The Senior Bowl wrapped up Saturday in Mobile, Ala., with the South beating the North, 27-10. So who stood out all week? What are people saying about the Buffalo Bills?
Here are 10 takeaways...
1. NFL GM’s torn on Bills’ direction. The stands during Senior Bowl Week is typically a mix of contenders and complete rebuilders. It’s the first time many coaching staffs work together for the first time — hence the hearty embrace when Doug Pederson saw coordinator Frank Reich before the first practice. And it’s a chance for those on top to stay on top.
The Buffalo Bills? They’re somewhere in-between after extending Doug Whaley’s contract as general manager. In chatting with various personnel men, opinions on the Bills are all over.
One NFL G.M. applauded the Bills’ owners for staying patient in an impatient game. So many organizations panic and succumb to public pressure, he explained. He saw this as a refreshing change, the fact that the Pegulas would stand by Whaley.
Another G.M. had a much different take on Buffalo’s current predicament. He sees a team still unsure at the most important position (quarterback) and very, very tight up against the salary cap. To him, this was a team stuck in 8-8 limbo.
In time, the Bills will find out if doubling down on Whaley and Rex Ryan was the right call.
2. Carson Wentz interest seems genuine. Whaley said the Bills would “absolutely” be open to drafting a quarterback in the early rounds. If 6-foot-5, 233-pound Carson Wentz keeps this up — and he impresses at the combine, pro day, interviews, etc. — chances are he won’t be available at No. 19 overall. Buffalo has visited the North Dakota State campus as much as any team in the NFL. He’s a starkly different brand of quarterback than the mobile Tyrod Taylor.
And through the week, Wentz routinely stuck back-shoulder throws, deep outs, everything a scout could want.
Of course, everyone should still take a deep breath on the topic.
Let’s just keep a few things in mind on Wentz. 1.) The QB himself admitted the defensive looks all week in practice were vanilla—nothing he didn’t see back in college. How will he react to more disguise? Let alone that disguise coming from more elite athletes? 2.) Experience. He has only started three years at quarterback in high school and college combined. In four years at NDSU, he threw 612 passes. By comparison, Memphis’ Paxton Lynch threw 1,205 and Cal’s Jared Goff threw 1,568. 3.) Is there something else we don’t know? It’s still bizarre that Wentz slipped through the cracks to the FCS level, even with a late growth spurt.
FCS (formerly Division I-AA) quarterbacks have found success in the pros—Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Dallas’ Tony Romo beat the odds.
The guess here is that the Bills draft a quarterback at some point, but take the best available front-seven player on defense at 19.
3. Braxton Miller impresses, but… By now, you’ve seen or read about the Ohio State wide receiver’s dynamite week. He cut in and out of routes as quick as any receiver at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. CBS Sports projects Miller as a second- or third-round pick — impressive considering Miller just switched from QB to WR last year and had only 25 receptions last season.
But he’s still raw. One drill showed that Miller still needs some work vs. the jam. Cornerbacks will get physical with him at the line of scrimmage.
And is he the best fit for the Bills? They have thought outside the box before at wide receiver in taking the burner T.J. Graham 69th overall, the even-faster track star Marquise Goodwin 78th overall, the 6-foot-5 James Hardy 41st overall and signing Brad Smith to a four-year, $15 million contract.
The Bills have made it clear publicly they want another wide receiver but someone a bit more polished might be their best bet.
4. Pressure on Rex ‘n Rob: Asked if he saw the need for tweaks or two, three, four new starters on defense, Whaley did not hesitate. He sees the return of Kyle Williams, Aaron Williams and Nigel Bradham as essential to a turnaround, adding there’s no need for an overhaul.
Said Whaley, “I think we just need to add some depth and guys who can contribute right away.”
So that means it’s mostly on the Ryan brothers to fix Buffalo’s defense. If the personnel isn’t going to change, the coaches need to maximize the talent in house. They didn’t last year.
Rex let the Bills down, Rob let the Saints down. Now the Bills are hoping reuniting the embattled twins helps cure all.
“If you look at it, Rob and Rex, they’ve had some troubles," Whaley said. "Their name is kind of like, ‘Hey, they’re the Ryans, what happened to their defense?’ So why not bring in your brother and try to reclaim that name? That’s the way I look at it. And who’s going to have your back more than your brother? I think it’s a positive. I know it’s a positive. Everybody in the building feels it’s a positive. It’s a positive for Rex, too. It can help him expand his horizons as the head coach and get into some other things.”
5. Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington might be a steal at RB. He’s all of 5 foot 7, 199 pounds but Washington runs with pop. He looked like a player who could contribute right away — in some capacity — in Mobile. In Saturday’s game he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and often gained the corner during the week of practice. Last season, Washington blew up for 1,492 yards on 233 attempts (6.4 avg.) with 14 touchdowns. He’ll be a late-round option for all teams.
Don’t count on the Bills drafting another running back — they have LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams, Mike Gillislee, James Wilder Jr. and Boobie Dixon — but anything is possible.
6. S Darian Thompson stands out. He’s very big (6-2, 215), yet very fluid in coverage. Those players are rare. Considering Aaron Williams said he’ll still need to see how his neck responds in training camp, maybe the Bills consider safety early on after all. Thompson had 12 interceptions the last two seasons and you could see why during 7 on 7 and 11 on 11, as he broke on the ball. He’ll stick his nose into the run game, too, totally 8.5 tackles for loss last season. The issue? He was known for taking risks at Boise State, giving up 10 touchdowns in three seasons. That’s a concern in a secondary that had communication issues.
7. Best interview? Baby Gronk. No shock here. Glenn Gronkowski is a Gronkowski after all. Here’s our Sunday story in full. But one of the Gronk Boys’ favorite games as a kid? “We would put pillows in our shirts and just run full speed at each other. Whoever got knocked down lost.”
He’s a blend of fullback and tight end. Used primarily as a blocking fullback at K-State, Gronkowski had a chance to showcase his route running at the Senior Bowl and didn’t disappoint with a 34-yard reception up the seam in which he fully extended to make a nice grab.
8. Tall, long, disruptive pass rushers in high supply. Whether it’s Baylor’s scary Shawn Oakman (6-7, 269, 84 ½-inch wingspan), BYU’s smart Bronson Kaufusi (6-6, 281, 79-½ inch wingspan) or Penn State’s Carl Nassib (6-7, 273, 82 7/8-inch wingspan), who led the NCAA in sacks, this year’s senior class is full of long pass rushers.
Oakman seems like a Ryan type of guy and after an up-and-down week, he had two sacks in Saturday’s game.
Kaufusi played in a complex defense with 100-plus different blitzes.
And this is a draft with many different edge rushers.
Replacing Mario Williams at end will be easier said than done and the team could use an edge rusher—even on a situational basis—opposite Jerry Hughes. We’ll be tracking the options in the months leading up to the NFL draft.
9. Others who stood out. A few other players who helped themselves in Mobile…
Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence: The pre-draft interviews will be critical for Spence, who was banned from the Big 10 after muiltiple failed drug tests. Talent is not an issue. He was impossible to block at times in Mobile.
Ohio State TE Nick Vannett: Though he wasn’t featured much in the passing game in Urban Meyer’s offense (19 catches in each of the last two years), Vannett looked comfortable running routes downfield in practice and on Saturday (three catches, 58 yards). It’s hard to find complete tight ends in 2015. Vannett was used mostly as an in-line blocker with the Buckeyes and now teams know he can beat a linebacker 1 on 1 in the passing game.
LSU CB Jalen Mills: On Saturday, Mills broke up a potential touchdown. Earlier in the week, he did the same for a near-pick. The Tigers produce more NFL-caliber cornerbacks than any school in the country. Mills’ experience at safety and corner is appealing.
Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins: First-round prospect used an array of different pass-rush moves in 1 on 1’s. Explosive, large DT who could play the three- and five-technique in the pros.
10. How close are the Bills to contending for a Super Bowl? Here’s what Whaley had to say when I asked him that last week. Buffalo decided not to tear down the whole operation this offseason. They’re sticking with the core veterans and mostly sticking with their coaching staff.
So how close are they?
“I’ll leave you guys up to that. We’re just looking to do what we can to get better every day. There’s a saying—‘win the day.’ Every day we get up as an organization, let’s go in here, win this day and be the best we can be that day. Now, where those chips fall, we’re excited to see next year. But we have a long ways before we start that process.”