Smokescreens, lies, deceit — it’s about that time of year in the National Football League. And while the individual teams are angling to get the players they covet in the first round, everyone else tries to figure out what is the apple of a team’s eye.
The fun part — or the infuriating part based on your perspective — is trying to read between the lines of it all to figure out the intentions of a team. Each and every year the Bills host a draft luncheon for the general manager and his two trusted allies to be peppered with questions from reporters.
Granted, this time of year, trying to figure out draft plans has everything to do with reading in between the lines, but that’s what makes it such an intriguing process.
With those disclaimers out of the way, what did we learn from the Bills front office on Wednesday?
First, let’s go over the needs of the team. With how the roster is set up, the Bills could use an inside linebacker, offensive tackle, edge rusher, wide receiver, safety, or defensive linemen. A pretty wide array of positions, but when you look at the most dire of those needs, you can primarily bring it down to two — inside linebacker and defensive line.
With edge rushers, the Bills still have Jerry Hughes, and seem content with Manny Lawson on the other side of the formation. At wide receiver, they have two starting options as it stands today in a run-first offense. At safety, it’s not pressing enough and the value probably won’t be there with the 19th overall pick. Lastly, with offensive tackle, the Bills put a substantial amount of their offseason resources into that facet of the team, and also seem fine with the idea of starting Jordan Mills.
So, that leaves us with inside linebacker and defensive line — two positions that the Bills need to add both a starting player, and depth to.
At inside linebacker, the Bills have a grand total of three players in Preston Brown, Zach Brown, and Kevin Reddick. Preston Brown is the only guaranteed starter among them, and Zach Brown is the only thing they’ve got at weakside linebacker at the moment.
On the defensive line, the Bills have Marcell Dareus, but past that have nothing but question marks. Kyle Williams is 33-years-old, with a large cap hit in 2017 he's likely in the final year of his contract as currently constructed, and trying to come back from a season-ending knee injury. Corbin Bryant performed relatively well last year, but is much better suited as a rotational player. Past that trio, the Bills have no legitimate depth to speak of.
The Bills can talk about the best player available strategy, which to a certain point in later rounds is a good one to take. However, it’s a lot more complex than just taking the ‘best player on the board’ in the first round, because more often than not, the grades between prospects at different positions are so similar that you start to bring in other, more team and draft specific factors.
Sifting through all the obvious attempts to learn about how a team feels about individual prospects, at a press conference like the one the Bills held on Wednesday, it’s the more generic questions and answers that you can best read between the lines.
One answer that stood out early on in the press conference was in response to a statement that there should be high value prospects available in the first round.
Whaley’s response, along with another piece of information we learned today, lends itself to eliminating one of those two need-based positions.
“And that goes into your decision making as well. Is position X, if this guy and position Y are similar, but in position Y, they’re a lot deeper, then you go with X. So, it’s jockeying and trying to figure out where you can get the best player at the best value.”
The basis of this quote is this: in a tie between position need — or between two individual players — the tie goes to the position that offers the least valuable options later on in the draft. That means the position with greater depth, as long as there are two equal prospects, is the one the team will usually wait on.
Now, use that quote, along with another piece of information. In an interview this morning on WGR Sports Radio 550, Whaley said that inside linebacker was amongst the most top heavy positions in the draft, with a definitive gap between the top prospects and the Day Three players. Meanwhile, many draft experts have pointed to the defensive line as one of the deepest we’ve ever seen at that position.
So, in a tie between inside linebacker and defensive line, it goes to the ‘backer.
The two prospects that are valued as first-round picks: Ohio State’s Darron Lee, and Alabama’s Reggie Ragland. They are two players that represent two different forms of the position, which makes for a difference in opinion based on what the team is looking for.
Lee is a super athletic brand of linebacker, with the ability to cover tight ends and running backs, all while flying around the field making plays. Ragland is more of a bigger bodied, old-school, block-taking-on type of linebacker, who can also moonlight as a pass rusher when called upon. As you can see, two completely different styles of player that are coupled in the same position.
Luckily, Whaley —generically speaking — was pressed on that topic as well.
“I look at it, not Rex's defense, where the game's going. I mean, you look at our division alone. New England, well, not they've got the two tight ends, but they're going to be in a lot of three- and four-wides. The Jets, their three wides is the base set, and Adam Gase in Miami, his base set is three wides. So the game is going to a more spread out, less downhill — how many fullbacks are in the league? So those bigger-bodied guys are not going to be as heavily coveted in our division just because you're going to be in nickel and dime a lot. We're going to play 70-percent of the time in nickel, so we need a guy that's quick.”
The key phrases here: spread out, less downhill, nickel, quick. These are all words that favor the more athletic Lee, over the “bigger-bodied” Ragland.
Whaley did say of the Alabama linebacker, “I don't think Reggie's just a straight banger. I think he's got a chance to play on third down.” A chance, and only that. Ragland does far too many similar things to Preston Brown to justify selecting him over a player like Lee.
Based on what I heard all day today and the quotes I’ve outlined above, I believe that if the Bills had their way, they would make Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee their first-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.
If they can’t get their hands on him, I’m sure they’d be more than happy to use the 19th overall pick to take a potential starting defensive lineman. However, with the talent gap that exists at inside linebacker past the first round, and the overall lack of talent or depth at inside linebacker on the Bills roster, Lee might just be their favorite at 19th overall.