Rex Ryan might've found the players he needs to make his defense tick. No doubt, the violent Shaq Lawson, Reggie Ragland and Adolphus Washington remind the Buffalo Bills head coach of better days.
He's hoping his first three picks intimidate offenses the way his best Baltimore and New York defenses did.
Brian Billick was with Ryan from 1999 to 2007 in Baltimore, including three seasons when Ryan was his defensive coordinator and he believes this trio can get this Bills defense back on track.
“Absolutely," Billick said. "Rex knows personnel and how to use it more than any coach I’ve been around. And given the fact that they struggled a little bit, you knew that was going to be a priority.”
The defenses Billick and Ryan oversaw possessed a nastiness that kept Baltimore in contention year in and year out despite often-shoddy quarterback play. Billick said that attitude on defense was rooted in the fact that they delivered.
"It doesn’t matter what bravado or what you want to say or whatever mantra you want to have," he said, "at some point you have to deliver to back it up. And that’s where it comes from, as opposed to the personality of the individual players. By nature, defensive players are going to be aggressive and confident and want to get after you. But to take it to the level we had there in Baltimore, you’ve got to follow it up with the productivity.”
Here in Buffalo, a defense that finished fourth under Jim Schwartz fell to 19th under Ryan. The sack total free-fell from 54 to 21. The edge, the attitude was nowhere to be seen with Ryan's scheme under fire.
So how did those Ravens turn the corner Ryan is trying to turn in Buffalo?
“How good you are has been and always will be about one thing — how good your players are," Billick said. "Certainly, they have to fit within the system and there’s the chemistry and the way they communicate with one another. When you’re in your first year, that’s always a work in progress. Obviously, it progresses. But it begins with the talent.
“With the exception of Mark Sanchez, every first-round pick that he made in New York was on the defensive side of the ball. The priority was clearly to get the caliber of players on the defensive side of the ball. And then when you see their top three picks were defensive players, you can see where the priority is.”
So this is the challenge for Ryan: finding the right pieces. The Jets took five defensive players in the first round after going with Sanchez in 2009, and the results weren't always pretty. Cornerback Kyle Wilson (2010, 29th overall) had three interceptions in five seasons. Muhammad Wilkerson (2011, 30th overall) is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. Defensive end Quinton Coples (2012, 16th overall) was a bust. Cornerback Dee Milliner (2013, ninth overall) can't stay on the field. Safety Calvin Pryor (2014, 18th overall) has been mostly solid so far.
In Baltimore, General Manager Ozzie Newsome has one the best eyes for defensive talent, fueling and re-fueling his roster with picks near the ends of rounds. After back-to-back AFC title runs, Ryan's Jets were not able to do the same.
Which makes these three selections that much more valuable in Buffalo. Ryan and GM Doug Whaley, who the head coach has called "a young Ozzie Newsome," may start Lawson, Ragland and Washington on Day 1.
“They’re excellent," Billick said, "and Rex will know exactly how to use them."
Billick sees Lawson's versatility as a weapon and views Reggie Ragland as Bart Scott-like. Of course, Lawson is also someone who cited a hit in Pop Warner that sent a kid to the emergency room as one of his most memorable. These three are all wired a bit differently — like those Ravens teams. Such an "aggressive mentality" is needed.
“When it’s at its best," Billick said, "and its going and he’s got the right pieces plugged in, they’re communicating with one another and they believe in what they’re doing.”
Meanwhile, it wouldn't hurt if the Bills found a quarterback like the Ravens found Joe Flacco after Billick departed.
They're sticking with Tyrod Taylor for now, and he might be the long-lost savior, but did take Cardale Jones with their fourth pick. Jones is only the fifth QB the Bills have drafted since Jim Kelly retired in 1997. Ryan indicated at rookie camp that Jones still has a long ways to go. That much is evident with a few one-hoppers and overthrows.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame, rocket arm and running ability, however, all gives Jones a chance to be a franchise quarterback.
Said Billick, "Where they got Cardale Jones is an outstanding pick, simply because you have time to develop him and everybody says he’ll need to develop. He needs the time. I think he’s in an outstanding position to learn and tap into those physical skills. Urban Meyer was at the draft, and visiting with him, this guy thinks the sky’s the limit. Now, keep in mind, Urban did bench him. He kept talking about the accuracy, particularly in the red zone, seemed to get away from him.
"But this guy has all the physical skills and there’s no pressure for him to be the guy right now.”