MOBILE, Ala. – Perhaps the best player in the Senior Bowl at one of the bigger positions of need for the Buffalo Bills didn't participate in practices this week and won't be on the field for the college all-star game on Saturday.
That doesn't mean former Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who is out of action due to what he described as a "minor injury," is anything close to a forgotten man.
"There's nothing you can do about an injury, but it won't knock him or anything like that," General Manager Brandon Beane said. "His fall tape says what he can do physically."
It says Aiyuk was extremely productive last season, when he had 1,192 receiving yards, which ranked second in the Pac 12 and 15th in FBS, and eight touchdowns. He averaged 18.3 yards per reception on 65 catches, putting him seventh in the nation among receivers with at least 60 receptions.
The tape from his career as a Sun Devil shows Aiyuk is an outstanding returner. In the last two years, he averaged 27.1 yards on 29 kick returns and 11.7 yards on 25 punt returns.
"I think that separates me from others in this class, because not every top receiver returns punts or kicks," Aiyuk said.
Other qualities working in his favor are his almost freakish physical dimensions, his extensive high school background as a cornerback, and the fact he comes from a college program guided by a former NFL head coach, Herman Edwards, and a staff that includes other former coaches and players in the league who know a thing or two about what pro prospects must do to succeed at the next level.
At 6-foot-1, Aiyuk isn't particularly tall for a receiver, but he's a solid 195 pounds and, amazingly, has an 81-inch wingspan. Consider that former Detroit Lions receiving great Calvin Johnson, who is four inches taller, had a wingspan of 82 inches.
Although underclassmen tend to comprise most of the higher-rated talent in the NFL draft while the Senior Bowl consists mainly of players selected below the first round, Aiyuk is widely viewed as a first-round choice. That's saying plenty considering receiver is seen as one of the deeper positions in the draft. Draft grades can fluctuate greatly between now and when selections are made in April, but it's reasonable to put Aiyuk in the category of a player the Bills might very well target with the No. 22 overall pick.
Beane and other members of the Bills' contingent were planning to have their first meeting with Aiyuk here. They likely will talk with him again next month at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, and possibly at a predraft workout and visit.
"The next test for us is the fit," Beane said. "Smarts, football instincts, all those things. How much does he know the game? How well can he learn? So we'll get him on board, we'll have him in the film room. We'll check some of those boxes."
As far as Aiyuk is concerned, he checks enough boxes to make an immediate impact on any NFL team.
"Just with my playmaking ability after the catch and in the return game," he told reporters. "I think that there's a lot of special guys in this class, it's a deep class, but I definitely think I'm one of the top receivers in this class (because of) my ability to make plays, (the fact) I can run every route and what I do after the catch."
In high school, Aiyuk mainly played cornerback. He continues to use that experience to his advantage.
"I know what a corner's thinking," Aiyuk said. "When he's in press coverage, I know what he's thinking, and I know what he's thinking when he's in off-man."
Aiyuk has had plenty of exposure to NFL-style coaching from Edwards and an Arizona State staff that includes another former longtime coach in the league, Marvin Lewis, as well as former NFL players Antonio Pierce and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Kevin Mawae.
That sort of guidance matters to the Bills.
"It's a plus," Beane said. "One of the things I asked one of the other guys from Arizona State that's here is, 'What did you learn from Coach Edwards? What has he told you?' I don't know Coach Edwards well, but I think he's back in the college game because he wants to really affect some young men's lives and show them what it takes. With Marvin Lewis and all these other guys, you're not going to find better role models."
Aiyuk and his teammates regularly heard about "the pro model" from Edwards.
"All the time, every single day," Aiyuk said. "So I think that's how he gives our players and our team an upside for guys that are going on to the next level. He does a great job with (motivation). Just, when he talks, people want to listen. He's excited. He's not like really a loud guy, but when he talks, it just gets you fired up to play the game. He's a guy that people like to play for and you want to play for.
"He's one of the few coaches that I know that values teaching players how to be good men off of the field and outside of the locker room. He talks about it all the time and I talked with him all the time. Just being the best son you can be, the best brother you can be outside of football."