Buffalo Bills: 2014 NFL draft

Happy Mother's Day -- and welcome to the day after the draft.

It's the traditional time to assign letter grades to teams' draft hauls and this year is no different. ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.'s draft grades are postedInsider and the Buffalo Bills did not fare well.

Kiper gave the Bills a "C-minus," the second-lowest grade of any team. Only the Colts, with a "D-plus" grade, had a worse draft, according to Kiper.

The grade is divided into two parts: "needs" and "value." Kiper gave the Bills a "D-plus" for needs and a "C" for value.

Here's some of Kiper's take on the Sammy Watkins trade:
Sammy Watkins isn't just going to be a really good player, he already is one. He was my No. 2 prospect in the entire draft. EJ Manuel has a weapon, a player who can turn simple throws into big gains, and that matters because I still don't know how effective a downfield thrower Manuel is. My issue is that this draft is loaded with wide receivers -- there are good ones already signing as undrafted free agents as I type this, in fact -- and the Bills paid a significant price to get Watkins. A future first-round pick is always a heavy price, but they threw in a fourth as well. Think about this: the Jags took a QB one slot ahead of Watkins, but still managed to get Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in Round 2.

Kiper noted that the Bills did not draft a tight end or safety, which were both among his top needs for the team.

Here's our take: Kiper is on point about the cost to acquire Watkins. General manager Doug Whaley even acknowledged that it came at a "very high cost," and the general feeling from the team's decision makers is that they don't have the luxury of looking beyond this season. They swung for the fences with this trade and only time will tell if it was the right decision.

As far as addressing needs, taking Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round did take care of right tackle, which was one of the weaker positions along the line last season. This wasn't a strong draft for tight ends and I'm not sure how important the position will be within Nate Hackett's offense this season. If they can manage, I think Hackett will try to get Watkins, Marquise Goodwin, and Robert Woods on the field at the same time and press defenses at multiple levels.

Safety remains a significant question mark but I don't believe: (a) it was nearly enough of a need to address in the first round, and (b) it wasn't deep enough of a class for the right player to be available.

What grade would you give the Bills' draft?

Buffalo Bills draft wrap-up

May, 10, 2014
May 10
NFC wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A wrap-up of the Buffalo Bills' draft. Click here for a full list of Bills' draftees.

[+] EnlargeSammy Watkins
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtThe Buffalo Bills landed a potential star wide receiver in Sammy Watkins in the draft's first round.
Best move: The cost of the trade notwithstanding, the Bills moving up to acquire Sammy Watkins will far and away have the greatest impact. It's hardly news at this point, but Watkins is a difference-maker. He immediately becomes the Bills' top receiver and will draw the attention of opposing defensive coordinators each week. The Bills' passing game was dismal at points last season -- it ranked near the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category -- and having Watkins should change that. He will make EJ Manuel better. With that said, the Bills still have a potential bottleneck at quarterback. Despite having Larry Fitzgerald, one of the game's most explosive receivers, the Arizona Cardinals haven't been able to get over the hump because they haven't had the right quarterback. The Bills will look to avoid a similar fate.

Riskiest move: Giving up a first-round pick for Watkins was the greatest "risk" the Bills took in this draft. However, in terms of players, selecting Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round deserves some consideration. Kouandjio was red-flagged medically by some teams because, according to an NFL Network report, he had an arthritic condition in his knee. The Bills doctors apparently didn't share those same concerns. The Bills view Kouandjio as a potential long-term starter at right tackle, and if he can't stay healthy, then, naturally, those plans might not come to fruition. Is that reason enough not to draft him in the second round? Probably not. But from a medical standpoint, Kouandjio is a riskier pick than another top tackle who remained on the board at the time, Virginia's Morgan Moses.

Most surprising move: The Bills' first four picks were all pre-draft visitors and players already on the radar, so not too much was surprising about the team's draft. However, selecting Louisville linebacker Preston Brown with the ninth choice in the third round was curious. Ourlads, a reputable NFL scouting service that has produced a draft guide for 33 years, projected Brown as a sixth- or seventh-round choice. That doesn't mean NFL teams agreed with the ranking; perhaps some teams had him much higher on their board. He makes sense as a potential replacement at "Mike" linebacker if Brandon Spikes departs via free agency next season. Still, you have to wonder if the Bills could have waited until the fourth or fifth round to take him off the board. Brown doesn't have the athleticism that would make him a good fit in the Bills' sub packages, so his main contributions as a rookie might come on special teams.

