Let the record show that hope under Rex Ryan was officially recharged around 6 p.m. on April 30 here at One Bills Drive.
Once all seven draft picks were in — and he could finally exhale — the head coach sat down at a table inside the media room with a sigh of relief. We’ve seen many emotions out of this head coach. Elation, yes. Defiance, oh yes. Relief, no.
But on Saturday, Ryan had every reason to smile.
This was a critical draft for his team, his defense, his own employment and he might've found the three starters he needed to make his defense great again.
“I’m going to have a tough time believing somebody had a better draft,” Ryan said.
This Rex Ryan boast may be no exaggeration. After three busy days, he now has a disruptive pass rusher (Shaq Lawson), snarling inside linebacker (Reggie Ragland) and versatile defensive lineman (Adolphus Washington). Now, it's on Ryan. This is a defense that fell from No. 4 to No. 19 overall, one that had 54 sacks under Jim Schwartz and then a franchise-low 21 under Ryan. Going defense-defense-defense absolutely puts more pressure on Ryan to now get it right.
When the coach was asked exactly that on Saturday, General Manager Doug Whaley shook his head no as Ryan echoed “Nope.”
“I see opportunity,” Ryan said. “That’s what I can’t wait for. We don’t care how we win. We just want to get the job done. But I see opportunity for us and I’m excited about this group. We’re going to be young, we’re going to explosive. Yeah, there’s talent. But the big thing is we’re going to have 11 guys working as one.
“And when we do that, I think we’re going to be very successful.”
Of course, the Rex Referendum began as soon as the 2015 season concluded. He hired his twin brother, who oversaw one of the worst defenses ever in New Orleans. He made it clear internally that he'd take more control of game day play-calling, one source said. He hired Ed Reed. He cut loose disgruntled Mario Williams. He replaced Karl Dunbar with John Blake as defensive line coach.
He vowed the defense would be "fully pregnant" this season and, yes, he introduced Donald Trump at a rally in downtown Buffalo.
Regardless of what anyone says, this draft had Rex Ryan’s fingerprints all over it from picking someone who took classes with his son at Clemson (Lawson) to someone who reminds him of Bart Scott (Ragland), the soul of his angry, intimidating Jets defenses. Ryan is counting on this group allowing him to dust off new pages in his playbook. And he’s counting on this still being a big man’s game.
The coach described his 3-4 defense as more of a “5-2” alignment with Jerry Hughes and Lawson serving as lurching, large outside linebackers. Burly thumpers Preston Brown (6 foot 1, 251 pounds) and Ragland (6-1, 247) will play inside. And up front? Ryan hopes to get creative with Marcell Dareus (6-3, 331), Kyle Williams (6-1, 303), Corbin Bryant (6-4, 300) and Washington (6-3, 297) — he made a point to say Dareus especially will move around more next season.
Yes, the team will take advantage of its richest and most talented player more in 2016 as it should.
Where some defenses are going lighter, more mobile, Ryan opted to ramp up the physicality. He certainly knows that's what made his groups in Baltimore and New York special. Big, mean, tough headhunters with bad intentions fueled those teams. Ragland fits that mold. Oh, Ryan insists Ragland can cover, citing the fact that he was Alabama’s dime linebacker.
But these players were drafted to punish, not prance.
“You’ve got to be able to punch, strike, knock some people off,” Ryan said. “We want physical guys. Guys that can do both — blitz, cover, play zone, play man. ... We’re keeping that chip on our shoulder. We’re going to leave it on there. We feel good about the people that we’ve added.”
Most importantly, Ryan hopes he now has players who’ll allow him to get more creative. Confusion must reign supreme.
Too often in 2015, he said, his Bills defense was predictable. With a true strong-side linebacker (Manny Lawson) and a true pass rusher (Hughes), he couldn't mix blitzes with simulated blitzes as much as he'd like. Quarterbacks often decoded Ryan's X's and O's with ease.
The new Lawson — who had 25.5 tackles for loss last season at Clemson — should, in theory, change that.
“When we’ve been at our best defensively,” Ryan said, “it’s generally when you don’t know who’s what. … This year’s going to be much different. Going back to my days in Baltimore, going back to my early years with the Jets, we played rights and lefts. That’s what you’re going to get. You won’t know how we’re going to configure them. By the time you snap the ball, it could look a lot different than how we do before the ball’s snapped.”
On Saturday, the Bills got busy on offense in drafting Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones (fourth round, 139th overall), Arkansas' hard-nosed running back Jonathan Williams (5-156) and TCU burner Kolby Listenbee (6-192), before turning back to defense with USC cornerback Kevon Seymour (6-218).
Offense wasn’t the problem last year; Ryan’s defense needed work. And considering money was tight, the Bills needed to hit the bull’s eye on two or three potential starters this draft.
The Bills consider it mission accomplished.
Said Whaley, "We filled those holes better than we thought we’d be able to so we’re excited about it. ... It’s one of those things where you envision it and you write the script the night before the draft and you’re laying there and you’re saying, 'this guy, this guy, that guy.' It never happens."
Of course, it’ll take more than personnel. Whaley, Jim Monos and the entire Bills front office handed Ryan more than enough talent to win in 2015. The No. 1 key? Compromise. Cohesion. A trust between coaches and players. Multiple starters said coaches didn't fully take their input until late December last season, you know, when it was all too late.
So it’s probably no coincidence that a jovial Ryan told a story Saturday of one player showing him a different way to run a specific blitz recently.
“I have a guy on our football team,” Ryan said, “who came up to me and said, ‘Rex, I believe we need to run the blitz this way. If we put the nose on this side, I think it’ll be a more effective blitz.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Man, he’s right.’ But that’s it. It’s ownership. It’s our defense. Not just mine. It’s our defense.
“Ultimately, I’ll stand by the results. I’m excited about the results.”
Because, again, Ryan not-so-subtly pointed out that he has coached many Top 10 defenses. After Saturday, there are no excuses in Buffalo.
He was given the horses to take this Bills defense back to the Top 10.
Now, it's up to Rex.
“These three guys,” Ryan said, “will have a major impact on our football team.”