From friends I spoke with, reports in the Buffalo media, Buffalo sports talk radio and even to articles here, I assuredly got an intense sense of trepidation from followers of the Bills regarding the draft. Much of the concern centered around whether or not a quarterback would be taken, which one if one was and an ample amount of spirited debate concerning the availability or selection of one Cam Newton.
Yes, it seemed that most, if not all Bills fans, myself definitely included, had some very strong opinions as to who the Bills should pick or how the team should utilize their allotted picks in the 2011 Draft. Now that it has been completed, I have my own exceedingly strong opinion regarding the performance of Bills GM Buddy Nix and his personnel department's duties regarding the events of the past few days.
I begin with the premise of my headline.
We have seen quite a number of draft misfires by the Bills over the years. From the character and maturity issues of Marshawn Lynch and James Hardy, to the performance issues of Aaron Maybin and J.P. Losman. Time and time again, Bills fans have seen players come into town with questions attached to them, have those questions confirmed by the performance or lack thereof of the player in question, finally to see the picks end up being wasted when the player leaves town without having achieved anything of note.
Even worse is the fact that in the case of many picks, there were clearly better players remaining on the board who could have been picked by the Bills, players who had they been playing for Buffalo, could have been key factors in turning around the fortunes of the Bills. One need only look at the team passing on Bryant McKinney to pick Mike Williams or picking Donte Whitner over Haloti Ngata to see how poorly the team has fared in terms of aligning their boards from a best available talent perspective.
It is my assertion that in the end, the Bills 2011 draft has once again followed the pattern of failing to select the more talented players available to them. Further, I am going to put myself out on the limb with my opinion more than I ever have before.
One item of note I'd like to make known is that I am not, nor have I ever been, one of those fans who never, ever likes anything their team does. Nor am I a pessimist by nature. On the contrary, I am a person who almost always finds the view of the glass as being half full and expects a positive outcome the vast majority of the time. I'd love to be able to take that view of the Bills performance the past few days. Honestly, I really would.
Regrettably, I cannot.
In my opinion, and I'd like to stress, mine only, the Bills 2011 draft appears to be yet another one that will be remembered for missed opportunities to improve the team.
What will follow is a recap of the draft, in the form of the player the Bills picked, how I analyze that player and the player or players whom I personally feel would have been better for the team, and most importantly, why.
Round 1: With the third pick overall, the Bills selected Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. Dareus is a big, disruptive force on the defensive line and is versatile enough to play the nose tackle, three-technique or five-technique positions. His versatility should allow the Bills to make the most of his abilities by moving him around on the line so opponents will first have to find him, then concern themselves with trying to nullify him. I have utterly no quarrel with this pick, and in fact, was hoping that Dareus would somehow fall to the Bills. I would give this selection a grade of "A."
Round 2: With the 34th pick overall, the choice was Texas cornerback/free safety Aaron Williams. I feel that Williams' being listed as playing two positions is less an indication of tremendous versatility than one indicating he plays two spots and has mastered neither one.
He has issues with his footwork coming out of his backpedal, possesses below-average route recognition skills and lacks the explosive recovery burst to be able to recover when he is beaten out of the break. In other words, he's generally in a position of needing to recover but has difficulty doing so. As a safety, he doesn't play big, so he's not necessarily the type of hitter you want lining up for you at the safety position. He also has not been adept at getting the rest of the secondary in proper position, which is a key component of being a safety in the NFL.
Better players available when the Bills took Williams were outside linebacker Bruce Carter from North Carolina, who possesses first-round athletic ability but slid due to a torn ACL he suffered towards the end of last season. He could start the season on the PUP list but could be a tremendous player who never comes off the field due to his ability to drop into coverage as well as play the run. Outside linebacker Brooks Reed from Arizona was also there for the Bills. Reed is reminiscent of another player the Bills regrettably passed on, Clay Matthews. Reed has a motor that never stops running at high speed who leaves everything on the field and is a leader.
Then there's Stephen Paea, a three-technique/nose tackle from Oregon State who has excellent speed and movement for a 300-pound lineman. He also has more than enough strength to go with it, as he set a combine record with 49 bench presses at 225 pounds. Paea is an upfield penetrator and disruptor who would have fit well along the Bills frontline. Finally, there was offensive tackle Ben Ijalana from Villanova is an athletic left tackle with long, 36-inch arms. He is a bit raw and needs to be coached up but has a good work ethic and takes well to being coached.
After careful consideration, and checking to see what my options might be going forward, I elect to pass on Williams in favor of a different direction. My pick would be the offensive tackle from Villanova, Ben Ijalana. Had the Bills taken him rather than Williams, I would give the pick a "B" grade. With Williams as the pick, I feel the ceiling is a "C" so that is what the pick gets.
In the third round, with the 68th pick, the Bills selected inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard from LSU. Sheppard is a two-down player, as he is strong against the run but is a liability in coverage and would need to come off the field on passing downs. Since I am not a proponent of players with that kind of profile early in the draft, I especially didn't like this pick. I like it even less considering some of the other players still available.