File it away: With their final pick -- No. 237 in the seventh round -- the Bills took massive Miami tackle Seantrel Henderson. At 6-foot-7, 331 pounds, Henderson is one of the draft's biggest linemen and would have gone much higher in the draft had it not been for his questionable judgment. Henderson was suspended three times at Miami for marijuana use and, after explaining those incidents to teams at the NFL combine in February, tested positive for marijuana at the combine. Bills GM Doug Whaley said Henderson "knows he has one shot," so the team will apparently have a minimal tolerance level for Henderson. After drafting him in the seventh round, the Bills likely won't think twice about cutting ties with Henderson should he run into trouble again.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The pick: Preston Brown, linebacker, Louisville

My take: Not an overly surprising pick. The Bills were expected to go defense with their third pick after picking up a wide receiver and offensive tackle in the first two rounds. This was probably a case where the Bills weighed their grade on Brown against other potential targets left on the board, including Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton and cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Don't expect Brown to start this season. He makes for an ideal reserve option behind Keith Rivers (on the strong side) and Brandon Spikes (in the middle).

Third-down questions: The question mark with Brown could be on third down, as he's considered more of an early-down, run-stopping backer. The Bills will need to find an athletic option next to Kiko Alonso in their sub packages. Some teams have been in their sub defense up to 70 percent of defensive snaps. What happens if Alonso is injured? Nigel Bradham might be one possibility as a lighter, speedier linebacker but it's one of the thinner spots on the Bills' roster. I don't think Brown fills that hole.

What's next: The Bills are likely done picking tonight. Their next scheduled pick is No. 109, in the fourth round. They have two fifth-round selections and a seventh-round pick remaining.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The pick: Cyrus Kouandjio, offensive tackle, Alabama

My take: Predictable choice here. It makes sense. The Bills passed up one of the top offensive tackles when they traded up from No. 9, so they were selecting from the second-level group here. Kouandjio comes from a major program and should compete for a starting job at right tackle. Erik Pears, who turns 32 next month, started 16 games in 2013 but is an upgradeable piece. Between Pears, Kouandjio and Chris Hairston (who spent all of last season on the non-football injury list), the Bills should find a suitable right tackle. Kouandjio has the size (6-foot-6, 310 pounds) that Doug Marrone likes in offensive linemen.

Importance of right tackle: General manager Doug Whaley stressed the importance of the right tackle position in his pre-draft luncheon, noting how speed-based defensive packages now require right tackles to be just as athletic as left tackles. Kouandjio played left tackle at Alabama so he'll need to make the transition to the other side at the pro level. One of the knocks on Kouandjio, though, is his athleticism. Given Whaley's comments about the evolution of right tackle, how Kouandjio holds up against speed rushers will be something to watch.

What's next: The Bills are scheduled to make one more pick Friday night. They'll select at No. 73 overall, early in the third round. If they don't make another trade Friday, they'll head into Saturday with four picks -- one in the fourth round, two in the fifth and one in the seventh. They could be looking for defensive players at this point, and could use depth at defensive end and linebacker.
The Buffalo Bills traded their No. 41 selection to the St. Louis Rams.

In return, the Bills received the Rams' second- and fifth-round selections (Nos. 44 and 153).

The Bills now have two picks in the fifth round.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- That didn't take very long.

Less than 24 hours after trading up in the first round Thursday night to draft Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the Buffalo Bills sent veteran wideout Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers on Friday afternoon for a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick.

The writing was on the wall for Johnson to be dealt. Watkins was the draft's top receiver, and after the Bills gave up their 2015 first-round pick for him, he'll also be the Bills' top target. There wasn't room for both Johnson and Watkins at the top of the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeStevie Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesStevie Johnson is the first receiver in Buffalo Bills history to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Johnson was the Bills' leading receiver from 2010 to 2012. He rose to prominence during a brief offensive resurgence led by former quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and former head coach Chan Gailey, becoming the first receiver in Bills history to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

That made Johnson the alpha male in the Bills' receiver room, but he stumbled through much of last season, missing time throughout the season with various injuries. He never seemed to click on the field with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, and he finished with 52 catches for 597 yards, his lowest totals since 2009.

The Bills have hitched their wagon to Manuel this season and made a significant gamble to move up the draft board for Watkins. The team believes Watkins is ready to contribute "immediately" and views him as a similar talent to Julio Jones and A.J. Green.

