Brandon Beane missed this year's Senior Bowl for good reason.
The Buffalo Bills' season stretched deep into January with an appearance in the AFC Championship Game, which didn't leave Beane with enough time to get down to Mobile, Ala., for the annual college showcase that was held Jan. 30.
"I enjoy the Senior Bowl, I hate that I missed it, but it was for good reason with how long our season went," Beane said Saturday. "But it was great to see guys go down there and compete. You see it every year where agents get involved and talk guys out of it from an injury standpoint. While you respect it, you do really like to see where these guys take that chance and they want to compete against the best of the best. Usually that's what it is. The best seniors, that do choose to play, show up at that game. It's a fun week. It's a fun atmosphere."
With the Covid-19 pandemic canceling the annual NFL Scouting Combine and pre-draft visits by prospects to team facilities, the Senior Bowl took on added significance as a chance to see players up close.
The importance of that week can be reflected in the Buffalo Bills' 2021 draft class. Of the eight players chosen by Beane and his staff, five of them played in the Senior Bowl – Wake Forest defensive end Bookie Basham (second round), Northern Iowa offensive tackle Spencer Brown (third round), Houston wide receiver Marquez Stevenson (sixth round), Pitt safety Damar Hamlin (sixth round) and Texas Tech guard Jack Anderson (seventh round).
"I can tell you a lot of the plays in the Senior Bowl, and I didn't watch the game live," Beane said. "It’s just from us continually watching this player in the game, moving over and watching this player, watching two guys go against each other, a corner and receiver, a defensive end and offensive tackle. It really helps us, especially if you got some guys that are similar and you want to compare them, ‘Alright here's them in one-on-ones going against the same player.’ We like it when guys go to Senior Bowl, and we definitely found some players this year. Some years it works out more underclassmen, this year we definitely found some guys who had a good week down in Mobile.”
For Brown, who did not play this past season when the Football Championship Subdivision moved to the spring, the Senior Bowl also gave him the confidence that he could compete with players from bigger schools – even if there was an initial adjustment.
“I learned that you can’t take a break from football for 14 months and expect to show up and do well the first day," he said. "The pads were popping the first day and banging the rust off a bit and then really, the next three days, just learning and growing through past mistakes and just building on top of those days, I learned that there’s a lot of really good players out there that I haven’t seen before and I’m anxious to get back out there and get in the mix with them again. I love the competition. Daelin Hayes put me on my butt one time and I got back up. I’m like, ‘Let’s go.’ That’s what I needed, a little kick in the butt, someone to challenge me. So, I’m looking forward to going to Buffalo and getting challenged every day.”
Here is a closer look at the players drafted Saturday who will be joining Brown as rookies with the Bills:
Tommy Doyle, OT, Miami (Ohio)
Drafted: Round 5, Pick No. 161
The Bills continue to go big with their first pick on the third day of the draft. Doyle is 6 feet, 8 inches and 320 pounds, the second consecutive offensive tackle chosen by the Bills who stands 6-8, following Brown's addition in the third round.
"I was working on a basketball team here for the Orchard Park league, too," Beane said. "I'm going to run point guard for some of these guys, but no, they are tall. It's crazy how big some of these tackles have gotten. You go back to Spencer, the biggest thing you're looking for is how well can they bend. If they can't bend, it really becomes a problem. We think these guys can bend enough to lower their pad level. That's probably the hardest things that they have to do at 6-8 so that guys don't get underneath their pads and they lose leverage. They're athletic. We feel like they have the ability to be left and right tackles."
Doyle said he was about 6-7, 270 pounds when he went to college and "kind of got bigger and stronger very year."
Doyle played in 32 career games for the RedHawks. He was named a first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection in 2020, despite Miami playing just three games in a season shortened due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Doyle was also a first-team All-MAC selection in 2019, starting 13 games at left tackle.
Growing up in Edina, Minn., Doyle originally though he would pursue a different sport.
"Edina High School sends a bunch of high school hockey players to go play college," he said. "So I kind of grew up skating, and playing on all the youth hockey teams. Playing in peewees, playing in bantams. But I mean, ultimately, I continued to grow and get bigger and kind of fell in love with football, and felt like that was a better path."
Marquez Stevenson, WR, Houston
Drafted: Round 6, Pick No. 203
Stevenson, 5 feet, 10 inches and 182 pounds, made his college reputation as a big-play threat. Over his last 30 games, he scored 27 touchdowns combined as a receiver, rusher and returner. He had 10 catches of 50 or more yards in the 2019 season and three of 70-plus yards. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds at the Houston pro day, according to Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy.
For his career, he was a three-year starter and had 2,269 receiving yards on 147 catches and 22 TD catches. He returned 34 kickoffs for 889 yards, a 26.1-yard average, and three TDs.
Stevenson, a native of Shreveport, La., was a team captain for the Cougars in 2020. In five games last season, he had 20 catches for 307 yards. In 2019, he had 52 catches for 907 yards and nine TDs. In 2018, he had 75 catches for 1,019 yards and nine TDs.
Stevenson joins a talented Bills receiving corps and will have a tough time cracking the active roster. But he brings value as a developmental player who is good with the ball in his hands, with an ability to make things happen on receiver screens, shallow crossing routes and jet sweep plays. It’s a role that veteran Isaiah McKenzie fills for the Bills. Stevenson is viewed as a raw route-runner.
Stevenson was roommates with Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver at Houston. Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White also is from Shreveport and served as a mentor.
"I first met him when I was under 10 years old," Stevenson said of White. "Me and his little brother were best friends growing up so I was always around him."
Damar Hamlin, S, Pitt
Drafted: Round 6, Pick No. 212
The Bills turned to Pittsburgh again for help in the secondary, selecting safety Damar Hamlin in the sixth round, a year after selecting the Panthers' Dane Jackson in the seventh round.
Hamlin, listed at 6 feet and 200 pounds, recorded 275 tackles with six interceptions, 21 passes defensed and one fumble recovery in 46 games for Pitt. He was named All-Atlantic Coast Conference second team after the 2020 season with team highs of 67 tackles and seven pass breakups. He has good size and length, with 32-inch arms. He posted a solid time of 4.60 seconds in the 40-yard dash and a 35-inch vertical jump. He can be an asset on special teams, a key ingredient if he hopes to make the 53-man roster.
"Throughout this whole process I've been preaching I'm ready to contribute wherever, even if I'm handing out water on the sidelines," he said. "If you know me, you know I'm a team player."
Rachad Wildgoose, CB, Wisconsin
Drafted: Round 6, Pick No. 213
With the second of back-to-back picks in the sixth round, the Bills finally addressed cornerback, which was considered a need coming into the draft. Wildgoose played 24 games at Wisconsin, making 57 tackles (including five for loss), an interception, 14 passes defensed and three fumble recoveries. As a sophomore in 2019, Wildgoose had 33 tackles (including three for loss), an interception, six pass defenses, and a fumble recovery.
He has a reputation for playing aggressively, with 13 career defensive pass interference or holding penalties.
"I feel like I'm an agile player, too," Wildgoose said. "Aggression is just something that I can tap into to make me all-around. But aggression is a big part of football. That's the last gladiator sport, so aggression plays a big role in the player I am."
The 5-10, 191-pound Wildgoose impressed the Bills with the quality they always value in players at all positions: Versatility. He has shown the ability to cover receivers outside and in the slot.