For teams that have yet to identify a long-term option at quarterback, like the Buffalo Bills, days like Friday at the NFL Combine are amongst the biggest ones of the event.
It’s at this event that these teams will be able to talk with those prospects that may well define their franchise — that is if they like what they have to say enough. The quarterbacks will be going through the media room on Friday, and while it isn’t a huge piece of the puzzle for that part, it is when the teams meet with those players later that night and into the weekend.
As for the Bills, it’s pretty clear: they want to upgrade the quarterback position. How they do so will be a big test of both knowing the market, and if they believe strongly enough in a player to go up and select him. And with two first round picks this year, it makes the intrigue even more palpable.
And in this draft, there are plenty of options for the Bills to seriously consider, which brings us to the topic of the column. How might these players rank, in terms of what the Bills are looking for?
While it’s important to know that the interviews are a critical piece to the puzzle for the Bills, my Top 5 rankings of how they fit the Bills from an on-the-field perspective:
1) Josh Rosen, UCLA
- From an on-field standpoint, Rosen looks like an absolutely ideal fit into what GM Brandon Beane looks for in a quarterback. When it comes to being comfortable in the pocket and hanging tough to deliver big-time throws, there isn’t another player in this draft that can touch him there. Whereas some of the other quarterbacks are a bit more erratic in the pocket and look a little more nervous, Rosen is calm and collected and maneuvers around the unclean pocket like an NFL veteran. The poise in the pocket is clearly his best asset, and it helps him identify the weaknesses in the defense — so much so that when he elects to go down the field on a deep shot, he slides into an area of the pocket that gives him enough space and delivers one of the best deep balls in the draft. He certainly isn’t afraid of the tight window, which should endear him to NFL evaluators even more, and he operates from and sells the play action quite well. Now, he’s not a totally clean player otherwise he’d be the locked in first overall pick. He doesn’t have the mobility aspect that the other top names have, which is probably why he’s as comfortable in the pocket as he is. He’s also prone to some bad decisions — whether it be throwing it off of his back foot, or even doing something like trying to wing it across his body, to the opposite side of the field. Those things simply cannot happen in the NFL, and he will learn the hard way if he tries it. Some will knock him for his accuracy, but Rosen dealt with a frustrating amount of drops from his receivers that hit them in stride, and in the hands. Had even half of those gone his way, he’d be hovering around the 65-percent completion mark for 2017 — which is excellent for as much as they threw the ball last season. All in all, Rosen has the poise, the potential, and if his personality checks out with the team as I expect it to, I think he’s a home run of a prospect that would fit seamlessly into the Bills’ vision of what they want their quarterback to be.
2) Sam Darnold, USC
- Often times Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold are mentioned in the same breath because of the state they played their college football in, but besides that and perhaps their height (6-foot-4), that’s really where the comparison ends. They win in different ways, and that’s what makes them so fascinating to discuss. For Darnold, his improvisational skills and his ability to throw on the run — making hard throws look easy, make him a fun prospect to watch. He’s a threat on the ground, so for teams that are looking to implement a read-option style, he’s a great fit. The same goes for those that want RPOs to be a piece to the puzzle, because he can do that well, too. There are also times where you watch him throw a ball, and wonder how he had the arm strength required to hit a throw — while not perfectly still — that moved his team down the field. With Rosen, it’s poise and control, and with Darnold, it’s sometimes a beautifully controlled chaos — and I mean that in the kindest way possible. He also throws the ball with anticipation and like Rosen, is not afraid of the tight window throws. However, the reason I rank him behind Rosen for the purposes of this list is that there was a bit more of a penchant to leave the pocket than you’d like. He’s still really effective, but it all depends on what flavor of quarterback you’d prefer — and for the Bills, GM Brandon Beane always brought up the idea of winning from the pocket as one of his identifiable characteristics in what he looks for in a franchise quarterback. Other than that slight ding, Darnold isn’t as good of a deep ball thrower as Rosen, which is also part of what drops him down, but there is no doubting his intelligence, ability, and the knack for making something happen down the stretch of tight games.