Yes, it would be ideal if the Bills could line up Johnson and Watkins together on the same field -- much like the Atlanta Falcons do with Jones and Roddy White -- but that just wasn't in the cards. It was time to move on.

Friday's trade gives greater clarity to the Bills' depth chart at receiver. Watkins, save for any significant rookie struggles, is the unquestioned top receiver. Robert Woods, the Bills' second-round pick last season, should continue in his No. 2 role and continue to develop. Offensive coordinator Nate Hackett will find a way to fit Mike Williams, acquired via trade this offseason, and Marquise Goodwin, a third-round pick last season, into the puzzle. T.J. Graham will still be fighting for his roster spot.

But by dealing Johnson, the Bills avoid any potential headaches from Johnson, who was one of the more free-spirited and outspoken players in the locker room in recent years.

The Bills don't benefit financially from trading Johnson this offseason, but the savings will be more found over the final two years of Johnson's deal. He had a $8.85 million cap number in 2015 and a $8.95 million cap number in 2016, which the Bills will avoid with this deal.

With Johnson gone, the Bills continue to move forward with their rebuilding project under second-year general manager Doug Whaley. They're betting on Watkins helping push them into the playoffs. Johnson isn't around as insurance, but that might be for the better.

The Bills could have potentially waited until after the draft, trying to squeeze more out of a team that wasn't able to land a receiver this week. In that sense, trading away Johnson might have come earlier than expected, but the move was predictable and understandable.

Watkins is now Buffalo's guy.
The Buffalo Bills' trade Thursday night that netted Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins has implications beyond its steep cost.

In moving up five spots to select Watkins, the Bills gave up their 2015 first- and fourth-round picks, limiting their ability to add players in next spring's draft. The implication there? The Bills better make the playoffs, or there could be another group of decision-makers calling the shots next season.

There are more immediate effects, however. Let's dive in:

No excuses for Manuel: To borrow a line from "Wedding Crashers," quarterback EJ Manuel must follow rule No. 76: "No excuses, play like a champion." If the Bills are right about Watkins, then Manuel has his No. 1 receiver. Calvin Johnson makes Matthew Stafford better, Julio Jones makes Matt Ryan better, and A.J. Green makes Andy Dalton better. If Manuel doesn't improve this season, it will be hard to justify the Bills keeping him as the starter into 2015. But it's very realistic to expect Manuel to improve. The Bills have given him what he needs to be successful and it should be a fun training camp and preseason as we potentially see Manuel mature.

What to do with Stevie? When asked about Stevie Johnson's future Thursday night after the trade, general manager Doug Whaley told reporters that they could "pontificate" about that as they wished. Well, why not? The Bills aren't going to publicly say it, but it makes plenty of sense for the team to listen to trade offers for Johnson. He's not the Bills' No. 1 receiver anymore and with Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin looking to take a step forward in their second seasons, there could be less opportunities for Johnson. He still has three years remaining on his deal, which means the Bills wouldn't have much of a salary cap benefit by trading or releasing Johnson this offseason. I would expect the Bills to entertain offers in the coming weeks and months and make a decision by training camp if they want to do a deal or not.

What about Graham? Remember T.J. Graham? He's now buried on the Bills' depth chart at wide receiver. A former third-round pick, you could argue Graham is now as low as No. 6 on the Bills' depth chart. He won't push Watkins, Woods, or Johnson (if he remains) for playing time and barring Mike Williams being a complete disappointment, Graham won't surpass his playing time, either. Graham will need to push Goodwin for a role, but it still would be shocking if Goodwin was cut after just one season. With special teams captain Marcus Easley also part of the mix at wide receiver, Graham will need to hope for an injury or Johnson's departure if he is to make the team. Graham started six games last season, and aside from a few deep catches was generally a disappointment.

Tight end, tackle skipped over: We'll go more in-depth into the Bills' second- and third-round options later Friday, but by trading up for Watkins, the Bills passed up selecting a tight end or offensive tackle at No. 9. They could target either of those positions on Day 2, but for right now, Scott Chandler remains their starting tight end, with Tony Moeaki his only true competition on the depth chart. The Bills remain shaky at right tackle, with Erik Pears and Chris Hairston potentially battling for the starting job if the Bills don't pick up a lineman Friday night.
In Sammy Watkins, the Buffalo Bills got their guy.

