What a wild, wacky and hectic week it’s been for the Buffalo Bills. Leading into 2015 NFL Free Agency period, all focus was zeroed-in on the contract status between the team and budding star pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who’s notched 20 sacks in two seasons since being acquired in a trade with the Colts. There were rumblings of the Bills having potential interest in mid-tier players like Jermaine Gresham, Orlando Franklin and David Harris. Okay. Sounded reasonable.
Then, out of the blue, the team traded the “legendary” fan-favorite phenom linebacker, Kiko Alonso, a 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate that missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL to the Philadelphia Eagles. In return, the Bills received 26-year old running back LeSean McCoy, who’s arguably a top-three back in the league. The team traded a late-round pick to the Vikings for veteran QB Matt Cassel, who will provide valuable depth at the Bills’ weakest, and most crucial position.
After retaining Hughes just before the free agency period began, the Bills went big. Signed fullback Jerome Felton, to accompany two versatile, Swiss-army knife playmakers in wide receiver Percy Harvin and tight Charles Clay.
As Bills fans, we’ve been conditioned to believe in the “Cash to Cap” philosophy, making attempts at rationalizing the decade-long failure of retaining home-grown talent (see: Winfield, Antoine, Clements, Nate, McGahee, Willis, Lynch, Marshawn, Byrd, Jairus, etc.). For years, the mysterious executive decision-makers like Jim Overdorf and Jim Monos, who handle contracts and player personnel have been loathed by the fan base for overseeing the failure. Now, with all due respect to Mr. Ralph C. Wilson, it is blatantly obvious that there is a new sheriff in town. The Bills are creatively structuring contracts in order to spend as much cash as possible while being able to maneuver the salary cap. Things at One Bills Drive are being done in a different way.
This offseason, Terry and Kim Pegula opened their checkbook, allowing General Manager Doug Whaley to hand out 16 new contracts (11 Offense, 5 Defense) that will pay out $66.5 million in guaranteed money for the 2015 season alone (not including Charles Clay’s contract). The front-loaded nature of the majority of the deals allows the team to be flexible if needed for the future. But more importantly, the Bills now have created competition or depth at nearly every position on the roster.
The offensive line is a question mark, but transitioning to Greg Roman’s predominantly man/gap-blocking scheme should maximize the talents of last year’s rookie linemen, Cyrus Kouandjio, Cyril Richardson and Seantrel Henderson, none of which should be written off yet.
While the team still has some holes to fill, particularly on the offensive line, the overall talent and depth obtained this offseason will allow the Bills to follow the “Best Player Available” route in the 2015 NFL Draft. Far too often fans get caught up in the “select position x in round y” thought process, which is the exact reason many teams stay bad, while the same select few teams remain contenders year-in-and-year out.
So, lets take a look at how the Bills 2015 Draft class could shake out.
Round Two, Pick No. 50
DL Preston Smith, Mississippi State, 6’5” 271 lbs
The Bills pass on an offensive lineman here, as the depth of the class should allow them to receive good value in a later round. Rex Ryan’s defense calls for versatility, size, power and length out of his linemen and SAM linebackers and Preston Smith fits the bill. Fans will react horribly with this selection, just as Jets fans did when Rex Ryan took Sheldon Richardson in the first round, despite already having a loaded group. How’d that work out?
Smith is a really versatile player- he’s got a long frame that makes him a force on the edge, but he’s got the bulk and strength to be a disruptor from an interior position. Despite weighing 271 pounds, he’s athletic enough to play the SAM linebacker role that Manny Lawson and Randell Johnson are fighting for. Check out the image below, comparing Preston Smith’s measurables to those of Rex’s former strong-side linebackers.
Round Three, Pick 81
OT Donovan Smith, Penn State, 6’6” 328 lbs
The Bills were able to get Kraig Urbik to take a pay cut, pairing him with Richie Incognito, Cyril Richardson and Cyrus Kouandjio at the guard spots. Buffalo takes a big, powerful tackle in Donovan Smith, who stands 6’6” and weighs 328 pounds. Smith is a massive and long guy, flashing 34 ¾” arms that allow him to get a grip on a defender and drive them off the ball. His technique in pass protection is wildly inconsistent, but has translatable traits and has his talent has flashed often enough to feel confident in him as a competent player.
Round Five, Pick 147
HB/TE/FB/ST Jalston Fowler, Alabama, 5’11” 254 lbs
The Bills signed Charles Clay and Jerome Felton, but Jalston Fowler is a do-it-all HBack in the mold of Marcel Reece. He’d be a factor on special teams, and would likely stick to the roster as a reserve fullback and tight end.
Round Six, Pick 172
TE Rory Anderson, South Carolina, 6’5” 244 lbs
Rory Anderson is an underrated and athletic tight end that’s got enough speed to attack the seam and shows reliable hands. He has experience playing attached to the offensive line and in the slot, showing off enough effort and strength as a blocker to be an attractive target for the Bills. If it wasn’t for injuries, Anderson would likely be a Day 2 pick.
Round Six, Pick, 178
CB Ladarius Gunter, Miami
Rex loves his cornerbacks, and Gunter is an intriguing prospect. Standing 6’2” and weighing 202 pounds with 31 ½” arms, Gunter has the ideal frame for the press corner that is needed on defense. Leodis McKelvin and Corey Graham are aging, so Gunter would have time to develop into an eventual replacement.
LB Brock Hekking, Nevada
Owner of the sweetest mullett in the 2015 NFL Draft, Nevada’s pass rushing linebacker Brock Hekking racked up 175 tackles, 32 tackles for loss and 20 sacks during his three years as a starter for the Nevada Wolfpack. If his mullett didn’t get him much attention, his outstanding performance at the Medal of Honor Bowl definitely should have been enough to be worthy of a draft pick.