When a team has missed the playoffs for 16 straight years, its list of draft needs is understandably long.
That's the situation the Buffalo Bills find themselves in this offseason. Complicating matters is a lack of salary-cap space. That means it's less likely the Bills will be able to fill those needs prior to April's draft. Bills General Manager Doug Whaley continually preaches the "best player available" philosophy, but it's unlikely he'll be able to stick to that completely at the draft. Whaley might be be able to re-sign some of his team's own free agents, which would change the order of the team's needs, but not necessarily eliminate them.
Here is how we would currently prioritize those needs:
1. Defensive end
Technically, Mario Williams is still a member of the team, but it's only a matter of time until he's sent on his way. That will open a big hole on Buffalo's defensive line. Ideally, the player who replaces Williams will be able to both provide a pass rush and be stout against the run. Those types of players are valuable commodities, which is why it would make sense if the Bills were to use their first-round draft pick, No. 19 overall, on the position.
2. Inside linebacker
This is one of the needs that could change depending on what the Bills do in free agency. If Nigel Bradham is re-signed, the need lessens, but wouldn't go away completely. In that case, depth in the middle rounds would make more sense than using a first- or second-round draft pick at the position. If Bradham leaves, however, then picking a linebacker as high as No. 19 overall is certainly an option.
3. Edge rusher
Jerry Hughes will be back as the primary pass rusher in 2016, but the Bills need some help behind him. Last season, IK Enemkpali was brought in to provide that, but he was a non-factor. With the Ryan brothers planning to run their 3-4 defense, outside linebacker is likely the position the Bills will look for in the draft to find players who can get after the quarterback.
4. Wide receiver
Whaley has talked this offseason about needing to upgrade the team's No. 2 receiver position, so the team clearly views it as a priority. I wouldn't rank it ahead of rebuilding the front seven of the defense, though. If the Bills bring Percy Harvin back, it might lessen the draft need. Counting on Harvin, however, is a risky proposition given his injury history. If the Bills wanted to find a receiver with a similar skill set, it would not be a surprise if they addressed the position with a second- or third-round draft pick.
5. Right tackle
The Bills started three different players – Seantrel Henderson, Cyrus Kouandjio and Jordan Mills – at this spot in 2015, but none of them distinguished themselves. The good news is, all three of them should be back to compete for the job again, provided Henderson checks out physically as he deals with Crohn's disease and Mills, who is a restricted free agent, is re-signed. If those things happen, the Bills will at least have options. They could add a rookie draft pick to the mix, as well, but the pressure to do so in the early rounds isn't there.
The urgency here decreased this week when Whaley said that he expects Aaron Williams to be ready for next season. He also indicated that the plan is for Buffalo native Corey Graham to return in 2016, which would give the Bills their opening-day lineup from 2015 back. If the team re-signs restricted free agent Bacarri Rambo, they would have some depth, too. It's possible that Ryan wants his own type of safety to run the defense, but asking a rookie to come in and do that, even if he is a first-round pick, would put quite a bit of pressure on that player.
Obviously, this need depends on what the team feels about Tyrod Taylor as the long-term answer at the position. If General Manager Doug Whaley thinks Taylor can be the guy, taking a quarterback early in the draft wouldn't be smart. If there is still some doubt, however, then this becomes need No. 1 and Whaley should pull the trigger on a quarterback he likes – even if that means at No. 19 overall. Yes, the Bills whiffed on the position the last time they addressed it in the first round with EJ Manuel in 2013, but that doesn't mean they should stop trying.
8. Tight end
The depth chart behind starter Charles Clay remains wide open – just as it was heading into the 2015 season. Given that Clay eats up most of the playing time at the position, however, it's hard to see the Bills prioritizing tight end early in the draft. A late-round pick who could compete with Nick O'Leary, Chris Gragg and MarQueis Gray for playing time would be more likely. A true blocking tight end could also fill a role, but those are becoming an increasingly endangered species in college football.