He was the top-rated player on their draft board and widely considered the top receiver available in the draft. The Bills say that he can contribute right away and if all goes according to plan, he'll soon be in a category with A.J. Green and Julio Jones.

"Talent wise, he's on par with them," player personnel director Jim Monos said at the team's pre-draft luncheon last month.

That sets the bar high for Watkins, even in his rookie season. As a rookie -- playing in 15 games -- Green caught 65 passes for 1,057 yards and 7 touchdowns. In 13 games his rookie season, Jones had 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Falcons moved up 21 spots -- from 27th to sixth -- to select Jones. They were coming off a 13-3 season that ended in a disappointing Divisional playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. In Jones' first season, Atlanta slipped to 10-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs before rebounding and reaching the NFC title game in 2012.

Here is deal that the Falcons swung with the Cleveland Browns (sound familiar?) for Jones back in 2011:

Falcons received:
2011 first-round selection (No. 6; used to select Julio Jones)

Browns received:
2011 first-round selection (No. 27; later traded to Kansas City; Browns moved up to No. 21 to select Phil Taylor)
2011 second-round selection (No. 59; used to select Greg Little)
2011 fourth-round selection (No. 124; used to select Owen Marecic)
2012 first-round selection (No. 22; used to select Brandon Weeden)
2012 fourth-round selection (No. 118; later traded to Minnesota)

Meanwhile, the Bills moved up five spots on Thursday night to select Watkins:

Bills received:
2014 first-round selection (No. 4; used to select Sammy Watkins)

Browns received:
2014 first-round selection (No. 9; later traded to Minnesota; Browns moved up to No. 8 to select Justin Gilbert)
2015 first-round selection
2015 fourth-round selection

Essentially, the Falcons moved up 16 more spots in the first round than the Bills did, with the difference in the trades being Atlanta's current-year second- and fourth-round selections included in the deal.

Time will tell if Watkins measures up to Jones -- and if the Browns can do better than Weeden with their extra first-round pick next season.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- It's playoffs or bust for the Buffalo Bills.

It wasn't their trade that was stunning Thursday night. Many have prognosticated that the Bills could move up to No. 4 and pluck Clemson's Sammy Watkins, the draft's best receiver, off the board. It made sense months ago, and it still does.

But giving up a 2015 first-round pick for Watkins? That makes this a win-or-else season for the current regime in Buffalo.

It's even something general manager Doug Whaley, who is entering his second season at the helm, suggested shortly after making the trade.

"Very high cost. But we thought like it was a calculated risk, and a risk we were willing to take," Whaley said. "The high cost of not making the playoffs is something we weighed in and we thought this guy is going to get us to the playoffs."

What's the high cost of not making the playoffs? It could very well be Whaley's job.

The Bills are being sold and the process could be completed as soon as this summer. CEO Russ Brandon said it's business as usual, but the transition has to be in the back of Whaley's mind. With ownership changes often come leadership changes, and if the Bills can't make the playoffs this season, Whaley and possibly Brandon could be out of work.

Brandon stepped to the podium after the trade and called it a "bold move." Oh, it's bold. But the Bills moved up only five spots. Let's not confuse bold with reckless. The Bills are teetering on the latter with this deal.

Giving up their first-round pick next season strips the Bills of their most significant future asset. If EJ Manuel isn't the answer at quarterback, the Bills could have used their first-round pick next spring on a quarterback, giving their rebuilding project a shot in the arm. That option is now essentially gone.

Watkins is a dynamic playmaker and he has the potential to make Manuel better. But there are other good players in this draft that wouldn't have required the Bills giving up their first-round pick next year. They could have stayed put at No. 9 and selected tight end Eric Ebron or an offensive tackle like Taylor Lewan or Zack Martin. None is the same caliber player as Watkins but they both fit positions of need and help build out the roster.

Instead, any notions of slow and steady team building are now out the window. In passing up those players and dealing their 2015 first-round pick for Watkins, the Bills are confirming what is becoming increasingly clear: They're going for broke this season.

The Bills need Manuel to take a big step forward, or else. The Bills need to win several games in the division, or else. And most importantly, the Bills need to make the playoffs. Or else.

"Call me crazy," Whaley said. "I like those odds."

For the Bills' sake, he better be right.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The pick: Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Clemson.

