This is what you want, what the numbers say is the very best approach to building a successful team in the NFL.
Simply put, if the Buffalo Bills are to finally end their 16-year playoff drought, they’ll rely heavily on the draft to carry them across the finish line.
With last year’s massive free-agent spending spree and this year’s check-writing to retain the left side of their offensive line devouring massive salary cap space, they have to. And that’s a good thing.
According to analytical data from ESPN, three teams that are among those with the highest winning percentages since 2011 – Green Bay (.706), Cincinnati (.656), and Pittsburgh (.613) – spent the least amount of guaranteed money in free agency. Throw the New England Patriots, the 2015 NFC-champion Carolina Panthers, and the 2014 and 2013 Seattle Seahawks into clubs following the mostly home-grown model, and it’s easy to see the appeal.
The Cleveland Browns, for one, are making a conscious deep dive into the draft-centric/cost-effective approach by shedding expensive older players and piling up picks with moves such as last Wednesday’s trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to drop from the second to eighth overall pick – and out of the Jared Goff-Carson Wentz sweepstakes. As the league’s “Moneyball” guinea pigs, they’ll count on the next few drafts to end their perpetual floundering.
The Bills, on the other hand, are in win-now mode. They’re looking for this draft to provide critical complements to the players who received all of those fat contracts a year ago – when Buffalo led the league in guaranteed-money spending at $91.5 million – as well as to the multiple major contributors from last year’s draft. They’re operating with a greater sense of urgency to find immediate difference- makers even if they’d prefer not to acknowledge as much.
“I think every draft you have to find difference-makers,” General Manager Doug Whaley said during the Bills’ draft media briefing last week. “Every draft you have to try to hit on as many guys as possible. If not, then you guys say, ‘Bring out those articles!’ I think the internal pressure to hit on a draft is what drives us, and we’re excited about it.”
Excited, and perhaps a bit nervous.
For now, the Bills own eight picks – one in each of the first three rounds (19th, 49th, and 80th overall), two in the fourth (117th and 139th), one in the fifth (156th) and two in the sixth (192nd and 218th). It’s hardly a stretch to say the Bills have their near-term sights set on a starting defensive lineman who can effectively rush the passer and/or be an interior force, a starting inside linebacker, an offensive tackle who can challenge for the starting job on the right side, and a wide receiver who can compete for the No. 2 role.
For the long term, they’ll likely be seeking a quarterback.
“I think it’s certainly a tall order,” former Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik said of this being a transformative draft for the Bills. “They’re fortunate in the fact that they do have a Sammy Watkins on the football team. It looks like they’re very happy with Tyrod Taylor and they’ve got LeSean McCoy (who received a fat pay raise after being acquired from Philadelphia last year), so it’s not like they don’t have any talent.
“But now they’ve just got to make sure that they’re hitting on a first-rounder. When you have a top-20 pick, you want to make sure it’s an impact player. It doesn’t mean he has to come in and sack the quarterback 17 times or he has to get five interceptions. It’s just that you want to be able to go put him on the football field and know that he’s a player that helps you win games.
“And, really, you’re hoping to get three starters out of each draft class. I know that may sound low, but the reality is if you’re doing that, you’re actually doing a really good job in the draft.”
In the 2015 draft, the Bills found two starters, second-round cornerback Ronald Darby and third-round right guard John Miller, and a significant contributor in running back Karlos Williams.
But since 2006, only two other drafts have provided more than one starter to the current roster (2012: cornerback Stephon Gilmore and offensive tackle Cordy Glenn; 2014: Watkins, linebacker Preston Brown, and offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson). The ’14 draft continues to be ripe for second-guessing because the Bills gave up their first- and fourth-round choices last year as part of a trade with the Browns to move from ninth to fourth to select Watkins.
It can be argued that the cost of the deal is another reason, along with cap restrictions that prompted modest free-agent spending this offseason, the Bills find themselves needing the draft to plug substantial holes.
“To me, that trade made no sense,” said Greg Gabriel, who spent 32 years as an NFL scout and is a former director of college scouting for the Chicago Bears. “If you’re a team that’s one player away and he’s the guy, OK, I understand that. But they weren’t in that position, and they had to give up last year’s first-round pick and last year was a strong first round, so you miss out on a good player last year because you made that trade. And had they stayed where they were, Odell Beckham would have fallen in their lap, and arguably he’s a better receiver.
“I think a move like that comes back to haunt you.”
