I know what a lot of you are thinking.
“What can I really believe this close to the NFL Draft?”
The simple, yet complicated answer is this: believe everything and nothing all at once. Once April hits, fans of the draft have to use a sifter to unearth the gold from all the mud and muck that’s out there. It’s a yearly process that we, as reporters, have to try and do as well because there is so much misinformation, angling, and everything else this time of year.
However, that’s what makes it as fun as it is -- at least to me.
As far as the Bills are concerned in the first round, we’ve heard everything from Paxton Lynch interest, to “don’t be surprised at a wide receiver” talk, to offensive tackles, and even most recently, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg.
You might even think that this is just another misinformation piece of the puzzle. However, I promise with every bone in my body that this is what I believe to be true two days ahead of the draft: the Bills, if they stay at 19th overall and don’t trade down, are going for a defensive player.
It’s too important a season for too many people in Orchard Park to do anything but try and fix the defense and get it back to a Top 12-to-15 level, and in turn, to finally get back to the playoffs. So, that said, who might they be targeting?
These are the positions that I believe the Bills are interested in going after in the first round, along with 16 players that I think are in consideration for the team’s top pick.
May the sifting odds be ever in your favor:
Darron Lee, Ohio State - Lee is the player that I believe the Bills are holding out hope for to last all the way to the 19th overall pick, and one that could actually be there for them to take. He fits the new-school style of linebacker that they’re looking for, can stay on the field the entire game, and would immediately start at weakside inside linebacker. I even think the Bills tipped their hand a bit about their interest in Lee during last week’s draft luncheon, and the logic and reasoning behind it is all here. The linebackers in this draft do not have a ton of depth to the class, so getting Lee would be an impact player at a desperate position of need. Lee visited the Bills in April.
Leonard Floyd, Georgia - He’s a bit of a hybrid player that can play both linebacker and as an edge rusher, so that’s why he’s here. Floyd would be an incredibly compelling pickup due to his versatility. but that versatility is why he’s such a hot commodity in the draft. At this point, it’s looking more and more likely that Floyd is gone at that selection. Floyd did, however, make a pre-draft visit in Buffalo.
Reggie Ragland, Alabama - Ragland is a player that a lot of Bills fans love, and one they had in for a visit, but the reason he’s less likely than Lee if both were on the board, in my opinion, is due to the latter being an extreme fit right into the weakside inside linebacker role. Ragland brings a lot to the table in his own right, but his best fit in Rex Ryan’s defense is at middle inside linebacker -- which is what starter Preston Brown plays. If he’s forced into a role at the WILL, he could struggle in coverage early on because he’s less of a fluid mover than Lee, Floyd, or the next player listed. If those three are gone, I think the Bills might just opt for a defensive lineman instead — depending on who’s there.
Myles Jack, UCLA - It all depends on the medical evaluation for Jack, but the issue isn’t if he can play right now — that’s a given. The issue is how long he’ll be able to play given his knee’s condition, and whether an early selection is worth it if the commodity has a shorter shelf life. I’m not convinced that he lasts to 19, but if he does, with how important this season is to the Bills I would not be surprised in the least bit for him to land in Buffalo. But, again, it depends on how the medical evaluation checks out in the Bills’ minds, too. I know I'd take him if I were them, an impact linebacker in every sense of the word, and a far better prospect than Lee.
Sheldon Rankins, Louisville - If both Rankins and Lee are on the board, I think the Bills would have a lengthy conversation on their hands. Past DeForest Buckner, Rankins is the next best defensive line prospect through and through, and would start for the Bills immediately. He is a disruptive player that routinely found himself in the backfield during college, and his explosive traits will help him win at the next level. If you had to make a short list from this list, he'd be on it. He visited with the Bills in Orchard Park in April.
Chris Jones, Mississippi State - This is another intriguing prospect for the sake of his potential. Jones would be a three-down player that like Marcell Dareus, would be able to play anywhere along the line of scrimmage in an odd-man front. However, he is not a finished product yet, but is one that shows flashes of brilliance which will likely get him selected in the first 25 picks. If the Bills miss out on athletic linebackers, keep an eye on him despite not being a reported visitor to Orchard Park.
Andrew Billings, Baylor - Billings is more of a two-down nose tackle at this point, and although the Bills don’t have a set player at that position on the roster at the moment, the lack of versatility is likely what hurts him. However, from an athletic standpoint Billings can certainly move, and has strength to overcome a lot of blockers’ attempts. He was not among the reported players that made a pre-draft visit with the Bills, however.
