Inside the NFL / Vic Carucci: Bills have few openings

With the bulk of the major work in free agency and trade markets complete, NFL teams now can turn their attention to the April 30-May 2 draft.

For some, such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and perhaps the Tennessee Titans, who own the top two picks, there still is the massive task of determining if they can find a franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston and/or Marcus Mariota – or swing a trade with another club that wants one of them as its long-term answer behind center.

Then, there are the Buffalo Bills. They have quarterback questions of their own, to be certain, but those will likely wait for at least another offseason to be answered … unless, of course, EJ Manuel or Matt Cassel were to suddenly show something special.

Otherwise, the Bills have plenty of reason to feel happy about what they’ve done through a very busy and, at least on the surface, highly productive offseason. There are plenty of observers around the league who think they’ve done as good a job as any team of making themselves better.

With one of the NFL’s top defenses already in place, the Bills focused on offensive needs and find themselves with a roster that would figure to utilize the draft mainly to acquire backups probably everywhere except guard.

“I think we invigorated the offense,” General Manager Doug Whaley said. “We’ve set it up where we can go anywhere in the draft just about and be happy with who we get. Because, if you look at it, in the second and third round, those guys are going to contribute, but besides guard, there’s not too many starting positions open.

“So when you look at our draft, let’s say, hypothetically, we take a guard with our first pick and he starts.” Players selected with “the third, fifth, the two sixths and the seventh” the Bills also have, “are going to have a hard time making our club – especially the fifth, sixth, and seventh guys who are most likely going to end up on the practice squad and are not going to be able to contribute.

“So our draft is going to look like, ‘They didn’t do anything, they’re not getting anything out of it.’ But it’s to the contrary. It’s, ‘We’ve got such a nice team right now with starters across the board.’

“That’s how we’re looking at it. That’s where we are as a team, which is a good feeling.”

So, too, is assembling a draft plan in the aftermath of trading for one of the best running backs in the game (LeSean McCoy), and signing other key contributors such as tight end Charles Clay, wide receiver Percy Harvin, and fullback Jerome Felton. Thanks to their aggressive approach to the offseason, during which they spent a reported NFL-leading $91.5 million in guaranteed money, the Bills have put themselves in position where the draft is much more about selecting the best available players than targeting positions.

Consequently, they expect their drafting to be a more accurate reflection of the final grades they place on each college prospect than would have been the case otherwise.

“When you have a distinct need, guys look a lot better and you tend to over-grade them and you have a bigger propensity to miss,” Whaley said. “Because you say, ‘Oh, this guy’s great because we need him.’

“But the way we’ve set it up in free agency is we have some positions that are areas of need, but it’s not that great of a need where we’re going to reach for a guy. So we can go across the board and you get a truer evaluation and you get a truer board when you don’t really have, ‘Oh, we’ve got to have this guard,’ or, ‘We’ve got to have this tackle,’ or, ‘We’ve got to have a running back.’ ”

Don’t look for the Bills to do any trading involving draft picks in an effort to get back into the first round, which they vacated for this year to move up for Sammy Watkins in 2014.

Don’t look for them to part with draft picks, period.

“Next year, we are going to be the Green Bay of free agency, we’re going to sign our own,” Whaley said. “So, with that, you want to keep all those draft choices because we’ve got to start getting those young guys in the pipeline – young, cheap guys, because we’re starting to get a lot of expensive guys. Not older, but mid-prime years, 26- to 27-year-old guys, so we’ve got to get those young guys in for ‘cheap labor,’ so when those guys get to 30 and plus, they’re in there and they can start taking over without us having to force a rookie to play.

“And that’s our goal, that’s our philosophy, to have those guys in for two or three years, have them on special teams and add depth. And when their number’s called, they’ve been in the system for a while and they’ll have less propensity to make mistakes.”

Reserving judgement

Mike Tannenbaum has been executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins for barely two months, so he never actually got to meet Clay.

Tannenbaum consulted for the Dolphins during last season, yet didn’t cross paths with the tight end who spent the last four years with Miami. Now, that isn’t likely to happen until the first of the two times the Dolphins face Clay’s new employer, the Bills, in the regular season. Earlier this month the Bills made a five-year, $38-million contract offer to Clay that Tannenbaum could have matched to retain him but chose not to.

“You never like to see a guy go in the division,” Tannenbaum said. “We put that” transition “tag on him because we thought that was in our best interests at the time we made the decision. … And we certainly had the right to match the offer sheet, so I would say, given the information then and where we are, we’re comfortable with the decision.

“With that said, I would tell you, like any draft choice or any other move, let’s revisit this conversation in two years, three years. Look at the values, the totality of the contracts, see how the ascending players play, see the production, see the money, and then we can look at the analysis in a couple of years.

“He did very well, but he’s a pass-receiving tight end. I have some familiarity with the head coach up there. He likes tight ends, so I’m not surprised by the interest Rex” Ryan “had in him.”

Familiar ground

Pete Carroll remembers the narrative after the Seattle Seahawks stomped all over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Would they be able to get back to the big game? Would they be able to repeat as champions?

One year later, the conversation has to do with whether they can recover from the devastating manner in which they lost Super Bowl XLIX: on a much-scrutinized pass from the New England 1-yard line that the Patriots intercepted in the end zone to preserve their 28-24 victory.

“It’s exactly the same challenge,” Carroll told reporters at the NFL meeting in Phoenix Wednesday. “The very next step you take, you have to get focused on it and maximize it. And that’s why I’m confident that this team is going to come back and … roar.

“We should be stronger. We should be better in a lot of areas. We are still a young team that’s maturing. It couldn’t be more exciting, really. And yeah, there’s this story” about losing the Super Bowl, “but that’s already done. Hopefully, we can surprise you again.”

How long did it take Carroll to get over the loss?

“I’m over it,” he said. “I’m way over that.”

Camera shy

You have to wonder if “Hard Knocks,” the HBO series that follows an NFL team through training camp each summer, has run its course.

Each year, there seems to be more teams that don’t want to be a part of it than the ones that do. That’s why the league felt the need to put rules in place that allow it to actually force teams that don’t have a first-year coach, haven’t made the playoffs in one of the previous two seasons, and have not appeared on “Hard Knocks” in the last 10 years to participate.

The NFL would prefer volunteers, and by most accounts, it doesn’t have any because clubs are squeamish about being surrounded by NFL Films crews capturing all the behind-the-scenes elements of preparing for a season. The league approached the Bills, even though they have a new coach in Rex Ryan, and owners Terry and Kim Pegula said no.

The NFL is known to want to feature the Cleveland Browns, whose offseason has been loaded with drama. And that is one of the reasons their second-year coach, Mike Pettine, said they wouldn’t volunteer. However, the NFL still could made the Browns take part in “Hard Knocks” by June, when HBO wants to have production plans locked in place.

As much as I have enjoyed watching the series, it seems silly to think that a club is participating under protest. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a coach or player, for that matter, tell me how much he enjoyed his “Hard Knocks” experience, which probably is why it is so unpopular with the people it features.

Of course, they aren’t the ones who have the final say. That’s up to the people who run the teams … and run the league.


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