The Buffalo Bills and 31 other NFL teams will be in fact-finding mode this week in Indianapolis.
A total of 335 prospects will take part in the NFL Scouting Combine, at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bills, like every other team, will get the opportunity to conduct private interviews with up to 60 of those draft hopefuls.
Teams will also have the chance to gather medical information on prospects, get accurate height and weight measurements on underclassmen (of which there are 85 scheduled to participate) and watch as players go through the usual battery of drills, including the 40-yard dash, 225-pound bench press and vertical jump, among others.
After hours, a who’s who of NFL bigwigs will mingle at St. Elmo Steak House. Front-office types and agents of impending free agents (for the Bills, think: Jairus Byrd) will have the opportunity to sit down and talk contract parameters.
Information gathered at the combine will help teams build their draft boards, but it’s only a part of the puzzle. Players will still hold pro days on their college campuses, and teams can bring in up to 30 prospects for interviews at their facilities prior to the draft.
Still, the combine has become one of the “marquee” events on the NFL’s offseason calendar. Last year, for example, NFL Network had more than 7.25 million viewers for its combine coverage. This year, it has more than 60 hours of programming planned, from today through Tuesday.
“From my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class I’ve seen in probably 10 years. That’s been reinforced by most of the general managers and scouts I’ve talked to throughout the league,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, one of the most respected national talent evaluators. “I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top 10 pick last year.
“So I think there’s more depth. I think there are certain positions that are stacked this year and you can get a quality player through three or four rounds.”
That’s good news for the Bills, who hold the ninth overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft, which is scheduled for May 8.
Mayock talked about the Bills’ recent change at defensive coordinator, from Mike Pettine to Jim Schwartz, during this week’s marathon conference call, which stretched nearly three hours.
“Philosophically, they are similar defensive coaches. They might get it done differently from an X-and-O perspective, but philosophically they are both tough, attacking defensive coordinators,” Mayock said. “I think it’s going to be in this situation, more up to Jimmy to learn what they have done the last couple years as opposed to bringing in a completely different system and trying to get all the players to adjust to it. I think they will see a lot of what they had last year with a little bit of influence from Jim Schwartz.”
Another part of the combine for both prospects and teams is their obligation to the media — positional groups each have a designated day to speak, while the head coach and/or general manager from nearly every NFL team will give a 15-minute news conference over the next couple days. Bills coach Doug Marrone gets his turn at 11:15 a.m. today.
The Bills aren’t the only local connection to this year’s combine. Linebacker Khalil Mack is poised to become the highest-drafted player ever out of the University at Buffalo.
“I think Mack is a top 10 player —- I actually think he’s a top five player,” Mayock said. “I put the tape on not really knowing what to expect. I knew he had a lot of positive reviews from around the country. First tape I put in was Ohio State, and he blew them up. He made plays all over the field, on the edge, dropping into coverage, explosion, hustle …
“The next tape I put in was Kent State and he made a one-handed interception. He runs like a safety. He explodes off the edge. From my perspective in today’s NFL, guys that have natural edge rush ability are like gold; you’ve got to get them when they are available. I think he’s one of the elite edge guys in the draft, but he hustles, he’s tough, he can play the run game, and unlike a lot of these guys, he can also drop in coverage. So I have yet to find a hole in his game.”
Mayock said Mack has the flexibility to play strong- or weak-side linebacker, and has the ability to cover tight ends.
“I think the important thing is that if you are drafting him as a 4-3 team, you have to make sure that in nickel and sub situations, you’re freeing him up to go get the quarterback and in today’s NFL, because of the versatility in defenses, I think that’s fine,” he said.
Mack isn’t the only player with a Western New York connection in Indianapolis this week. Penn State guard John Urschel (Williamsville native from Canisius High School) and Toledo running back David Fluellen (Lockport) will also take part.
Mayock said this year’s draft will be flush with difference-makers, including Mack. He identified wide receiver as the deepest position group, calling it the best class he’s seen “in years,” with offensive tackle not far behind.
“The playmakers at the top of this draft, it’s not just a couple guys. There are three offensive tackles that could go in the top 10. There are three quarterbacks that could go in the top 10,” he said. “I could go on and on. There is more quality at the top end of this draft than I’ve seen in a long time.”
Mayock called Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins a “special player,” and didn’t rule out the Houston Texans drafting him No. 1 overall. Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout and fellow analyst for NFL Network, projects Watkins to the Bills with the ninth overall pick in his latest mock draft.
“I usually don’t get too excited about wide receivers in the top 10, but this kid is different,” Mayock said. “He’s physically explosive. He’s got great hands. He’s got good size. He’s got very good speed and what I really, really like about this kid is he’s got toughness.
“He’ll physically beat press coverage. … He’s got a little attitude about him. He blocks people. You can see him getting” angry “during games and going after corners and safeties and linebacker. He’s got an attitude like he wants to be the best player there is, and you combine that with his physical ability, I think it’s awesome.”
Last season, linebacker Manti Te’o’s news conference was the most eagerly awaited of the combine. This year, that honor will go to Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who publicly revealed earlier this month that he’s gay. Sam would become the first active gay player in the NFL — if he’s drafted.
“He’s a tweener and I think that’s why people are having trouble with the evaluation,” Mayock said. “I saw him on Missouri tape and then again at Senior Bowl and what I saw was a guy that’s a natural edge rush guy. He’s much better going forward than he is backwards. He’s got a little bit of explosion off the edge, but he doesn’t have the length. So he’s got linebacker size, but he’s got physical skill set of a defensive end. He’s a tough fit.
“What I see is a situational pass rush, not an every-down player but a situational pass rusher that also can become a core special teams player and I think he goes somewhere in the third to the fifth round.”
Mayock also compared one of this year’s top players, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, to a current member of the Bills.
“I know that he’s got the physical makeup to be the best player in the draft. If you want to compare him to Mario Williams, I think he’s a better football player with more upside than when Mario came out of college, and he was, obviously, the first pick,” Mayock said. “From a physical skill set, this kid is as freaky as they come. He plays a position of critical importance in today’s NFL, which is an ability to get the quarterback. He can play multiple places on the defense, so all those things check off.
“My biggest concern is just what’s his mental makeup and how important is it to him when he gets a big paycheck to become the best player in football, or is he just going to be happy to be a millionaire. So I think that’s the most critical checking point here from an organization is finding out what the motivation, what kind of kid are they going to get.”