MOBILE, Ala. – The timing appears just right for the Buffalo Bills to be looking for a big-play receiving complement to Sammy Watkins.
The NFL Draft figures to have several good ones available within the first three or four rounds, even while the Bills consider other needs such as defensive end/outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and perhaps quarterback.
The Senior Bowl, alone, had five receivers widely regarded among the top 20 prospects at the position: Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma, Braxton Miller of Ohio State, Paul McRoberts of Southeast Missouri State, Aaron Burbridge of Michigan State, and Malcolm Mitchell of Georgia.
“The draft, in all, is maybe not as top-heavy as years past, but the depth of it is very intriguing, especially on the defensive line position, the quarterback position, and the wide receivers,” Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said early last week in Mobile.
Add underclassmen to the mix, and the possibilities become even more intriguing as the Bills set out to replace Robert Woods in the No. 2 receiver spot behind Watkins.
Miller drew the most attention of the receivers at the Senior Bowl for two major reasons: he made a high-profile conversion from quarterback before his final season at Ohio State and, although he caught only two passes for 8 yards in the North’s 27-16 Senior Bowl loss against the South on Saturday, he was one of the more impressive performers in practice.
So was Shepard, despite the fact he didn’t catch a pass Saturday. In fact, he was voted the Senior Bowl’s Practice Player of the Week, using his exceptional speed to consistently burn defensive backs on deep routes.
And practice showings here are what carry the most weight with NFL talent evaluators because they provide the earliest indications of how the players handle pro-style coaching and react to a variety of circumstances that might not always arise during the game.
Some draft analysts see Miller and Shepard being chosen in the second or third round. Miller has the thinner body of work as a receiver, and NFL teams that have him on their radar would likely look to incorporate him in various packages that involve throwing and running as well as receiving.
McRoberts and Burbridge, each of whom caught a touchdown pass Saturday, look to be in the third- and/or fourth-round category, while Mitchell carries a fourth-round tag.
Shepard is more of a pure, big-play target. He finished his Sooner career with 223 receptions for 3,482 yards and 26 touchdowns. As a senior, he was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver.
Asked last week what he believes he can bring to the NFL, Shepard said, “Just big plays and I’m a guy that loves to make them. And I’m going to find a way to get it done. That’s the main thing I’m going to bring – good hands, after-the-catch speed, big plays.”
At 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds, he does not have the ideal size most NFL teams desire. Yet, he doesn’t consider that an impediment. Shepard believes he can use his tremendous speed to make enough of an impact from the slot, his projected primary position as a pro, as well as the outside.
“Height’s not an issue to me,” he said. “I play bigger than I look. That’s never been anything that’s popped in my brain and made me play any different. That’s something that people look at, but guys around the league are kind of helping my case like (5-11) Odell Beckham and (5-10) Antonio Brown.”
Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys’ coaching staff put the North team through an intensive week of work (including highly competitive one-on-one matchup periods), while Gus Bradley and his South assistants focused on a detail-oriented approach that was heavier on instruction.
“There’s nothing too small that you don’t need to know,” Mitchell said of his biggest takeaway from the Senior Bowl. “It’s all very detailed. You’ve got to make sure you use all your fundamentals and techniques that let you know you’re doing it correctly.”
For his college career, the 5-11, 194-pound Mitchell caught 174 passes for 2,350 yards and 16 touchdowns. NFL scouts like the way he explodes out of his breaks, eludes tacklers, and uses his considerable strength to fight for the ball and rip through would-be tacklers.
“To be completely honest, I think I am one of the top receivers in our class,” Mitchell said. “There’s always room to improve, so I’m not saying I’m perfect and I have everything down. But I definitely think I can compete at any level when put side-by-side with anybody.”
Then, there is KJ Maye of Minnesota. He might have been as intriguing as any prospect at the Senior Bowl.
Maye, who is from Mobile, stands only 5-8 and is seen as a sixth- or seventh-round pick. Yet, he appeared to do himself some favors with his practice performances by showing good speed and running fairly precise routes. He also had two receptions Saturday, but for only 6 yards.
“I feel like I can make a big impact in the NFL,” Maye said. “Just watching the way they use slots these days, it’s a man-to-man league, and if you’ve got that good quickness and you can beat coverage, you’ll be able to play in the league.
“I don’t have a big name like a lot of guys, but this week was important, just to make sure people know who I am and make sure people know what kind of player I am. I feel like I fit in pretty well as one of the top guys.”