3) Josh Allen, Wyoming
- This is where it starts to get tricky on this list because while the next three should be considered first-round players, I do have them below the top-tier of Rosen and Darnold as prospects. But in this second-tier, while looking at the prospects in relation to the Bills, I get the feeling that Josh Allen would be more intriguing to Brandon Beane and his staff than Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. Really, it all comes back to his arm. That’s the big draw, and you wonder if you can teach that player to harness the ability, work on his accuracy, and make sound decisions with more regularity — at which point he becomes the player to fulfill that massive potential. I also saw enough evidence throughout the games of his that I watched that he scans the field enough — the only trouble is, sometimes he still makes the wrong decision and tries to force it in too tight of a spot. That’s where the incredible arm strength is such a gift and a curse, because he makes throws that no one else can make, and then because of the arm, chooses to try throws that no one should ever attempt to make. It’s frustrating, and the reason why he needs to find a team where he won’t be forced into the lineup too quickly to where it cuts the legs out from his development. He’s a risky proposition, but the talent and potential from inside the pocket are there. You combine that with how well he bounces off defenders to avoid a sack, and he could develop into a big-time player. However, he could also be a colossal bust. For the Bills, though, his style of gameplay — and the prototypical measurements seems to be in line with what Brandon Beane is all about. If the Bills were to miss on Darnold and Rosen, I would not at all be surprised if Josh Allen enters the conversation — even in a trade-up scenario.
4) Lamar Jackson, Louisville
- Between Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, I think both prospects should be thought about in the same light. Jackson gets you in the front door by watching him make defenders look foolish in the open field with his legs. But he gets you to stay, take off your coat, and nestle into the couch with how good —and undervalued — his arm and pocket presence are. The whole notion that he should work out at wide receiver is a ridiculous one, because what we have here is as unique a quarterback prospect as you’ll find, with blazing speed that can be an outright weapon from the backfield with the ball in his hands every single play, and instead of seeing all the potential for how he can be a game changer for a team from the quarterback position, they instead try to put him in a box at wide receiver. Honestly, based on his tape, that should probably be a bit of a slap in the face to him. He’s improved from the pocket, he stands back there and scans the field, he delivers accurate passes and can really sling some of the tough intermediate throws right in — throws that translate well to the next level. With that written, I think he’s still got some work to do with his deep ball accuracy and perhaps his overall footwork that can let his throws get away from him a bit. He also doesn’t always explode into the throw when delivering it from the pocket, and the throws off the back foot need to go. However, everything you want in a passer — not a runner — is there. He’s got the arm, he throws with anticipation, he hangs in the pocket more than he’s given credit for, and when things break down he keeps his eyes down the field and looks to make a play with his arm. Combine that all with his incredible speed, and quite frankly, you have a fascinating prospect that requires the right mind to harness him into being a potential game-changing type of player. The NFL is, of course, hesitant to change, so we’ll continue to hear all about the wide receiver chatter. And for the Bills, if they miss out on trading up for Rosen or Darnold, that could be great news for them. I could easily see a scenario where Jackson falls to 21, and I think Brandon Beane is open-minded enough to see the virtues of how much potential a guy like that could really have. Jackson truly is the wildcard with these Bills. Especially with his work ethic and personality that seems to be a fit for what Sean McDermott looks for, it will be fascinating to see if they pull the trigger at 21 if he’s still on the board and they don’t move up.
5) Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
- From a personal standpoint, I really like what Baker Mayfield is all about. Even though the height isn’t ideal, he rips the ball a lot better than he probably gets credit for. His arm strength, the patience to let plays develop, the ability to set up a zone defender for failure, combined with his mobility makes him into a fascinating prospect for a team that will use him the right way. His improvisational skills are right up there with Darnold, and it offers up plenty of creative solutions to extend plays and gain chunks of yards on plays that should probably go for much less based on how the defensive scheme matches up against the offense. The deep ball accuracy is what holds me back with him, whether it’s hesitating just enough to throw off the timing with his receivers or not putting his full body into the throw, it creates some nervous moments in what turns into some reckless decisions on the field. The other part of it is that the offensive talent around him was so good — and you cannot knock him totally for that, but you also have to be aware of it when he has so much time to operate in the backfield, or how his receivers were so open because of their skill — you just want to see more of NFL-type situations on his tape. However, he’s a solid first-round prospect that will likely go in the top 10-to-15 picks of the NFL Draft, but he’ll need a creative mind to highlight what makes him super. For the Bills to get him, they’d likely have to move up to select him — and with the other names on this list being more of a fit for their believed vision of the position, that’s what drops him down in my mind -- especially if Jackson is in the conversation to being available at 21. I love his ability and potential, though, and I hope that the team that drafts him will give him the innovative and creative outlet to let him truly shine like I think that he can.