(WKBW) — Ladies and gentlemen, it's lying season around the National Football League. With the annual draft now only ten days away, the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the league will do their best to simultaneously not tip their hand, while also trying to get other teams around the league to take the bait and falsely think they know what a team will do.
It's a fascinating exercise yearly because, at its core, the NFL Draft is the best way to improve the fortunes of your franchise if a team hits on enough picks. If done poorly enough, it costs some front office members and coaching staffs their jobs.
That reason is why it all turns into one of the biggest lying games around professional sports, which is what makes press conferences like the one the Bills with GM Brandon Beane on Thursday so interesting. As a decision maker, he has to toe the line between not giving up information while also giving up information for teams to find false confidence, in thinking that they know what the Bills will do in the first round of the draft.
After the whole press conference wrapped up, and upon re-watching it again, some of my takeaways on where all of this could go when the Bills are on the clock on Thursday, April 25:
1) The notion of best player available versus a need
- Throughout the offseason, a quote that has stuck to Beane is the fact that he believes in the idea of best player available with his draft selections -- most notably, with their top ten pick in 2019. It's a notion that gets referenced quite a bit, but it's tough to know what it means unless there exists some context. And in this case, the best player available strategy and need-based strategy can still line up with one another better than you'd think.
"If there is a guy that is best player available and a need, the board is telling you what to do. It's not like we're ignoring needs."
When some people that follow the draft think of the best player strategy, a common misconception is that it is a positionless theory on how to build a roster through the draft. 'Have a quarterback that you believe in already but a quarterback is the best man on your board? Take him!' That's an extreme example, but the concept remains the same. However, look no further than the fact of what Brandon Beane referenced late in the press conference -- that they wind up with somewhere between 115 and 140 players on their draft board by the time the actual event happens, yet there are over 250 players taken every single year. Why is there such a disconnect between the number of players picked, and the number of names on the Bills' draft board? The obvious reasons for players coming off the board are for character and injury concerns, but the ones that get talked about less so are organizational feelings about what they have on the roster currently, and how important the position is to the construction of their list. So, for instance, in the Bills' case it makes little sense for them to select a quarterback in the first three rounds, so then why would they have a quarterback physically on their board if they had no intentions of taking that player? By simple evaluation reasoning, a quarterback could conceivably be worth the ninth overall selection to them, but because they feel so strongly about Josh Allen and his future, it would be counter-productive to take him at that draft slot. That nuance is what gets us closer to where need meets the best player available. The notion of 'BPA' is sometimes used as a crutch by decision makers in and around the draft because it's a very general term that usually wards off counter questions from the media because the 'BPA' strategy has an air of finality to it. However, all things can be true here. Most notably, the needs of a roster and the theory of a team in the importance of position can weigh players on their draft board -- or at least I've come to believe as much with the Bills after listening to Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott over the past two years. Beane is doing his best to play poker, but nothing is more telling than the decisions that they've made in the past. And with their two first-round picks in 2018, we saw the Bills attack a need at a premium position both times, and if I had to guess, I believe that trend will continue along on day one of the 2019 NFL Draft.
2) Ok, so which positions are on the short list?
- Well, even though Beane is hellbent on showing everyone that he means what he says about drafting the best player available, it would make little sense to select, say, a linebacker, because they just invested a premium pick in the spot last year with Tremaine Edmunds, and have Matt Milano on a cheap contract for the next two seasons. But where does the value meet the need? I think it does in three positions, with a neighboring fourth that I don't feel as strongly about just because of the depth of the class. The first is defensive tackle -- a three-technique tackle, to be more specific. The Bills have a significant need to add not just help for 2019 but into the future at a position that head coach Sean McDermott has deemed "critical" to defensive success. I think you can also lump offensive tackle into this group, because of how poorly the position performed in 2018 and without any firm player that the organization believes in for the long-term existing on the team currently. Third is a defensive end, which is less of a need on paper for the 2019 season -- but it's still a significant need for the future because the Bills don't have anything besides Trent Murphy signed for 2020. The neighboring fourth? Tight end, but we'll get more into that in a bit.
3) Why should D-Line be taken so seriously in the first round?
- Specifically, on the defensive line, Beane was asked if the class lived up to the "off-the-charts" great billing that some have given it.
"I think it's solid. I don't know if I want to label it off-the-charts great..."
"...I'd have to really go back and look."