In the eyes of most NFL talent-evaluators, this year’s draft is well stocked with defensive linemen who would fit Rex Ryan’s multiple scheme, such as ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson from Clemson, or Noah Spence from Eastern Kentucky, or tackles Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson from Alabama, and Robert Nkemdiche from Mississippi.
It also has some solid inside linebackers (Alabama’s Reggie Ragland and Missouri’s Kentrell Brothers), offensive tackles (beyond the presumed top two of Mississippi’s Laremy Tunsil and Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley) in Indiana’s Jason Spriggs and Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi, and wide receivers in Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell and TCU’s Josh Doctson.
And, yes, even after Goff and Wentz are selected with the first two picks, there are other quarterbacks who could be worth taking within the first few rounds, such as Memphis’ Paxton Lynch, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg.
“I don’t think it’s unrealistic at all to think, in this draft, that Buffalo could come out with three starters in the first three rounds,” former Browns GM and current ESPN analyst Phil Savage said. “If you subscribe to the theory that there are seven or eight really elite, blue-chip players in this draft, then the good news for Buffalo is that from 10 or 12 all the way down to probably the end of the first round, you’re sort of going to get the same grade of player. And so then, it’s a function of teams with needs and matching those players and needs.”
“It’s obviously got to fall the way you want it to fall, but on paper it looks like it could fall right for them,” Gabriel said.
As usual, Whaley and the rest of the Bills’ player-personnel staff insist they won’t reach for a need, vowing to stay true to how they have players ranked on their draft board.
For the most part, that’s how every NFL team approaches the draft, but it can be harder to do when, like the Bills, there are some definite needs to address.
“I think, when you’re building your board and you know you have certain holes at certain positions that you really feel compelled to take, that definitely has an influence in terms of constructing the board,” Savage said. “In Buffalo’s case, they may have pushed the receivers a notch or two, they may have pushed the inside ’backers a notch or two up just to make sure they have names at a position of need for them. It can definitely influence your preparation in terms of what your roster holes are.”
It makes sense, then, to proceed with a certain level of caution.
There’s nothing wrong with selecting a player for a specific spot rather than holding firm to the old best-player-available mantra. When you’ve spent as heavily as the Bills have and need to show something for it, it’s pretty much a given.
Just don’t be so preoccupied with that thinking that you end up reaching.
“Certainly, you’re going to be hostage to need to some extent,” Dominik said. “But you can’t make it where it just takes over the football team or your decision-making and then it leads you down to a player at a level worse than a player you could have taken at a different position.
“I think the other thing you can do to help yourself in that situation is that you get your scouts in the room prior to this draft and you ask, ‘What’s the depth of the 2017 draft like? I don’t need to know the names, but where is that class deeper?’ And let’s say we feel like ’17 is going to be a great linebacker draft class. So that means, in ’16, just be careful. As much as I know that everything is year-to-year in the National Football League, maybe don’t be as aggressive and say, ‘I’ve got to go get a linebacker this year.’ I think you’ve got to keep an eye on the ’16 draft, but also get the information out of ’17 to help you make the right decisions for your football team.”
But the outcome of such decisions doesn’t rest solely with the player-personnel department. Coaches can factor heavily into the equation. Even if, as Whaley indicated last week, Ryan and his assistant coaches don’t dramatically alter the course of the year-long scouting process after becoming a part of it for about two months before the draft, they can heavily influence how rookies develop.
“That’s something that’s not talked about enough, but I think it’s important to have a shared vision on each individual prospect that you ultimately draft,” Savage said. “Because if personnel is thinking one thing and the coaching staff is thinking another, then that means it’s going to be mixed signals to the player, it’s going to be mixed signals to the owner and now we’ve got problems.
“If there’s an expectation that a player’s going to get on the field immediately and then he doesn’t, then there’s some explaining that has to be done. If there’s an expectation that a kid’s going to be a developmental prospect and all of a sudden he’s just thrown out there and he’s not ready and he gets exposed, then maybe you’ve hurt his future.
“The ideal circumstance that I experienced was with the defensive coaches in Baltimore (where Savage was director of player personnel). Rex was part of that. It gave the personnel department the latitude, almost to the feeling that, ‘It doesn’t matter who we take on defense, there’s a mentality on that side of the ball that they’ll take whatever we give them and they’re going to make something and maximize the absolute most out of that prospect.’ And when you can get to that spot, between coaching and scouting, you’ve really got a chance to elevate your organization.”
For now, the Bills are in the spot of needing a second consecutive draft to produce instant results.