The Buffalo Bills believe they are past the “rebuild stage” of their development. ¶ If that’s true, then fans could consider this the “bolster stage” in their quest to field an NFL winner. ¶ They have a lot of bolstering to do. ¶ Even though the Bills enter the 2014 NFL draft in a rare position of not having one glaring need, they have plenty of positions that could use strengthening.
The key question entering the draft for Bills General Manager Doug Whaley is: How can he turn a couple of average positions into positions of strength?
The Bills’ offense ranked 19th in yards and 22nd in points last season. It could use a big receiving weapon, an offensive tackle and another running back.
The Bills’ defense looks closer to playoff caliber than the offense. It ranked 10th in yards allowed and 20th in points allowed. Still, the defense could use another defensive end, and some help at linebacker and cornerback.
“We can stack the board without having a pressing need,” Whaley said. “When you have it set the way we do this year, we have a less chance of making a mistake, and we’re excited about that.”
Offensive improvement would appear to be the bigger priority over the first two days of the draft. AFC East champion New England ranked third in the NFL in scoring last season. If the Bills are ever going to gain ground on the Pats, they need more points.
“Our main focus is making sure EJ progresses,” Whaley acknowledged, referring to second-year quarterback EJ Manuel.
Whaley was talking about the season in general, not necessarily the draft, but the two are intertwined.
Here’s a review of the Bills’ positions of need and the players who may be available to them throughout the three days of the draft, which starts Thursday:
• Big weapon: Another receiving target with size would help Manuel. Any of the top three receiving weapons in the draft probably would help the Bills immediately. They are Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron.
Watkins, who stands 6-foot-1 but plays bigger, is coveted by Buffalo and just about every other team in the top 10 of the draft. Buffalo, holding the ninth pick overall, probably would have to trade into the top five to get him.
Evans, 6-5 and 231 pounds, might go sooner than ninth as well. He’s strictly an outside-the-numbers receiver. He’s very unpolished at route-running. But it’s not unreasonable to think he could score seven touchdowns as a rookie, strictly as a red-zone threat.
Ebron is 6-4 and 250. He probably will be available at No. 9. But if Buffalo doesn’t take him, he could go in the next several picks.
“He’s a playmaker as a receiving tight end, but at the same time he’s a complete tight end,” said Jim Monos, Bills director of player personnel. “He blocks, he gives great effort, he’s strong, he’s got good size. … His hands are good.”
If the Bills don’t go with a big weapon in the first round, the receiving class is deep.
In the second round, it’s possible one of the following highly regarded receivers with size might still be available at No. 41: Florida State’s 6-5 Kelvin Benjamin, Indiana’s 6-2 Cody Latimer, Vanderbilt’s 6-2½ Jordan Matthews or Ole Miss’ 6-2 Donte Moncrief. No. 41 might be a little high for the second-best tight end in the draft.
In the third round, the Bills might have to be lucky at No. 73 to get a player like Clemson’s Martavis Bryant or Alabama’s Kevin Norwood. The tight end crop is not deep into the middle rounds.
• Tackle: Two or three tackles could go in the first eight picks. The top three are Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan. If Matthews were to fall to No. 9, that could make for an intriguing choice for the Bills. He has no character flaws and looks like a sure-fire 10-year starter in the NFL. So does the fourth best tackle, Notre Dame’s Zack Martin, although he’s not quite as big as Matthews. Martin would be a near fail-safe pick. But if the Bills want a receiving threat more, they should have tackle options later in the draft.
Tackles who could be available at No. 41 include Nevada’s Joe Bitonio, Tennessee’s JaWuan James and Virginia’s Morgan Moses. Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio likely will be there. In the third round, the Bills might still be able to get Ohio State’s Jack Mewhort, Tennessee’s Antonio Richardson or Canadian super-sleeper Laurent Duvernay-Tardif of McGill University.
• Linebacker: If the Bills are going to cross everyone up in the first round, linebacker is a place to do it. Buffalo had first-round talents C.J. Mosley of Alabama and Ryan Shazier of Ohio State in for pre-draft visits. If the right receiver or tackle are not available, or if the Bills get an offer to move back several spots, it would be easy to imagine Mosley or Shazier being the best player available. It’s not a glaring need. Buffalo signed veteran free agent Keith Rivers to play strong-side linebacker. Manny Lawson can play the spot. But there’s no disputing Mosley and Shazier are studs, and it’s likely both are in the top 15 on the Bills’ draft board. In the later rounds, a linebacker with speed could be of help.
• Edge rusher: If the Bills are going to take an edge rusher, the second round looks like the time to do it. Players who could be available at No. 41 include: Auburn’s Dee Ford, Georgia Tech’s Jeremiah Attaochu, Oregon State’s Scott Crichton and maybe Boise’s Demarcus Lawrence.
Third-round prospects include North Carolina’s Kareem Martin, Louisville’s Marcus Smith and Texas’ Jackson Jeffcoat.
• Running back: The Bills brought six running backs in for pre-draft visits. Both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are entering the final year of their contracts. Jackson is 33. The six visitors were: Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde, Louisiana State’s Jeremy Hill, Towson’s Terrence West, Georgia Southern’s Jerick McKinnon, Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk and Terrance Cobb of Cumberlands. Hyde is a second-round pick, Hill a third-rounder. The rest probably will go on the third day of the draft. A quality back will be available to the Bills in the fourth round and maybe the fifth or sixth rounds, too.
• Cornerback: Every team can use more depth at cornerback. If free agent signee Corey Graham winds up spending much of his time at safety, then cornerback becomes more of a priority for Buffalo. The Bills had six cornerbacks in for pre-draft visits. They were: Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, Liberty’s Walt Aikens, Rice’s Phillip Gaines, Clemson’s Bashaud Breeland and Duke’s Russ Cockrell. Fuller is a first-round pick. Roby could go late in the first or early in the second. Aikens probably is a third-rounder. Gaines and Breeland are third- or fourth-rounders. Cockrell is a third-day pick.