Ladies and gentlemen... welcome to draft week. All of the posturing, angling, and swirling rumors will subside on Thursday night, but before then, we still have a firestorm-like 48 hours ahead of us. And on the day of the draft, we may even have some things crystalize — like the Cleveland Browns top overall pick — to where some of the guesswork becomes less so.
In the case of the Buffalo Bills, they have a bunch of draft picks — two of which on Thursday night — and all the motivation in the world to move up in an effort to try and select their quarterback of the future. How general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott navigate this week will truly set the future of the franchise.
So, in an effort to try and crawl inside the mind of the decision makers at One Bills Drive, I’ve put together a potential board that we could be looking at on Thursday night. It goes through 22 players, seeing as how the Bills have the 22nd pick in the first round, and is influenced by team needs, educated guessing, visits with prospects, roster evaluation, and with film research concerning how they would best fit the Bills current roster and schemes.
Understanding that this could be an exercise in futility because Beane and McDermott aren’t quick to share any of their board information with anyone, you can still try and line up the pieces as best you can. So, without further ado, my best guess at the Bills’ board:
1) QB Sam Darnold, USC
- If he goes first overall, the Bills top guy in this draft as to how he’d fit their team — both as a player and as the face of the franchise — will just be an afterthought to the player that they actually select. Why is Sam Darnold at the top of this board? He is the perfect blend of everything the Bills would be looking for in a signal-caller. He has the mobility to keep plays alive, he has that knack for hitting huge throws on the run you just don’t see that often — and even in clutch times, he can stand in the pocket and make anticipatory throws in tight windows. Sometimes he makes some reckless decisions with the football, but that’s the case for all six quarterbacks that could go in the first round this year. Still only 20 years old, Darnold is viewed as a high potential player that can be the face of the franchise — and not have any questions about it — if he hits. We’ll see if he actually does go first overall because if he doesn’t, the Bills could do what it takes to strike.
2) QB Josh Allen, Wyoming
- This is going to upset a lot of you, I know. However, if we can leave the social media bubble for a brief moment, there are plenty of reasons to think that the Bills would be high on someone like Josh Allen. One of the biggest reasons that make Sam Darnold such an intriguing prospect for the Bills, and their culture-oriented outlook on building a team, is how well he would represent the franchise on and off the field. From many accounts, he’s a tireless worker, he is all about football 24/7 and has had to work as the underdog basically his entire football career from being under-recruited. From an on-the-field perspective, his traits to work with could turn him into one of the best in the league in the minds of decision-makers around the league. You start with the arm strength, of course, because it is unmatched by any other prospect available this year or perhaps in the past decade. However, the ability he shows to keep plays alive with ease by bouncing off would-be tacklers is reminiscent of Ben Roethlisberger and is what makes him such an incredible player. I want to be clear, I am not saying Josh Allen is like Ben Roethlisberger, but that one trait of Allen’s game certainly reminds you of the facet of Roethlisberger. His measurables (height, weight, hand size) are also reminiscent of a player that Brandon Beane had a hand in drafting in Carolina, Cam Newton. Allen passes all of those tests, but the one thing that drives you crazy is how on and off he showed to be in his time at Wyoming. There are times where you sit there with your jaw hitting the ground, and others where you just say, ‘What were you thinking, Josh?’ He is not a perfect prospect by any means, but teams usually bet on themselves to train these high potential wild stallions, which is precisely what Josh Allen is. And if there’s any GM that has bet on himself time after time against all odds, that would be Brandon Beane, and we also know he’s not going to draft a player just to fit the current offensive coordinator. This is his decision and his future. I think the attraction level from the Bills to Allen is very high, and I would not be surprised in the least bit if he’s around past third overall that the Bills strike and make him their quarterback of the future, regardless of the Twitter bubble outrage.
3) QB Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
- I do like Baker Mayfield a great deal, but both Darnold and Allen have a legitimate edge over him in two main categories. First, the first two are more of the prototypical variety, which I believe Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott tends to value in positions across the board. They go for the highest likelihood of success, and those physical thresholds are a part of that line of thinking. Second, the representation of the franchise is of utmost importance, too. Say what you will, but that is quite important to the Bills and the franchise that they’re trying to put together. That said, you can’t knock Mayfield too much more than that. He is a legitimate prospect that has gotten better every single year in college and shows many traits that you would like to build around with an NFL team. The trouble is, I don’t think the Bills would move ahead of the New York Jets to land Mayfield, and that looks like a very real possibility for his destination in the NFL.