My take: Wow. The Bills traded their No. 9 overall pick, their 2015 first-round pick and 2015 fourth-round pick for this selection. That's too high of a cost for Watkins in this opinion. Yes, Watkins gives EJ Manuel his best shot at succeeding in his second season, but the Bills have now depleted their draft board in what could be a critical third year of this coaching staff. Perhaps it's an indication that Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley believe their jobs are on the line this season. There will be a new owner in Buffalo, and if their 14-year postseason drought isn't snapped, the new owner could go in a different direction. Watkins is one of the draft's best talents, but I just don't think you give up your first-round pick next year for him.

Stevie Johnson's future: Stevie Johnson's future in Buffalo immediately becomes murky with this move. Johnson, the team's top receiver for the past several seasons, now must make room for Watkins on the depth chart. The Bills invested a second-round pick last year in Robert Woods and sent away a sixth-round pick last month for Mike Williams. That's a crowded picture, even before you consider Marquise Goodwin or T.J. Graham. Johnson has an $8.5 million cap number this season, but the Bills' cap savings this season would be negligible by releasing Johnson. This is a situation that bears watching. Shortly after Watkins was selected, Whaley told reporters that Johnson "is on our team. He's under contract. He's another weapon in our arsenal."

What's next: The Bills were able to preserve their second-round pick (No. 41 overall) with this trade. It's highly unlikely that they'll trade back into the first round, so they're likely done for Thursday night. See you Friday. They'll likely be searching for a tight end and offensive tackle with their second- and third-round picks.

Welcome to One Bills Drive

May, 8, 2014
May 8
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Welcome to One Bills Drive, where the Buffalo Bills will make their first-round selection tonight in the 2014 draft (8 ET, ESPN).

As we eagerly await the first round to start, here are some of the nuts and bolts:

Time of the pick: Each team has 10 minutes on the clock in the first round. If the Bills stick with the ninth pick, they should be selecting around 9:30 p.m.

Live chat: We'll have a live Bills first-round draft chat beginning at 6:30 p.m. Look for the link to that later this afternoon.

Whaley to speak after pick: Bills general manager Doug Whaley is expected to speak to reporters after the Bills make their selection. We'll also hear from the player selected via conference call at some point tonight.

Draft choice refresher: The Bills haven't been too active in wheeling and dealing their picks in recent years, so they have essentially their original allotment of selections, minus a sixth-round pick they shipped to Tampa Bay for Mike Williams. The Bills own the No. 9 pick (first round), No. 41 pick (second round), No. 73 pick (third round), No. 109 pick (fourth round), No. 149 pick (fifth round), and No. 224 pick (seventh round). Nice and simple, right?

Who said the extra two weeks before the draft were boring?

We kicked our ESPN NFL Nation live mock draft with a bang just minutes ago, swinging a deal with ESPN Houston Texans reporter Tania Ganguli for the first overall pick. In return, Tania and the Texans received the Bills' first-round pick (No. 9 overall), second-round pick (No. 41 overall), their 2015 first-round and third-round picks, and 2016 second-round pick.

Whoa. That would be sure to get Chris Berman and the ESPN crew talking Thursday night.

Such a trade would seem incredibly risky in real life and quite frankly, it would be. We wrote an extended take last Friday about why we feel the Bills shouldn't give up their 2015 first-round pick in a deal, even if it means moving up for Jadeveon Clowney.

However, brokering this deal in the safe confines of our mock draft allows us a chance to present the other side of the argument: Why would it be a good move for the Bills to trade up to No. 1 and take Clowney?

If the Bills did so, it would be a "win now" move. Despite some question marks, Clowney is probably the best player in this draft and has enormous athletic potential. Combining him, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes would give the Bills the NFL's best pass rush. It would contribute to a defense that already has several other pieces in place (Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kiko Alonso, etc.) and as we saw with the Seattle Seahawks last season, a strong defense can make a big impact.

As far as giving up future picks, the Bills' decision-makers are in a unique position. The team's pending ownership change gives them less job security. Another non-playoff season -- which would extend the Bills' NFL-leading streak to 15 seasons out of the postseason -- could doom general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone in the eyes of a new owner. Why not go for broke now?

The price tag would be significant. The Bills would select No. 1 and then not again until the third round. Next year, they'd have just one pick in the first three rounds (their original second-round selection). They'd also be without their second-round pick in 2016, but picks that far in the future aren't worth much in deals made in the present, so that 2016 selection could be the least significant piece of this exchange.

