This is a critical draft for the Buffalo Bills. There’s not much money to spend in free agency, yet help is needed to lift an 8-8 team into true contention. Quite possibly, the team will need to uncover another three contributors out of this year's draft after hitting on Ronald Darby, Karlos Williams and John Miller a year ago.
So we start the offseason here in Mobile, Ala., where Senior Bowl practices begin Tuesday. Keep the BN Blitz Blog refreshed all week.
Here are 10 players the Bills should keep an eye on...
QB Carson Wentz, North Dakota State: One of the great mysteries in this year’s draft, Wentz shredded lower-level competition for 1,651 yards, 17 touchdowns and only four picks in his seven starts last fall. At 6 foot 5, 235 pounds, he’s built like a prototypical pocket passer and can rip throws into tight windows. And at the FCS level, anyway, he was required to read the entire field. Now, scouts will want to see Wentz do it all against better competition day in, day out during the week of practice. He might be able to solidify first-round status in Mobile. Either way, the Bills will be watching. They're not willing to extend their Pro Bowl quarterback long term quite yet and, really, should start drafting quarterbacks annually. The Bills have taken four since Jim Kelly retired in 1997. Is Wentz worth developing? Seeing him up close this week helps.
QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: As a dual threat against the nation's best defenses, Prescott threw for 7,242 yards, rushed for 1,574 and scored 80 total touchdowns his final two seasons. He's a bruiser in the open field --- Prescott can run through linebackers. Now, is he the next Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, somewhere in-between? Scouts will want to see him quickly work through progressions as a passer this week. A very intriguing project who put his college program on the national stage.
WR Braxton Miller, Ohio State: All eyes will be on the electric QB-turned-WR. The transition was smooth in 2014 as Miller’s athleticism often overwhelmed defenses in a blur. He had 601 yards from scrimmage on 68 touches (43 runs, 25 receptions). Now, the challenge is harnessing all of his speed, his lightning-quick misdirection into NFL route running. One-on-one drills vs. cornerbacks this week will be important for Miller. And as the Bills have made very clear — they’re looking for a wide receiver this off-season. Maybe offensive coordinator Greg Roman imagines using Miller in a Percy Harvin-like role. In the slot. Out wide. In the backfield.
WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma: Probably the best wide receiver in Mobile. In 2015, Shepard blew up with 86 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns in 13 games. Finished with the second-most receiving yards in Oklahoma history. The last two drafts are full proof that receivers from spread offenses like Oklahoma’s are more than ready to take on a NFL playbook. The 2014 group might’ve been the best ever with Odell Beckham Jr., Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, John Brown, Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Donte Moncrief and Martavis Bryant all breaking out. And the encore this past season wasn’t bad, either. In 2015, four rookies had at least 50 receptions and five had 500-plus yards. Whoever lines up opposite Watkins next season is going to see plenty of single coverage.
OLB Kyler Fackrell, Utah State: The hunt for a hair-on-fire pass rusher opposite Jerry Hughes is on for the Bills, too — head coach Rex Ryan could use another prolific edge rusher in his defense. And if the conference title games showed us anything, it’s that applying heat on the quarterback is more important than ever. The Denver Broncos flustered Tom Brady all game long with 20 hits. Fackrell’s tape stands out. First on his team with 15 tackles for loss, first in the country with five fumble recoveries. He also had a school-record 12 QB hurries.
DE Shawn Oakman, Baylor: You’ve seen the picture: Oakman’s claim to fame is this terrifying still shot from a 2014 coin toss. He’s a mountain of a man at 6 foot 9, 275 pounds. But can he play? Oakman totaled 43 tackles (14.5 for loss), 4.5 sacks, eight QB hurries and two forced fumbles last season. One scout, however, said he wouldn’t even draft Oakman in the first three rounds. Extremely tall and bulky in his upper body, Oakman has a thin lower body. Thus, it remains to be seen how he’ll hold up against NFL linemen. He didn’t have many different pass rush moves in college, so he'll certainly need to be coached up at the next level. Any team that drafts Oakman is banking on his raw, rare physical traits. He’ll be one to track during one-on-one pass rushing drills.
ILB Reggie Ragland, Alabama: Took control of Nick Saban’s defense from C.J. Mosley, who has since blossomed in his two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. A good sign. Buffalo must decide whether or not Preston Brown is the man to run their defense. It’s not Brown’s fault that plays come into his headset late. But while repeating he wants to be back — pointing to late-season compromise as a breakthrough — Brown also wasn't so sure himself if he'd be starting inside again. Ryan probably will be keeping his options open. He’ll practice at OLB this week but would project best inside in Ryan’s defense. He’s instinctive. On the national champion Crimson Tide, Ragland was an unanimous All-American in finishing with 102 tackles. A very real possibility for Buffalo at No. 19 overall.
DE Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky: A wild story. The ex-Buckeye was banned from the Big Ten after multiple failed drug tests. Urban Meyer’s first five-star recruit was forced to watch the Buckeyes’ national title win from home, before then picking up the pieces at FCS Eastern Kentucky. He opens up about the whole ordeal here. At 6-3, 261, he’s another pass-rushing option for the Bills — Spence had l1.5 sacks, 22.5 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits in 11 games. And we all know Ryan loves giving players second chances (see: Enemkpali, IK).
ILB Antonio Morrison, Florida: Shredded multiple ligaments in his knee in Florida’s 2014 bowl game — including his ACL — yet returned to total 96 tackles (11 for loss) in 2015. Very talented and plays with an edgy temperament. Nine months to the day of his devastating injury, Morrison had 16 tackles (3.5 for loss) in rout of Ole Miss. The Gators weren’t even sure Morrison would be ready to play in the season opener when preseason camp began in August, yet Morrison played and played well.
S Darian Thompson, Boise State: Will Aaron Williams be a go in 2016? The Bills hope so. And Williams himself sounds hell-bent on resuming his NFL career after a scary neck injury. Either way, the Bills will need to add a rangy, playmaking safety at some point this offseason and Thompson may be the best bet in Mobile. He had 19 interceptions in four years with the Broncos with 8.5 tackles for lost as a senior. Safeties who cover a lot of ground, and can cover receivers one on one from Day 1, are difficult to find.