By Jay Skurski
News Sports reporter
Doug Whaley did not lay the Buffalo Bills’ draft board out on a platter Wednesday.
That was reserved for pulled pork at the team’s annual pre-draft luncheon.
Instead, the team’s general manager talked in generalities for just over 30 minutes on next week’s NFL Draft, careful not to tip his hand to his intentions.
While Whaley was understandably reluctant to talk specifics on who the Bills will pick, he did shed some light on how that choice will be made.
Team owners Terry and Kim Pegula will have the final say on the selection. Whaley said that’s not a new arrangement, and has been in place ever since the Pegulas took over.
“They always have the final say,” he said.
Whaley will run his plans by ownership and said in turn the Pegulas will offer their own ideas.
“When they come in a meeting and we have a game plan together, saying this is how we’re going to attack this draft, that’s when he’ll say, ‘hey, have you thought about this?’ ” Whaley said. “We like it because they haven’t been around football long enough to be tunnel-visioned like we are. They bring an outside perspective.”
Whaley said during such meetings with the Pegulas, his eyes have been opened.
“There’s been a couple times he’s mentioned stuff that we never talked about and we went, ‘that’s great,’ ” he said. “So that’s why – not only because he owns it – we meet with him and run things by him, because of that outside, fresh perspective.”
Whaley chose to keep any examples of that in house, and said to this point the Pegulas have never vetoed any of his suggestions – be they draft picks, trades or free-agent acquisitions.
“So far they’ve had implicit trust in us, but we’ve got to still keep producing,” he said.
The next chance to do that begins next Thursday, when the first round begins. The Bills currently hold the 19th overall selection, but Whaley didn’t close the door on moving either up or down in the draft.
“With our history people in this draft and in the league know we’re open to doing anything,” he said.
The opportunity to move up in the draft decreased by one Wednesday when the Philadelphia Eagles vaulted from the No. 8 pick up to No. 2 by making a trade with the Cleveland Browns.
A rumor making the rounds early in the week had the Bills one of the teams interested in moving up with the Browns, but Whaley denied calling them about the pick.
If he’s to be taken at his word – which is always a risk this time of year – the likelihood of moving down would be greater than going the other way.
“If you can get somebody to call up to 19, we’ll definitely entertain it,” he said. “There’s depth and perceived depth in a lot of areas that we need sheer numbers. So that opens up the possibility and it’s intriguing to us.
“To go up would probably be something really special, but, again, we’ve done it before. Most likely, with what we’re doing, moving down would be a highly more intriguing situation than going up.”
The Bills currently have eight draft picks, and a cursory glance at their roster suggests the majority of those need to be used on the defensive side. The front seven suffered two big losses this offseason with the release of defensive end Mario Williams and the failure to re-sign linebacker Nigel Bradham.
“Connect the dots and defense would be a higher priority than a lot of other positions,” Whaley said.
In the past, Whaley had made clear his goal in free agency is to fill any holes he sees on the roster, so that he can focus solely on drafting the “best player available.”
Given the team’s salary-cap restraints this season, that wasn’t a possibility – “by sheer numbers, we have some holes to fill,” Whaley said – although he made it a point to mention that using the franchise tag on left tackle Cordy Glenn, re-signing guard Richie Incognito and picking up the fifth-year option on cornerback Stephon Gilmore all have been part of the team’s offseason.
“That’s what we want to get to,” he said. “We draft so well that you pay your own guys and don’t have to go out and get other guys.”
The Bills’ list of draft needs includes help along the defensive line and at quarterback. Luckily for them, it appears to be a deep draft for those two positions.
“Everybody’s saying defensive line and it is,” Bills Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos said. “But we feel like every position, if you’re good evaluators, you’re going to find a guy in any round. So quarterback gets labeled as a deep position. Every team’s going to be different. But we think quarterback, D-line, we do think it’s good for those this year.”
When the Bills decide to pull the trigger on a quarterback is one of this year’s biggest questions heading into the draft. With only Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel under contract, it’s clearly a positional need. But Whaley reiterated Wednesday that even if the Bills used a first-round pick on the position, that player would not start.
“Tyrod’s our starter,” Whaley said, also shooting down a rumor that the Bills have taken trade calls involving Taylor. “Tyrod’s the guy we’re going into the season with.”
Taylor’s agent recently made waves when he went on satellite radio and put the Bills’ 2015 defense on blast, blaming Rex Ryan’s unit for the team missing the playoffs last year.
Whaley, however, tried to diffuse any controversy that might have caused.
“He’s doing what he gets paid to do,” Whaley said. “If he was my agent I’d hope he’d do the same.”
With a week to go until the draft, Whaley and Co. are in the final planning stages. Meeting with the team’s medical staff to get updates on prospects who have had recent examinations, going over things with scouts one more time and sitting down with ownership will all be part of the process of finalizing the draft board.
“There’s no medal for finishing early,” Whaley said. “We’ll use all the time we can.”
Wednesday marked the final day prospects could make visits to teams. Each club is allowed 30 such visits, but Whaley said the Bills used only about “25 or 26” of them.
Under Whaley’s leadership, pre-draft visits have been a fairly strong indication of players the Bills are interested in drafting.
“We don’t bring guys in just to bring them in,” Monos said. “We really do get a chance to get to know them as people a little bit. And then our coaches really can dive into it and do some work. And they get medical attention if there’s anything the medical staff need to look at, so for us it’s very helpful.”
Other topics addressed by Whaley on Wednesday included:
• The input from coach Rex Ryan and his staff: “We’ve always looked for their input in our process, that starts in May. After the season, we give coaches some guys to look at. We want to know from them, how do they fit, and can they learn and get to know their mental aspects and how it would translate to our team.
“The thing that is encouraging when you talk to Rex Ryan and his staff, they say just get us good to great players because they transcend everything, and we can make it work. So we do look for their input, but the mandate is that you guys do what you do. Just keep bringing us good players.”
• On possible contract extensions for Taylor, Glenn and Gilmore: “We have until July 15 with Cordy, then the two guys we have for a year, and have avenues to keep them longer if we don’t get a deal done.
“When it comes down to it, these guys are football players and they’re competitors, and no matter what they’re doing, they’re going to be playing football at the best and highest ability. And we all know if you play good, you get paid.”
• On Amherst’s Glenn Gronkowski, the latest and last pro prospect from the famous clan: “He’s the new-age fullback. A guy who can play a little H-back, play a little fullback, play a little tight end, so that’s game-day versatility. That’s a guy on your 46-man roster during game day who can play three different positions and special teams. So I think a guy like that definitely has a chance.”