But would the Texans even agree to this trade in real life? That's up for debate. There's one school of thought that the Texans would want three first-round picks in order to trade out of their No. 1 spot, and this deal would fall short in that category.

Still, it's not out of the realm of possibility. Several reports -- including one from ESPN NFL Draft expert Todd McShay -- have placed the Bills among teams wanting to trade up, while it's hardly a secret that the Texans would be open to trading down.

Just some food for thought. Now let's get to the real thing, already.
CLEVELAND -- If the Buffalo Bills keep the ninth overall pick in next week's NFL draft, one player they could hope that falls to them is Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews.

Matthews, considered among the top three tackles in this draft class, has been frequently linked to the Bills in mock drafts and was among the Bills' 29 pre-draft visitors last month.

Jake Matthews' father, lineman Bruce Matthews, was among dozens of Hall of Famers in attendance Saturday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame's inaugural fan fest in Cleveland.

Matthews was asked about how his son would feel about playing for the Bills.

"Good. He's excited. Likes Coach [Doug] Marrone," Bruce Matthews said. "It's funny because it's hard to even picture any scenario but the more you think about it, that would work."
Jadaveon Clowney, Sammy Watkins and Khalil MackGetty Images, AP PhotoThe Bills shouldn't give away 2015 picks for Jadeveon Clowney, Sammy Watkins or Khalil Mack.

Whether their interest is legitimate or not, the Buffalo Bills appear to be in the market to trade up in the first round of next week’s draft.

If it means giving up their first-round pick next season, the Bills shouldn’t make the deal.

Not for Jadeveon Clowney. Not for Sammy Watkins. Not for Khalil Mack.

Why? The Bills need to save their top 2015 pick for a quarterback. Trading away that selection has the potential to set back the franchise in a way that having Clowney, Watkins or Mack wouldn’t overcome.

The Bills are in a critical second year of a rebuilding project. Their results this season could begin to determine the fate of coach Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley, although it would take a significant downturn for either to be fired after this season.

Second-year quarterback EJ Manuel might not have that same security. The 16th overall pick last April, Manuel enters what could be a make-or-break season.

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year quarterback EJ Manuel may be entering a make-or-break season after struggling during his rookie year.
If Manuel improves on his 4-6 record and 42.3 QBR of last season, the Bills have a better shot at making the playoffs. The pressure would be eased and the Bills would be free to use their first-round pick as they wish next spring.

But if Manuel continues his average to below-average play -- or suffers another injury (or three, as he did last season) that muddles the picture -- then the Bills will need to mull over their options. Drafting a quarterback in the first round of the 2015 draft should be on the table.

In a way, that makes last year’s draft and next year’s draft more important to the Bills than what they will do next week.

The Bills could use the 2014 draft to build around Manuel. They could stay put with the No. 9 pick and select an offensive tackle -- Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan could be on the board -- and bolster their offensive line to help protect Manuel.

Buffalo could also keep its original pick and select a difference-making receiver or tight end. North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron is a popular choice, while LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. would be more of a sleeper pick at ninth overall.

The Bills could also move up a few spots and pluck Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans, who has the size (6-foot-5) that Whaley covets.

But moving up for one of the draft’s blue-chip prospects like Clowney or Watkins would undoubtedly mean trading for the first, second or third overall picks. The Bills can probably get as far as No. 4 with their second- or third-round selections from this draft, but it will take a future pick -- probably their 2015 first-round pick -- to get up any higher than that.

Clowney has long been considered the top player available this May. He has rare athleticism and would join forces with current Bills defensive end Mario Williams, as well as Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, for unquestionably the NFL’s best defensive line.

Yet Clowney is not a quarterback. He’s not Andrew Luck. Clowney can start 16 games, rack up double-digit sacks and the Bills could still go 6-10 again.

Why? Because the team’s success hinges on Manuel.

“It’s a quarterback-driven league, so we’re going to give every avenue and every piece of the puzzle to surround EJ and make him as successful as possible,” Whaley said last week. “Our main focus is making sure EJ progresses.”

Clowney would help the Bills’ defense get off the field on third downs, which would have some benefit to Manuel, but his presence would hardly aid Manuel’s development beyond that.

What about Sammy Watkins? The Bills would likely have to give up a little less to secure the Clemson standout’s services -- he could drop to No. 3 or 4. But if getting him means giving up a first-round pick next season, the Bills shouldn’t do it.

