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History says Ryan’s Bills are thinking defense first

For Bills fans, it must have felt like crashing a wedding. You ate and drank and tried your best to seem interested, but you had no emotional investment in the festivities.

That’s what happens when you’re without a first-round pick on the opening night of the NFL Draft, an event so bloated with analysis and manufactured intrigue that they limit it to 32 selections.

If it were up to me, the NFL would go back to two rounds on the first night of the draft, which would make it reasonably certain that every team would be part of the hype and hoopla.

Down at One Bills Drive, the media settled in and joked about the lack of excitement, on the remote possibility that Doug Whaley would deal away more assets to trade into this year’s first round.

It’s too bad the Bills couldn’t have spiced up the evening somehow. How about bringing out Rex Ryan to comment on other teams’ drafts?

Given time, I’m sure Ryan could have been persuaded to guarantee a playoff berth, or at least one win over the hated Patriots. Maybe he could have led a parade over to the Big Tree for a few beers.

Terry Pegula could have trotted out his hockey people for an end-of-season news conference. They could have talked about their likely first-round stud, Jack Eichel, or explained why they raised ticket prices after the worst season in franchise history.

But we had to settle for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s stilted pronouncements and the breathless commentary of the national analysts, who enlightened us with the revelation that Jameis Winston had “all the skills” and “great upside.”

Goodell actually announced Marcus Mariota as “Marioto” when the Oregon quarterback was taken by the Titans with the second pick.

There were no huge surprises Thursday, though the Jets got a gift when defensive tackle Leonard Williams, considered by many experts the best talent in the draft, fell to them at sixth overall.

Ryan’s former team might have the best defensive line in the league, which will make it difficult to execute his “ground and pound” running attack against the Jets twice a year.

Something tells me the Bills will also go with defense Friday night when they finally make the 50th overall pick at the 80th annual “Player Selection Meeting.”

I’m no draft guru, but I know my Bills draft history. If they go offense with their first pick, it will break a drafting pattern that extends all the way back to 1998, before the current 15-year playoff drought began.

Since Marv Levy retired, the Bills have hired six new head coaches (not counting Perry Fewell’s seven-game stint). Their first draft pick has been on the new coach’s side of the football every time.

When Levy departed before the 1998 season, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips took over as the head man. The Bills used their first pick in that draft (a second-rounder) on linebacker Sam Cowart.

Gregg Williams, another longtime defensive mind, replaced Phillips in 2001. That year, the Bills’ first two picks were on cornerback Nate Clements and defensive end Aaron Schobel.

Mike Mularkey, an offensive guy, took over for Williams in 2004. The first pick? Wide receiver Lee Evans at No. 13 overall. Looking to a post-Drew Bledsoe era, they moved up for quarterback J.P. Losman later in the first round.

Dick Jauron, a conservative defensive coach, arrived two years later. Their first five picks were defensive players that year.

Chan Gailey showed up to save the offense in 2010. Naturally, the Bills reached for a running back, C.J. Spiller.

In Doug Marrone’s first draft two years ago, their first two picks (EJ Manuel and Robert Woods) were offensive players. Their first two picks last year were also on offense.

Maybe the trend is due to change. Ryan inherited a very good, if slightly overrated, defense. They re-signed pass rusher Jerry Hughes. Prevailing wisdom says their greatest needs are at guard and quarterback.

I wouldn’t quarrel if they identified a QB they felt could be their franchise guy. Whaley admits the Bills don’t have a proven franchise QB. They’re not going to be a legitimate title contender until they find one.

But you can’t discount history, or the football vision of the man driving the operation. Ryan says Buffalo will be his last head job. He feels the pressure to prove himself after his fall from grace in New York. He wants to win now.

Ryan is a defensive savant with a fumbling feel for the offensive side of his profession. It’s central to the Ryan mythology that you can win big with a dominant defense and power running game.

So in Ryan’s world, you never have enough disruptive edge rushers, or lock-down cornerbacks, or agile linebackers with menace in their hearts. If your philosophy is based on defense, you’re always looking to get better and deeper.

The Bills aren’t deep at edge rusher behind Hughes and Mario Williams, whose massive contract will be a drag on the salary structure before long. The draft is deep in pass rushers and one of them (Eli Harold, Owamagbe Odighizuma) could fall to them.

They could also use depth at inside linebacker to replace Brandon Spikes, perhaps Benardrick McKinney or Denzel Perryman. And of course, Ryan is always looking for gifted corners who can play man-to-man behind his aggressive front seven.

The Bills might have a quarterback they covet on the board at No. 50. Whaley said there might be a Russell Wilson type in this draft, someone who could compete for the starting job right away.

But that would mean Whaley was ready to give up on Manuel, just two years after drafting him in the first round and one year after moving up for Sammy Watkins to help him succeed. It’s hard to imagine a QB that talented lasting until 50.

So I’m figuring a defensive player at 50. That is, unless they trade back and drag this infernal process out even further.


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