MOBILE, Ala. – The Buffalo Bills are going to need a pass rusher.
Mario Williams isn’t gone yet, but by all accounts, he’s as good as gone. And the Bills don’t have an obvious replacement for the veteran defensive end on their roster.
That’s one of the reasons this year’s NFL Draft is considered as crucial as any the Bills have had in recent years. They aren’t merely looking for the best available players, even if that is the company line they’ll recite between now and when the moment of truth arrives on April 28, the start of the three-day lottery. They have specific spots to fill – places that are more likely to be addressed with rookies than costly free agents, because they don’t have the salary cap space for larger investments.
The good news for the Bills is that this is a good year for them to be seeking an edge rusher, at either end or outside linebacker.
At the Senior Bowl Tuesday, General Manager Doug Whaley called the depth of the draft “very intriguing” and listed the defensive line among the deeper positions that should allow for a good player to be selected into the fourth round.
As was well documented through the frustrations of their 8-8 finish in 2015, the Bills do not have a one-size-fits-all defense. Rex Ryan’s scheme requires pass-rushers who understand that their roles go beyond simply tearing after the quarterback, and some of them, such as Williams, never got that – or wanted to get it. They sometimes must drop into coverage. And they’re always playing within the concept of all 11 defensive players making plays rather than one end or outside linebacker piling up sacks.
“For us, it all just depends on how we see them, meaning how do they do what they do,” Whaley said. “Some guys are going to be more 3-4 outside-linebacker pass-rushers and there are some guys that are going to be 4-3 defensive-end outside pass-rushers. And the best thing about Rex and his staff is they just say, ‘Get us the best players and we’ll make sure we can fit them in with what we do.’
“So we’re excited about that and that opens up so much for us instead of just confining the thought process to one certain guy that’s got to be XX and Z.”
What every guy must be, however, is smart enough to handle the complexities of the scheme. For that reason, veteran players who have experience in the scheme are preferred, but they tend to be expensive.
Therefore, drafting must be done with an eye toward rookies who either have had at least a small taste of what the defense entails or are exceptionally quick studies.
“It’s very unique, it’s very intricate,” Whaley said of Ryan’s scheme. “The only (college) team that I think (is a close comparison) would be Alabama and a little bit of Stanford. It’s not going to be as diverse as what Rex does, but they’ll at least have a background.”
Aside from selecting only Alabama or Stanford defensive ends or outside linebackers, the Bills’ criteria for edge rushers is to look for those with a high football IQ.
Whaley said it has become more important than ever in the team’s evaluation process.
“It’s very important,” Whaley said. “We’ve done some studies and most of the time (when) we’ve missed on guys, it’s either been heart or smarts. You always do a thorough research. Our college scouts have been looking at these guys for almost a year, they’ve talked to their coaches.
“These types of settings are great because they can get in and interview them. And also, (at) the (NFL Scouting) Combine, we’ll have them come in our room and we’ll interview them and then have them watch football and say, ‘Hey, what was your take on this? What were you asked to do?’ See their recall, and then if we need further (background), then we can bring them in for a visit. The (intelligence) part of it, we hammer all the way to the end.”
An interesting case study is Reggie Ragland, a linebacker who was integral to Alabama’s recent national-championship season.
Ragland played inside linebacker at Alabama, but at 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, he has the size, speed and athleticism (he dunked a basketball in sixth grade) to play outside. And that is where he is working on the South team defense at the Senior Bowl.
On Tuesday, Ragland had his first full practice, under the guidance of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coaching staff, at outside linebacker. For the most part, he did well, but there were some rough moments.
“It’s going to take me about another day or so to get used to it and just settle down, but for the first day, I did a good job of it,” Ragland said. “(The biggest challenge is) reading my keys, because my keys are different from inside. So once I get that down and keep looking at my keys and being consistent about that, I think I have a good chance of doing a great job.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban recently described Ragland as a top-15 pick. Ragland is humble about the praise. “It feels great, but I’ve got to put myself in a position to stay in the top 15, if I am a top-15 pick,” he said. “There are a lot of guys that are top 15, top 10 or whatever, so I just want to make sure I’m keeping myself in the same position as those guys.”
One less heralded edge rusher who turned plenty of heads Tuesday was Brandon Kaufusi, a 6-7, 265-pound defensive end from BYU. He showed exceptional quickness off the ball and consistently got around tackles before they could fully get out of their stances.
“I love getting after the quarterback, getting that ball out (quicker than the quarterback wants to release it),” Kaufusi said. “Also, I’m someone who’s versatile. I feel like I can rush (from) anywhere along the front. And I’ll do whatever it takes to get after the quarterback.”
Sounds like someone who should have the Bills’ attention.