Now, how I perceive this is less about the top-end talent, which is immense in the form of Alabama's Quinnen Williams, Houston's Ed Oliver, Mississippi State's Montez Sweat, Ohio State's Nick Bosa, and Josh Allen of Kentucky -- but more about the class in totality. That's where I found it intriguing. The Bills, under Beane and McDermott, have yet to invest a draft pick of any kind to a pass-rushing player at either three-technique or defensive end. Not a single one. Not even a seventh-round pick. Go back and look if you don't believe me. They believe far too heavily in those positions to ignore them this far into their tenure. That, in itself, leads me to think that if there aren't any strong inclinations about the depth of the defensive line group and what you can find later on, then the standard line of thinking would be to do what it takes to find one in the first round. Considering how aggressive we have known Beane to be in his two years on the job, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibilities that he would even move up to attain one of these players -- with a close eye on Williams and Oliver among all the others. Now, I don't think he's going to do it all while sacrificing his entire draft, but if he feels strongly enough about the potential impact of a player and it won't cost him what he wanted to accomplish in the draft, I think he'd do it. I'd have a hard time believing that he would be staunchly against that, knowing him. Beane said on Monday that he tiers the board in the first round by three ways: top players, middle players, and bottom players. If he could assure himself a top player by worsening his position in one of the later rounds, that's a calculated risk I think Beane would be willing to make.
4) What if the top defensive linemen are gone and they can't/don't move up?
- That, to me, is where the offensive linemen come into play. The three players that stand out here are likely Florida right tackle Jawaan Taylor, Washington State left tackle Andre Dillard, and Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams. The last two are the more compelling here because while Taylor is a solid player in his own right, I don't know that the Bills feel all that strongly with using that draft resource on a right tackle only -- which is what the former Gators player is as a prospect. I'd instead like to focus on Dillard and Williams, two players that give the Bills a potential opening day left tackle in 2019. I don't feel as strongly about Williams as a left tackle in the NFL as I do about Dillard, but I also know that the Bills have a detailed scouting report on who Williams is, which could be a driving factor here as well. Williams was a significant contributor at Alabama in 2017 -- the year that current Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll served in the same role for the Crimson Tide. They don't have any questions about his leadership, his effort, his motivation, and how he'd help the locker room -- not to mention his on-the-field acumen. Dillard, on the other hand, is the prototype with the high upside -- and the Bills follow their prototypes for positions most of the time. If they can't get their hands on one of the premier defensive line prospects, I'd keep a close eye on those two players for the Bills at ninth overall.
5) Yeah, but what about tight end?
- Tight end is a bit of a wildcard here because while it isn't quite a premium position in the roster building world -- and draft history indicates that investing a first-round selection in a tight end isn't always the smartest idea -- finding a great one can dramatically alter how defenses play you. The only tight end, to me, that would be worth it to them at ninth overall is Iowa's TJ Hockenson. He is the best tight end available for what the Bills value in the position -- an all-around player that shows advanced blocking ability and receiving upside to be a good-to-great addition to the offense. The trouble here is, though, one of those offensive tackles we just discussed are likely to be available. Is a tight end, especially when there are some attractive options available on day two and early day three of the draft available, worth it over the premium position of protecting the quarterback? Is TJ Hockenson that much more of an excellent prospect to one of Andre Dillard, Jonah Williams, or both? If it's equal in terms of value and grade of the player, the tie goes to the more critical position -- which to the Bills, I believe is offensive tackle. If the Bills were to move down, I think Hockenson becomes more of a realistic possibility. Though, with the type of premium players and positions that are likely to be around at, at least ninth overall, I'm more compelled to think that the Bills will keep their first selection in the top ten of the draft.
- Without question, of all the general managers of the team that I've covered, Brandon Beane is the hardest to get a read on because he is smart in public press conferences, and mostly chooses his words wisely. All of my theorizings are based on attempts to read between the lines along with the context of past decisions, and pairing that with the players available along with the positions of need. By no means do I believe that this is their board without question, nor have I been told as much. Think of it as an educated guess from someone that has spent a great deal of time over the last two years trying to understand their principles and theories of roster-building, and the people themselves. Beane continues to force-feed the best player available line at us, and I do not doubt that he's honest with that to a certain degree. However, as I wrote, there is a way where the gap between 'best player available' and 'need' gets bridged. And unless something drastically unexpected happens on April 25, my read is that the melding of the two principles will be the case in the form of the team's first-round pick.