By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette — The first round of the NFL draft is tonight (8 p.m., ESPN), and in true Buffalo fashion, the Bills own the No. 8 selection — believe it or not, the franchise’s third-highest pick in 25 years — in a draft where the top talent doesn’t fit their needs.
This year’s draft is light on “talent” and heavy on, well, heavies. Of the top 12 players ranked by ESPN, 11 project as offensive or defensive linemen, positions the Bills just happen to be pretty set on thanks to some sneaky-good waiver pick ups (Kraig Urbik), good drafting (Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn, Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams) and free agency (Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, Manny Lawson, Erik Pears).
Where the Bills do have needs — quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, tight end and inside linebacker — this year’s crop of players provides few choices.
Let’s take a look at the options:
• Unlike last year’s draft, which produced Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III (as well as Russell Wilson and even Ryan Tannehill, though they weren’t nearly as hyped), this year presents no sure-fire QB prospects. West Virginia’s Geno Smith, USC’s Matt Barkley and Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib make up the top 3, and the only thing about them experts seem to be able to agree on is that not one is worthy of a top pick.
Nassib, of course, played for new Bills coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett at Syracuse. It makes sense that the the duo would want their guy, but recent buzz from some well-known football writers, including Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and NFL Network’s Albert Breer, suggests that the Buffalo staff might like Barkley over Nassib. Those can be taken with a grain of salt, though, as it’s tough to believe anything reported in the days leading up to the draft.
Neither of the two is really worth the eighth pick, but reports have surfaced that the New York Jets, picking ninth, like Nassib and that the Jacksonville Jaguars won’t let Barkley slip past their second round pick (No. 33). The Bills pick again at No. 41, but there are no guarantees that either guy will be available. If the higher-ups like Barkley or Nassib and choose not to pick them at No. 8, they’ll likely need to trade back into the late first round to get them. That price tends to include a first or second round pick next season, something Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix wisely is reportedly unlikely to want to pay.
There are a slew of quarterbacks that will be around later in the draft, and in a year where the top guys haven’t separated themselves from the pack, it might be a better idea to take a late-round flyer on a project than waste a top pick on someone who might not pan out. Still, Nix told The Buffalo News he believes “two or three of these guys will be franchise quarterbacks.” If that’s the case, he should pick his guy at No. 8 and worry about other needs later.
• The quarterback class can thank the crop of wide receivers for not going down as the this year’s clear worst.
West Virginia speedster Tavon Austin would probably be a reach at No. 8, but only a slight one. He’s emerged as the most exciting prospect this year, though Tennessee one-year wonder Cordarrelle Patterson should probably also go in the first round.
Either would be a surprise pick at eight, but not necessarily a shock coming from a team thats receivers consist of Stevie Johnson and a bunch of unproven youngsters.
• The one player in the top 12 who could help the Bills is Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner. Buffalo used the 10th pick last year on CB Stephon Gilmore, but third-year man Aaron Williams is moving to safety, leaving the second starting corner spot wide open. Unfortunately, most experts have Milliner being drafted well before the Bills will get a chance.
That said, recent reports surfaced that Milliner has had five different surgeries during his football career, including an operation on his shoulder in March that’s expected to sideline him through minicamps and OTAs. Milliner falling to eight would fill a huge hole and lock down two key positions for the next 5-10 years for the Bills, assuming he and Gilmore pan out.
• Tight ends tend not to go high in the draft, despite what we’ve seen in the last few seasons from guys like Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham, etc. Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert has earned high grades, but any tight end not named Vernon Davis getting picked in the top 10 would be a shock.
• At ILB, the most intriguing prospect is Georgia junior Alec Ogletree, followed by infamous ND star Manti Te’o. Inside linebackers are looked at as a non-value early in the first round because of their relatively small impact against modern offenses (whereas cornerbacks and pass rushers have more value). Ogletree also comes with some baggage, having been charged with a DUI in February.
Te’o brings more than his fair share of well-documented baggage, but his performance in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama knocked him out of the top of the draft more than anything else.
• The Bills also have the option of trading back. It’s been rumored that a number of other high-drafting teams want to move back, meaning the value is probably less than it would be in other years. Trading back also means potentially passing on a player the Bills like, and depending on Nix’s feelings, the risk may be too much.
• If all else fails, there’s a small chance that the Bills will take an offensive lineman at No. 8 after losing guards Andy Levitre and Chad Rinehart in free agency. Five of the top 10 prospects, according to ESPN, are offensive linemen, and the Bills could take a guard to replace Levitre or a tackle and move Cordy Glenn inside.
That move would be a lateral step at best, letting a player walk in free agency and spending a valuable asset filling a need that the team could’ve been avoided.
So what will the Bills do?
It’s tough to get a read because the top quarterbacks bring so many question marks. Milliner falling to No. 8 is likely the dream scenario, where a top-5 talent at a position of need falls into Buffalo’s lap.
Nassib at No. 8 makes the most sense, thanks to his familiarity with the coaching staff and the wide variety of opinions on him. (Mike Mayock and John Gruden both call him the top QB in the class, while ESPN’s rankings have him outside the top-50 prospects.)
The Pennsylvania native also feels like more of a fit in Western New York than Barkley, who’s spent his entire life in Los Angeles. At Syracuse, Nassib learned what it was like to be on a losing team, and if his senior season was any example, he also learned what it takes to start to turn it around. It feels like his career is on the upswing, while Barkley, who’s been in the national spotlight since high school, seems to be on more of a decline.
Barring a trade down, Nassib probably has the best chance to find himself wearing a Bills hat tonight. Hopefully, for the sake of Bills fans everywhere, we won’t be going through this again in 2016.Respond to Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.