Having tapped out of the free-agent market due to a severe shortage of salary-cap space, the Buffalo Bills are left to address their biggest needs from a far more economical source: next month’s NFL Draft.
Fortunately for the Bills, it appears to be a good year to be looking for help on their defensive line, which figures to be their top priority.
It would make sense to assume they’d target a pass-rushing end to replace Mario Williams, whom they recently released, but it also would fail to account for the broader thinking that’s likely to go into making the pick.
Rather than looking to fill the Williams void with another player at his position, the Bills seemingly would be more inclined to go with an interior defensive lineman with the 19th overall choice. Besides dealing with what’s widely presumed to be one of the stronger areas of the draft, they also would get the exact sort of player Rex Ryan wants for the considerable shuffling he loves to do upfront.
“In Rex’s defense, he can tweak and make a defensive tackle a defensive end and have success,” NFL.com draft analyst and former Bills wide receiver Bucky Brooks said.
Ryan didn’t have that sort of success with his line (or defensive success of almost any kind) last season. Williams despised his role, which called for him to frequently drop into coverage, and became enough of a malcontent to make it easy for the Bills to jettison him and his $12.9 million in cap space. Now, he’s the Miami Dolphins’ problem.
None of the other starters contributed all that much, either. After receiving a contract that made him the second-highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL, Marcell Dareus was mostly lost in a scheme that sometimes asked him to shift to the outside to play contain and sometimes asked him to drop into coverage. Fellow tackle Kyle Williams also had difficulty adjusting to Ryan’s defense before suffering a knee injury that caused him to miss the final 10 games of the season.
Those could very well be cited as reasons for Ryan’s decision, oddly timed as it was, to fire defensive line coach Karl Dunbar on Sunday. The Bills reportedly plan to replace Dunbar with John Blake, according to the website footballscoop.com.
But the combination of Ryan and his twin brother, Rob, the Bills’ assistant head coach/defense, could very well drive the selection of one of the several tackles who look to have the versatility to play inside and outside. Both Ryans place a high premium on that quality.
Among the defensive tackle prospects who could be available when the Bills choose are Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, Mississippi’s Robert Nkemdiche, and Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins.
Ends, such as Clemson’s Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, and Oklahoma State’s Emmanuel Ogbah are also strong considerations because they, too, have plenty of versatility.
“Those are guys that Rex could be fascinated with,” Brooks said. “You look at what he did in New York with Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, some of those guys, where he can take those guys and move them maybe over tackle to guard to help that pass-rush ability, while giving them an inside presence as well.
“He’s proven that he can take (defensive tackles) and put them at defensive end. And that defense is a hybrid 3-4. I think a lot of times we get caught up in, ‘Well, what is it? Is it a 3-4? Is it a 4-3?’ Really, most of the time, people are playing nickel. So what are the four best defensive linemen I can put on the field to come back to the passer?”
A minimum of two should come from tackle, where the Bills have one fewer player by parting ways with Stefan Charles by not giving him a contract tender offer after he became a restricted free agent.
The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Robinson, for one, sees himself as being highly effective wherever he plays on the line. He believes his athleticism, combined with tremendous power, sets him apart from the rest of the draft’s players at his position.
With the Crimson Tide, Robinson routinely alternated between 4-3 and 3-4 schemes.
“I mean, I played it all at Alabama,” he said. “(Being) able to move up and down the line as much as we did really helped me and help (NFL) teams get insight into what I can do.”
Rankins is another player who would seem to merit a good, long look from the Bills. At a little over 6-1, he’s a tad shorter than what would be considered ideal for his position, but like Robinson, he is a superb athlete and carries his 299 pounds well.
He helped himself considerably with a dominant performance during practices before last January’s Senior Bowl, winning virtually every one-on-one matchup. Some analysts think that he will be gone well before the Bills pick, but he does look like as good a fit as any prospective defensive linemen for what the Ryans like to do.
“I feel like I’m versatile enough to play in any scheme,” Rankins said at the Combine. “I feel like I’m versatile enough to play all up and down the defensive line. I feel like I’m intelligent enough to grasp just about any defense and I feel like I’m dynamic enough to stay on the field all three downs.
“So when you put all those things together, I just feel like coming into this process, I was looking to set myself apart and I’m looking to continue to do so.”