Jarran Reed, Alabama - The same goes for Jarran Reed, who offers less as a pass-rusher than Billings does, in my opinion. Reed is a highly productive run-stuffer at nose tackle, and more athletic than he appears on some snaps, but he doesn’t gain ground into the backfield often. That could limit his role early on, and the Bills might look for someone who could do a bit more than just one thing with their first pick. Still, both he and Billings have to be considered because it is a direct need, no matter if they’d be on the field less time than some other players.
Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech - An incredibly intriguing player, who much like Jones, offers a lot in potential. Had Butler played in the SEC like Jones, he would probably be getting just as much buzz as the former Mississippi State Bulldog. He can play all over the line, stay on the field all three downs, and has drawn comparisons — a lot more than once — to what Muhammad Wilkerson was when he entered the draft. We all know who drafted Wilkerson 30th overall that year (see: Rex Ryan). He’s got enough potential to warrant the team using the 19th overall pick on him, but if the Bills move back in the first round, Butler could be their target for value’s sake.
Robert Nkemdiche, Mississippi - He’s been linked to the Bills a great deal, and has the same on-field potential and issues as Chris Jones. However, Nkemdiche has all the stuff off the field to go along with it, which could force him down into the second round. He could even be available for the Bills when they select at 49th overall. Potential usually wins out in the NFL, though, so if the Bills move down, put him on the list with Vernon Butler as potential targets. Nkemdiche at 19 seems risky, but the Bills need any and all defense (minus cornerback). To our knowledge, Nkemdiche did not make a pre-draft visit to Buffalo.
A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama - I’ve seen Robinson going as high as 12th overall in some places, and going as low as the early second round. His range is all over the place, which means he’ll probably be selected somewhere in the middle, which could put him in the conversation for the 19th overall pick. However, to our knowledge, Robinson did not make a pre-draft visit with the Bills. There’s a chance Robinson was one of the four-to-five players that were not reported on, but primarily the bigger names get out for draft positioning. His position keeps him in the conversation, however.
Karl Joseph, West Virginia - Here is the curveball of the realistic options for the Bills. Karl Joseph is a big-hitting safety coming off an injury, but the thought is he’ll be ready for right around the start of the season. Rex Ryan loves those bone-crushing safeties, and Joseph is one of the best at that. Plus, the Bills have a pretty underrated need at safety, still with Aaron Williams’ uncertainty, and a burgeoning starting competition between Corey Graham and Robert Blanton, which could easily be won by a rookie. Plus, Karl Joseph was a pre-draft visitor. If they miss out on the athletic linebackers, and with not a lot of top-end talent available at safety this year, watch out for Joseph to the Bills at 19.
Shaq Lawson, Clemson - It’s looking more and more like Lawson will be off the board by the time the Bills’ selection comes along. He has a shoulder issue that made some headlines through the pre-draft process, but you can tell from his college games that he’s a tireless worker on the field, which teams are likely enamored by. There’s also this line of thinking: where does he fit in this defense? Jerry Hughes is the rush linebacker from the right side, and the Bills want more of an edge contain player on the opposite side (much like the role Manny Lawson will play). The Bills could see that as a position that doesn't need to be addressed immediately. To our knowledge, he did not visit the Bills ahead of the draft.
Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky - The ‘where will he play’ issue with Lawson stays the same with Spence. Spence is probably a better fit to drop back into coverage than Lawson, but it’s not a dire need at this point in time. Spence is an excellent player, and in my opinion, the best pure pass rusher available. He has not made a pre-draft visit to our knowledge, and could even fall out of the first round completely. However, the Bills sorely lacked in heat on the quarterback during the 2015 season, so you can’t rule him out just yet, even if it's more likely that other positions will be addressed first.
Emmanuel Ogbah, Oklahoma State - Ogbah visited the Bills during the pre-draft process, which means there is some definite interest — but perhaps more as a second-round selection at 49th overall. Ogbah could probably add more weight to his frame, that way the Bills could use him as a hybrid end that plays both the five-technique in certain packages, and as a regular rush end on even-man fronts. If the Bills move back in the first round, I think he could be a candidate — but if they’d select him later in the first, there has to be a certain degree of logic that says to take him at 19 if all else fails. It's more likely they go elsewhere at 19, though, specifically with players like Bronson Kaufusi available in the second round.
Kevin Dodd, Clemson - The Bills could like Dodd for similar reasons to liking Ogbah, but there is a distinct difference: Ogbah is a far more explosive player coming off the edge than Dodd is. The former Clemson player was not one of the reported pre-draft visitors with the Bills, and his range is somewhere in the late-first to early-second range. Just like his teammate Shaq Lawson, don't rule him out because the Bills could go anywhere defensively, but it's likely one of their main targets will be on the board at 19th overall.
**This is assuming that the top of the draft players -- Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Jalen Ramsey, Joey Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Laremy Tunsil, and Ronnie Stanley -- are all off the board.