Watkins would help Manuel more directly. In fact, having Watkins and a strong running game -- spearheaded by Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller -- would be the most ideal environment for Manuel to succeed.

It’s not just a guarantee that Manuel will succeed, and the Bills shouldn’t give up their most valuable future asset banking on Manuel’s improvement.

Would the Bills even consider giving up their first-round pick next season? Whaley hinted at the possibility last week.

“We give up our whole draft? You’re mortgaging our future,” he said. “If we give up a second-round [pick] or a pick next year, again it’s a calculated decision. I would say it all depends on the deal.”

Part of the Bills’ calculations should be placing a premium on their top pick next season. Their optimism in Manuel may very well come to fruition, so having that selection will give the Bills flexibility to push even further.

If Manuel doesn’t pan out, the Bills need a fallback plan, which should include using that pick on a quarterback in next year’s class.

It would be wrong to say this isn’t an important draft for the rebuilding Bills, but it’s sandwiched between two drafts in which the Bills could use their first-round pick on the game’s most critical position -- quarterback.

Not even Clowney should get in the way of the Bills’ keeping that card in their hand.

QBs could be key to Bills' top pick

April, 26, 2014
Apr 26
Toward the end of his 45-minute gathering with reporters Friday, Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley was asked to forecast how many quarterbacks he expected to be taken early in the first round of next month's draft.

"I hope before us, four of them go," Whaley said, laughing. "I mean, this is one of the years that the QB position is so up in the air about when they will go. I can’t tell you, but I will tell you this: If four of them go, we’ll be ready. If none of them go, we’ll be ready."

It was an off-hand response, but in many ways it is the key to what the Bills will do with the No. 9 pick.

There is a developing consensus about the top eight non-quarterback prospects in this draft. At this point, most mock drafts project defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker Khalil Mack, wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, tight end Eric Ebron, and offensive tackles Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, and Jake Matthews to come off the board in the first 10-12 picks.

Arguments can be made for Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Pittsburgh defensive lineman Aaron Donald to be included in that group -- among a few others -- but they don't fit the Bills' needs and they most likely aren't under serious consideration at No. 9.

On Friday, Bills player personnel director Jim Monos said there were "five to six" players that the team considers "elite" prospects and it's likely that those players are drawn from that group of eight.

Here's where the quarterbacks come in. If one or more quarterbacks are selected in the first eight picks, the Bills should be free to select whomever is left from that "top tier" group of eight players -- and possibly from their own group of five to six "elite" players. In that case, I think the Bills stick with the No. 9 pick and are happy with whom they select.

But if the draft reaches the No. 5, No. 6, or No. 7 pick, and no quarterbacks have been taken, that's where things get dicey for the Bills. They could gamble that the Minnesota Vikings will take a quarterback at No. 8, which would push a top non-quarterback prospect down to the Bills at No. 9. In doing so, they risk another team jumping ahead of the Bills by trading with the Vikings, who could still find a quarterback later in the first round.

Or the Bills could trade up and control their destiny. We examined the costs of trading up earlier this week, and the No. 5, No. 6, or No. 7 pick range could be the sweet spot for the Bills, assuming whichever teams holding those picks are interested. Moving up into that range would likely cost the Bills their second-round pick, and at Friday's pre-draft luncheon, Whaley seemed content with that possibility.

"If we give up a second round or a pick next year [to move up], again it’s a calculated decision," he said. "I would say it all depends on the deal."

Let's say that Clowney, Mack, Robinson, and Watkins come off the board first. That leaves Evans, Lewan, Matthews, and Ebron left from that group of eight. If the Bills moved up to No. 5, No. 6, or No. 7, I think their most likely target would be Evans, who has the height that Whaley seems to covet -- and the Bills currently lack -- at wide receiver.

If the Bills are unable to trade up and none of those eight players are available at No. 9, that's where I think the Bills could consider moving down. At that point, every quarterback would still be on the board, and their most likely deal would be trading with a team that wants to secure Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, or Johnny Manziel. The Bills could slide down the first round, select a player like LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin, and pick up an extra Day 2 pick in the process.

These are all scenarios that the Bills -- just like any NFL team -- are studying in order to plan their moves.

It's a chess game and at this point, it's impossible to know exactly how the beginning of the first round will unfold. But if you're trying to read the Bills' tea leaves when the draft begins on May 8, look no further than quarterback.