4) QB Josh Rosen, UCLA
- If these were my own personal rankings, I’d have Josh Rosen atop this list. As a pocket passer, there is no better quarterback prospect in this draft. While he doesn’t have the mobility that any of the other top players at the position, he makes up for it by calmly side-stepping pressure to open up throwing lanes in the pocket, and keeping plays alive in that respect. He’s intelligent, throws with anticipation, and is extremely accurate at all levels of the field. However, the two legitimate concerns the Bills might have with him, first, is the injury history with both concussions and a shoulder ailment. As a quarterback that lacks mobility and has a less developed frame as some of the other players, there would be some concern if that player that you choose to be the face of the franchise could withstand the punishment at the NFL level. The same with Mayfield, I wonder if Darnold and Allen get the benefit of the doubt because of football is everything to them, and that might make Rosen be a little less desirable. The NFL is noticeably conservative in the sense that they don’t change their ways too much, and I would certainly put Sean McDermott in the camp of being an older school style of thinker in that respect. Plus, there is also the question, how much better can Rosen get? I’d argue he’s a rock-solid prospect that could start tomorrow if you needed him to, but the upside factor is one to consider with the NFL decision makers. For those reasons, I think the Bills might have Rosen fourth of the ‘Big Four.’ That said, if they miss out on the first three, I think they could certainly make a move up the board to take him.
5) LB Roquan Smith, Georgia
- On to the non-quarterbacks, and you’re going to notice a trend here with the next three. All of them play a major position of need for the Buffalo Bills. To me, the top non-quarterback that the Bills would want is Roquan Smith. He is the future of the middle linebacker position, and very close to a perfect fit as an athletic, rangy middle linebacker that can man the middle of Sean McDermott’s scheme. Some teams don’t value linebackers that highly, but the Bills are not one of those teams. McDermott’s defenses win up the middle — with stellar play from defensive tackles and at linebacker, which is why Carolina put such a premium on those two positions all the while that McDermott was there. With Smith, he has the athleticism to drop back into zone coverage, he can get sideline-to-sideline easily, and he can shed blocks really well despite his frame. If the Bills swing and miss on their quarterback with their first pick and Roquan Smith is somehow on the board at 12, they’ll run the card in.
6) G Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame
- It’s unlikely that he’ll be on the board at 12, but if he is, I think this would be an impact player at a position that the Bills could stand to upgrade. He’s the top guard on the board, and while I don’t think they value that position really highly in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think they can ignore the value and the need at 12th overall if they miss on the quarterbacks and have to stay at 12.
7) DE Bradley Chubb, NC State
- Much like Nelson, there really isn’t a strong likelihood that Bradley Chubb is there at 12th overall, but we’ve seen the Panthers prioritize the front seven in many drafts for McDermott, so if Chubb were somehow there and they miss on the quarterbacks, it would be quite tempting. Again, this is not likely, but he needs to be on the board as the potential best player available.
8) RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State
- The same story as Nelson and Chubb, if Saquon Barkley is on the board at 12, I just don’t know that they could ignore the value of the pick there if all of the top four quarterbacks and Roquan Smith are off the board. They need a future plan at running back with LeSean McCoy getting up there in age, but it certainly isn’t a priority. This is a decision they likely won’t have to make. He’ll be long gone.
9) LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State
- This might be a bit higher than you were expecting for him, but there is a lot of momentum towards Vander Esch going a lot earlier than people might be expecting. He needs a bit more refinement than Roquan Smith does, but Vander Esch has everything you look for in a potential franchise middle linebacker. He’s got the size, the speed, the athleticism to drop into coverage and to run with highly athletic tight ends, and he’s got a tremendous amount of upside. Historically, McDermott likes instinctive players with explosive testing scores. Vander Esch certainly has the latter, with the potential to become a high-upside middle linebacker as his instincts develop. Again, if the Bills strike out with one of the top four quarterbacks to start off the draft and have to pick at 12 — and now if Smith is off the board, which seems likely — I would not be surprised in the least bit if Vander Esch is the pick with their top selection. That’s how much they value middle linebacker.
10) LB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech
- Edmunds lands here for obvious reasons, but the reason I have him behind Vander Esch on the Bills’ potential big board is all about where he fits into the scheme with the franchise. I think Edmunds is one of the more intriguing prospects in the draft because of all of the different ways he can help a defense (as a run-stuffer, a pass-rusher, athleticism in coverage). However, his best fit in McDermott’s defense would be at strongside linebacker in my humble opinion, and that is not as pressing a need. He seems like a younger, faster version of Lorenzo Alexander and utilizing him as something other than that would probably be playing him out of position. Now, they could certainly use a long-term answer at strongside linebacker once Alexander is done. They could certainly make it work with Edmunds at middle linebacker in the interim, but perhaps they could find something that suits them a bit better with their top pick. Also, I have not seen Tremaine Edmunds linked to the Bills in any capacity through the draft process, which could signal that they would look elsewhere at 12, even if he’s there.
