After sticking with prominent defensive needs through the first three rounds, the Buffalo Bills finally addressed the most prominent spot on the team in the NFL Draft Saturday.
And they did it in true Bills fashion by using their fourth-round choice on perhaps the draft’s most intriguing and polarizing figure in Ohio State’s Cardale Jones.
This is a true boom-or-bust prospect who one day could be the “franchise guy” General Manager Doug Whaley said he has the potential of becoming … or he could be a career backup, which is typical of quarterbacks selected in the third round or lower.
“We think our situation’s good for him,” Whaley said. “He’s going to come in and be a three, be able to develop, be able to learn under some professionals that have been at their craft for a while, with EJ (Manuel) and Tyrod (Taylor).
“We like his skill set. He’s got the talent to possibly be a franchise guy. Is he there yet? Absolutely not. He’s got a lot of work and a lot of ways to go. But this guy’s driven, this guy’s a proven winner; he’s undefeated.”
The Bills closed out the draft by taking Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams in the fifth round, and TCU wide receiver Kolby Listenbee and USC cornerback Kevon Seymour in the sixth.
But Saturday’s highlight was the selection of the 6-foot-5, 253-pound Jones, who played in 23 games for the Buckeyes and was 11-0 as a starter, the best winning percentage for a quarterback in school history.
Three of his wins were among the most important in Ohio State history: postseason triumphs against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Sugar Bowl, and No. 2 Oregon in the national championship game.
For his career, Jones threw for 2,323 yards with 15 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a 61.9 completion percentage.
“We thought the upside was so big … because we looked at it as basically a fifth-round pick,” Whaley said. “So if you hit on this fifth-round pick, we thought, ‘Boom!’ The upside is great. We feel his floor at the bottom of his talent level is a solid No. 2, so to get a solid No. 2 in the fifth round, we thought, was good value.”
“I am just excited to be a part of Bills Mafia and be a part of the great organization and a great leader with Coach (Rex) Ryan,” Jones said. “It was a whirlwind just not knowing, playing the waiting game. It was the longest three days of my life, really. But it was all worth it to be in a position to play for one of the top organizations in the NFL. So I’m just extremely excited.”
After taking all of the first-team reps in the spring of 2015 and beginning last season as the Buckeyes’ starter, Jones struggled enough to be replaced by J.T. Barrett through a 7-0 start. What did he learn about himself from the demotion?
“Just that, you know, don’t let nothing keep you down and always keep fighting back,” Jones said. “It was a point this season I could have went into a dark place ... when I got benched. And then, the following game and a half, I was back to starter due to a circumstance (an injury to Barrett). I think (if) I wouldn’t have had the right mindset to stay locked into the game plans and doing whatever it takes for the team ... our team wouldn’t have been successful the game I returned back as the starter”
Jones’ tremendous arm strength, and jersey No. 12, earned him the nickname “12 Gauge.” His ability to throw tight spirals in windy conditions was a major consideration for the Bills, given the late-season weather they encounter at Ralph Wilson Stadium and potentially each year against two of their AFC East opponents, New England and the New York Jets.
NFL scouts like his considerable poise in the pocket and the fact he also has good mobility to buy time or run for big gains.
One of the biggest knocks on Jones is inconsistent accuracy and the fact he wasn’t asked to do a lot of reading of coverages in Ohio State’s offense. He has a tendency to lock onto receivers too often, which will be a major problem against NFL defenses. He must develop a greater sense of anticipation, especially when it comes to his internal clock while in the pocket, and timing with his receivers.
“Everybody talks about his accuracy, but look at his completion percentage; it’s over 60 percent,” Whaley said. “He had a 105 quarterback rating against ranked teams.”
The 6-foot, 223-pound Williams, whom the Bills see competing for a backup spot, missed all of last season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his foot suffered in fall camp.
“The doctors felt very comfortable that he’d come back from this 100 percent,” Bills director of player personnel Jim Monos said. “He’s a guy we really valued. He’s a big back, he’s going to help on special teams, battle with (Mike Gillislee).”
The Bills still don’t know whether LeSean McCoy will face any discipline for his involvement in a Feb. 7 nightclub brawl in Philadelphia, but Monos made a point of saying the selection of Williams “had nothing to do with anybody on our roster right now. Just a guy to come in, be a backup, special-team running back and hopefully compete to start next year.”
In 2014, Williams was a second-team all-SEC selection after rushing for 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns, even though he split carries with junior Alex Collins. Williams also shared the load with Collins as a sophomore, when he had 900 yards and four touchdowns.
“I feel like I am a back that can do anything,” Williams said. “You know, a three-down back that can run the ball inside and out on first and second down, can pick up pass protection and catch the ball on third down, so I think I am a complete back.”
It is the second year in a row the Bills have chosen a running back named Williams in the fifth round. In 2015 it was Karlos Williams, who had an impressive rookie year.
The 6-foot, 197-pound Listenbee is a speedster, running the second-fastest 40-time at the NFL Scouting Combine at 4.39 seconds. He was a four-time All-American for his performance in the 100-meter dash (which included a wind-aided best of 10.03), and in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.
“I could go to the Olympics if I wanted to,” he said matter-of-factly in a conference call with reporters, during which he declared he was the fastest player in the NFL.
In 40 career games at TCU, Listenbee caught 74 passes for 1,432 yards and nine touchdowns. He also ran three times for 30 yards and had eight kick returns for 177 yards.
Despite playing most of last season with a double sports hernia, Listenbee had 30 catches for 597 yards and five touchdowns. He said he underwent surgery on the hernia on March 10, and still needed four to six weeks to recover.
“He’s a track guy, that’s what everybody’s going to say,” Whaley said. “But he’s a football player.”
The 6-foot, 185-pound Seymour had three career interceptions at USC, as well as seven kickoff returns for 92 yards. He also was credited with 126 tackles (four for loss), 19 pass defenses and a fumble recovery.
“He’s got some raw ability,” Whaley said. “We’re excited about him as a guy that has a high upside.”
No one is more excited about the Bills’ draft than the defensive-minded Ryan, particularly with the first three picks: Clemson outside linebacker Shaq Lawson, Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, and Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.
“Was it exciting for me? Absolutely, 100 percent,” Ryan said. “And I’m going to have a tough time believing somebody had a better draft, but it’ll be proved out as the years go on.”