Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane can satisfy two major objectives in this week’s NFL draft – adhere to his philosophy to select the best player available, and address one of the team’s biggest needs – by using a first-round pick on a defensive end.
“It’s nice when you still fill a need,” Beane said.
The Bills have 10 draft picks, including the No. 9 overall selection, a spot that puts the front office in position to upgrade a pass rush that struggled to take down opposing quarterbacks last season. The team’s 36 sacks ranked just 26th in the NFL.
Bolstering that critical position group takes on added importance with defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson entering the final year of their contracts. Hughes, 31, is playing out a five-year, $45 million deal he signed in 2015, and the Bills have until May 2 to decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option on Lawson, the 19th overall pick in 2016.
In addition to Hughes and Lawson, the Bills' defensive ends include veteran starter Trent Murphy and depth guys in Eddie Yarbrough, recent signing Eli Harold and Mike Love, who spent most of last season on the practice squad.
Once again, it seems drafting a defensive end/edge rusher in the first round might be the Bills’ top priority.
And should the Bills stay at ninth overall, they may have some great options.
Mike Mayock, the Oakland Raiders’ GM and a longtime draft analyst for NFL Network, spoke highly of this year’s defensive line talent in an interview with reporters at the combine.
“What I would say about the defensive line in general is that in the last 10 years, I’d say it is the best defensive line group we’ve seen, both edge rushers and inside guys,” Mayock said. “I think when you start talking about the first round of the draft, I think it’s going to be dominated by defensive lineman.”
ESPN analyst Todd McShay, during a recent conference call with reporters, said there are at least six edge rushers worth drafting in the first round.
“On the edge you’ve got (Nick) Bosa, Rashan Gary, Montez Sweat, Clelin Ferrell. Those are the guys that I feel pretty strongly about that they’ll wind up being first rounders,” McShay said. “You can throw Kentucky's Josh Allen in there as well, (but) he’s more of a 3-4 outside linebacker. And Brian Burns of Florida State, who can be that, or who can also be like Anthony Barr who came out of UCLA who’s an edge guy but who also has played off the ball and done different things for Minnesota.”
The Bills have reportedly hosted pre-draft visits with at least six edge rushers – more than any other position – including Gary, Sweat, Allen, Burns, Jaylon Ferguson and Maxx Crosby, who’s largely considered a late-round talent.
These visits could be important because both Bills’ first-round picks a year ago – quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds – were among the players who visited the team before the draft. But nothing precludes the Bills from selecting a player who was not among the allowed 30 pre-draft visitors.
Beane said the depth of talent at defensive line in this year’s draft was “solid,” when asked whether there were nine to 10 top prospects in the position group.
“I think it’s solid. I don’t know if I want to label it as off-the-charts great. I’d have to really go back and look,” Beane said. “At the end of the day, there’s projections and how players are going to be used. Sometimes there’s D-linemen that some teams run in a 3-4 have rated much higher than we have rated running a 4-3 and vice versa. There’s guys out there that we don’t feel as highly about because we run a 4-3 that I could see that if Sean was running a 3-4, we probably would feel that they would be a better fit.”
With Bosa widely projected to be selected with one of the top two overall picks, and Allen and Burns perhaps better suited to a 3-4 scheme, the Bills could end up targeting Gary, Sweat and Ferrell, should they choose to draft a defensive end.
Gary, a 6-foot-4, 277-pound defensive end from Michigan, played in 13 games as a reserve his freshman season, then won All-Big Ten honors each of the last two years. As a sophomore, he racked up 58 tackles, including 11.5 for loss, and 5.5 sacks in 13 games. As a junior, he managed 38 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, and 3.5 sacks in nine games. He missed a month with a shoulder injury and sat out the team’s bowl game to prepare for the draft.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., on a recent conference call with reporters, said Gary has “everything you want to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, except the sack production.”
“Rashaan Gary’s an enigma,” Kiper said. “You expect more than 10 sacks in a career for a guy with that kind of talent. You expect 20-plus career sacks for a guy with that kind of talent and you didn’t get it. So the thing is will the scheme allow him to get turned loose in the NFL? Will that allow him to be more productive as a pro than he was as a collegian? That’s a roll of the dice. If you’re picking him at 9, you’re getting a guy with awesome talent.”
Sweat originally signed with Michigan State, red-shirted his first season and appeared in two games his second season before being suspended for the rest of the year for an undisclosed reason. He played the following season in junior college before bursting onto the scene in the SEC.
As a junior, Sweat had 48 tackles, including 15.5 for loss, and led the conference with 10.5 sacks in 13 starts. Last season, Sweat recorded 53 tackles, including 14 for loss, and a team-high 11.5 sacks. He was named All-SEC for the second year in a row and an AP second-team All-American.
He then was diagnosed with a pre-existing heart condition at the scouting combine, according to multiple reports. He did not miss any games in college and was allowed to participate fully at the combine so his draft position might depend on how individual teams view the severity of the condition.
The Bills might also consider Ferrell, a 6-4, 264-pound defensive end from Clemson, although he hasn’t reportedly taken a pre-draft visit to Orchard Park.
Ferrell was named Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP as a freshman after recording three tackles for loss and a sack for the eventual national champions. He was named an AP first-team All-American as a junior, after racking up 63 tackles, including 18 for loss, and 9.5 sacks in 14 starts. Last season, he won the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the nation's top defensive end, after recording 53 tackles, including 19.5 for loss, 11.5 sacks, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles in 15 starts.
Of course, the Bills could always bolster the pass rush by selecting a linebacker or interior defensive lineman, as opposed to a defensive end, in the first round of the draft, and by choosing players at any of those positions in the later rounds.
“I think (all NFL teams) are going to say they need pass-rush help. That’s what the league is. That’s what it always is,” Colts GM Chris Ballard said to reporters at the combine. “Guys that can get to the quarterback. Look, rushers come in different forms. Some rush with speed. Some rush with power. Some rush with instinct. I think it comes in different flavors of what you’re looking for.”
But elite pass rushers are a rare commodity, and the top talent will go fast.
Bills coach Sean McDermott said the team should have its choice of impact players with the ninth overall pick in the draft.
“I’ve been at nine before and there’s a lot of good football players at nine,” McDermott said. "(The draft) will be the next step for us as a team and I’m excited for it.”