11) CB Denzel Ward, Ohio State
- Now, here is a completely interesting name in my mind. The Bills used their first-round selection on a cornerback in last year’s draft, and while they would probably prefer not to do that again, it’s certainly within the realm of possibilities should the board fall a certain way. The Bills have Vontae Davis for 2018, but only for 2018 and there isn’t any guarantee he takes to the scheme well. Plus, they lack depth at the corner position and need someone to grab hold of the nickel corner position, which could be what Denzel Ward or Davis does for 2018. There has been some interest from the Bills, in the form of an official pre-draft visit with Ward in Orchard Park. They’d like to go elsewhere with their top pick — namely, Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, or Leighton Vander Esch with 12th overall should they be frozen out of the top four quarterbacks, but should the board unfold in a funky way, Ward is not a bad consolation prize.
12) CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
- This is more of a hunch than anything. Minkah Fitzpatrick hasn’t been linked to the Bills and likely is gone by the time they’re on the board, but the Bills do have a distinct need for a nickel corner and always love versatile chess pieces for McDermott’s defense. While it might seem that 12th overall could be a bit rich for a nickel corner, it’s basically a starting position in today’s NFL with how much NFL teams are not in their base defenses anymore. The nickel corner is basically a part of the true base defense in the way the league is played today. He also would provide depth for the defensive backs at any spot, too.
13) QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville
- I’ll admit, I really don’t know if the Bills are in on the idea of Lamar Jackson — but they should be. I have hesitation over them selecting Jackson at 12th overall, but if he’s on the board at 22, that would be a temptation that I don’t know they’d be able to resist. The best athlete at the quarterback position since Michael Vick, he’s got the arm and displays big flashes of potential all throughout his games from college. Much like Josh Allen, Jackson is a big ball of clay waiting to be molded by a creative mind in the NFL that can both fully take advantage of everything that makes him so special, in addition to helping him throw with a bit of a wider base in the pocket to maximize his arm strength and accuracy. Make no mistake, Jackson can win from the pocket. He can also win from outside the pocket. And if he lands with the right team, he’ll take the NFL by storm. If he’s on the board at 22 and the Bills are without a quarterback to that point, I cannot wait to see what Brandon Beane will do.
14) QB Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
- If you’re looking for a formula of what the Bills value from last year’s, Sean McDermott-run draft, they targeted four-year players, that steadily increased their ability, and that were leaders within their team. That would encapsulate Mason Rudolph, who from a stats perspective, got better every year in passing yards, completion percentage, and touchdowns from his freshman season to his senior season in 2017. For that reason, although I’m not as high on the idea of him as a first-round pick and the expectations that go along with it, he has to be taken seriously as a potential target for the Bills at 22nd overall. I don’t know that it will come down to this, because ultimately I think they’ll be able to move up for a quarterback. If all else fails, though, Rudolph could definitely be in play at 22nd overall.
15) DT Maurice Hurst, Michigan
- This might be a bit early for Hurst, but if there’s one thing the Bills value quite a bit, it’s interior pressure and production on the defensive line. Right now, Kyle Williams is the lone three-technique defensive tackle for their rotation. Eventually, they are going to need to address that spot in the draft, or after the draft in free agency, but the ideal would be to draft a player at the position to groom behind Kyle Williams, and then let him loose as the starter in 2019. Hurst, as an interior pass rusher, has to be in high consideration for that reason. He’s not as big as the prototypical defensive tackle, but he’s got a lot of game and can wreck things in the backfield when he’s on the field. He’s an A-plus fit for McDermott’s defense. As long as his medicals check out, he’s in the thought process at 22.
16) CB Josh Jackson, Iowa
- Much the same as Hurst, while it’s not an immediate need, the fit with the Bills is hard to ignore with Josh Jackson. At Iowa, Jackson proved to be the long-limbed, sticky-handed playmaking cornerback that Sean McDermott’s scheme absolutely craves. If they strike out on their top choices at linebacker or even Hurst at 22, I could see the Bills looking to pair Jackson with Tre’Davious White as a top pair of cornerbacks on rookie deals for the next three seasons. That would also give them the flexibility to move Vontae Davis to nickel corner or to bring Jackson along a bit slowly. This is a supreme fit, and the Bills value cornerbacks like this highly.
17) LB Rashaan Evans, Alabama
- I certainly like Rashaan Evans and I believe he does a lot of different things well. However, where he fits into the Bills defense concerns me a tad as to him being the selection at 22nd overall. When you watch him, he plays really fast, shows good solid speed and a good change of direction, and he even gives you ability as a blitzer. However, I think his best position in the NFL might be at weakside linebacker, which is the spot that Matt Milano currently has locked down. Again, like Edmunds, I could see the Bills taking him and his athleticism to try and make it work at middle linebacker, but if it’s me with my first round player, I want him to fit in to what I’m trying to do on defense without any question, to set the player up to succeed at a maximum level. The Bills have also said both outside linebacker spots are interchangeable as well, so perhaps they cross-train Milano at strongside linebacker and allow Evans to be the weakside linebacker. While it’s not ideal, it’s certainly in play at 22.
18) DT Taven Bryan, Florida
- Taven Bryan is the Josh Allen of the three-technique defensive tackles. It’s boom or bust with him all the way, but you hope you can harness the boom and develop him into becoming a solid player at a high profile position in Sean McDermott’s defense that can play 70-to-75-percent of snaps for the team. In Bryan’s favor is the fact that Kyle Williams is in Buffalo in 2018 and can teach Bryan the ways before he decides to retire. It also gives him a rotational role immediately, as they build him up into a potential long-term starter. I think there’s a solid chance Bryan goes a lot earlier than expected.
19) WR D.J. Moore, Maryland
- The Bills used a second-round pick on a wide receiver last year, they used a third-round pick on a wide receiver already this year (Kelvin Benjamin), and they signed Jeremy Kerley potentially to be their slot receiver. For those reasons, I don’t believe that the Bills feel the wide receiver spot is as pressing a need as some of their fans do. However, should it come to a situation where the Bills are unable to land a more pressing/important position in their minds, Moore could get a look at 22. He would provide the Bills with something they don’t have at the position — outright speed. I think it’s more likely that they go elsewhere with their non-quarterback first-round pick — should they even have one.
20) C/G Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
- And now we’ve reached the offensive line portion of the program. Outside of Quenton Nelson at 12, I think the Bills are more likely to opt for a different position with their first round picks unless of course, all else fails. The offensive line and wide receiver were always undervalued from a draft perspective in Carolina up until they had the positions on the roster that were thought to be of higher impact, so that leads me to believe the same will be true in Buffalo for the time being. They have enough to get by with starting-caliber players for the time being. However, should the guys they target at 22 all be off the board, grabbing an interior lineman is a definite possibility. I’ve got Frank Ragnow ranked ahead of Will Hernandez and James Daniels because Ragnow made an official visit with the Bills, whereas Daniels hasn’t been linked to the Bills at all to my knowledge. Ragnow can play both center and guard, which gives the Bills flexibility. I believe if they had their druthers, though, they’re picking something away from the offensive line.
21) T/G Connor Williams, Texas
- The Bills could certainly use another player with positional flexibility along the offensive line and especially one with high upside. Whether he’s at right tackle or kicked inside to guard, the Bills could stand to upgrade at both positions.
22) OT Kolton Miller, UCLA
- The Bills could certainly use a right tackle as an upgrade to Jordan Mills, but they were also satisfied with how Mills performed in 2017 and the leadership role he’s taken on early in the 2018 offseason. Miller could be in play at 22 in the event that some other positions, and the players they like, are taken.
Hey, why not this guy?
DT Vita Vea, Washington
- In Sean McDermott’s scheme, he’d be a one-technique defensive tackle and the Bills just signed Star Lotulelei to fill that role on a long-term contract. To my knowledge, he has not had any contact with the Bills.
DT Da’Ron Payne, Alabama
- Much for the same reason as Vea, Payne doesn’t slot in as well to that three-technique role as say Maurice Hurst or Taven Bryan would. I think he could a little more than Vea, but not as much as the two I mentioned.
S Derwin James, Florida State
- I love the idea of James and think he could play a number of different positions for any team, but I’m not as sold on the Bills thinking his skill-set could translate to linebacker for them. He’s probably a safety, and the Bills don’t need a safety.
G/C James Daniels, Iowa
- I have not seen the Bills linked to Daniels at all, and with the outlook that they’d likely take an interior offensive lineman later on in the draft, I thought there were other players that would slot in ahead of him.
OT Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame
- It seems the way things are going, UCLA’s Kolton Miller might just be the first offensive tackle taken on Thursday. If that’s the case, McGlinchey slots in behind Miller, who was 22 on the big board.
G Will Hernandez, UTEP
- He was close to making the board, but having less positional versatility as the ones that made it, and with the guard being the less valuable between tackle and guard, he was on the outside looking in.
WR Calvin Ridley, Alabama
- Low on explosive scoring from his athletic testing, he doesn’t provide the Bills with something they don’t already have in Zay Jones, unlike Moore, who can help back defenses up.
RB Derrius Guice, LSU
- With the depth at running back in this year’s class, I think it’s more likely for the Bills to wait on a running back in the first round unless they are surrounded by unbelievable value at the pick (Saquon Barkley at 12). Even then, it might be a stretch.