Numerous fans were clamoring for the Bills to address the deficiency at the tight end position in this draft. Florida Atlantic TE Rob Housler ran the fastest 40 of any TE at the combine and would help the offense spread the field. He lacks the most dependable hands but is very coachable. Illinois inside linebacker Martez Wilson is a thumper in the run game but has shown poor instincts and football sense. Wilson could also play outside, as he has tremendous speed. He also has some character issues. However, in terms of athleticism, he is everything you could want, provided he takes to being coached and works on his game.
Guard Will Rackley proved he is more than a big fish in a small pond at the East-West Shrine Game. He is still raw, partially due to the level of competition he has faced, but his flaws are all correctable with proper coaching. Lastly, there's Allen Bailey, a five-technique, defensive left end, tackle, from Miami. Bailey is country strong and has been known to wrestle alligators. He is scheme diverse with rare strength to stack the line against the run. He needs to be coached up in pass-rush techniques and needs work on some aspects of recognition but has outstanding character and is driven and motivated to succeed.
As stated, I am not a fan of players with usage limitations like Sheppard, especially in the third round. I give the Bills pick of Sheppard a "D." The diversity and character factors would make my pick Allen Bailey from Miami. I would have then graded the choice a "B."
In the fourth round, the Bills had two picks, No. 100 and No. 122 overall. With the first pick, the selection was Da'Norris Searcy, a strong safety from North Carolina. Searcy was graded as a late draftable pick and is said to be a player who "could compete for a roster spot." When I think of players such as that, I think sixth or seventh-round is the time to take them, not in the fourth round, especially with some players on the board who are not only better bets to make the team but could end up as starters potentially.
There are four solid players here that I like, but I know who I want, and I'm not wasting time. The Bills choice of Searcy earns an "F" due to my belief that he is a reach here. After all, he "might" compete for a roster spot and was graded as a late draftable pick. Too early for that. I am taking ILB Casey Matthews from Oregon here. He is smallish but has the quicks and is always around the ball and making big plays. Combine that with the same non-stop motor as his brother Clay and this is a guy I won't pass up. Had this been the Bills pick, it would've received a "C" grade.
With their second pick in Round 4, the Bills chose offensive tackle Chris Hairston from Clemson. I actually don't hate this pick and gave it a "C+" grade. But, since I've already addressed the offensive tackle position, let's see what I might change here.
Interestingly, the change I'm making is one of order, not of player. In the fifth round, with pick 133, the Bills selected RB Johnny White from North Carolina. I loved this pick, giving it an "A"grade. All I'm going to do is move the pick up to the fourth round at pick 122, with the grade holding.
In the fifth round, with the 133rd pick overall, I am going to address the cornerback position with Josh Thomas from the University of Buffalo. Thomas is 5'10", weighing 191 pounds. He is fast, with a 40 time of 4.46. As with most any prospect picked this late, he will need to be coached up to rein in his aggressiveness and improve his consistency, but he has potential to help out in the slot and in the return game. This pick would have earned a "C+."
With the 169th pick in Round 6, the Bills selected inside linebacker Chris White from Mississippi State. White was a four-year starter, but in terms of overall athletic ability, is nothing special and is somewhat of a liability in coverage. Knowing that value, real or perceived is a huge factor in drafting in Rounds 6 and 7, I graded this pick as a "C." I realize that at this point in the draft the pickings are very slim, but I'm going to dig a bit & see if I can't do better.
I see North Carolina's Quan Sturdivant is still there. This would be outstanding value at this point, but he isn't a good fit for a 3-4 defense. I want to see if I can find someone who not only fits the scheme but who shows promise of being a key special teams contributor as well.
I've found my man. My pick here is middle linebacker, weak-side linebacker Greg Jones from Michigan State. Jones was a team captain, possesses outstanding instincts and was the Big Ten's leading tackler in the 2009 season. Despite being on the smallish side, he has not only the production, but the special teams credentials I'm looking for. Add in the fact that he has terrific personal and football character and I'm sold. Jones had a fourth-round grade in the opinion of some scouts, meaning I'm also getting good value here. The added value gives the pick a "C+" grade.
Seventh and final round. The Bills have two picks remaining. With their first pick in the seventh round, the 206th pick overall, the Bills pick cornerback Justin Rogers from Richmond. He does have decent speed, but his skill set is average, he offers nothing in the return game, and he has no special traits indicating he is anything different from the typical seventh-round pick. That's okay, there aren't first-round skill type guys available in the seventh round, and I know that. Still, I want to probe a bit, recheck my boards and see if I don't have a better idea. Actually, I know that I do, but I want to see if I can save that for the last pick.
I've made my decision. I'm going to take a late shot at bolstering the offensive line by selecting Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba. I like the fact that he was a four-year starter in the tough SEC, which I believe is by far the best conference in college football, as it means he is accustomed to facing top competition. Ziemba has the size and the aggressiveness I want in an offensive lineman. Granted he lacks athleticism and has a propensity for false start penalties, having been flagged for them 19 times in his college career. Still, he rarely gets beaten, and clearly possesses some potential with the right coaching.
The Bills pick of Rogers got a "C-" grade from me, primarily because he offers no extras, such as special teams abilities. Had the Bills chosen Ziemba, despite his flaws and tendency to accumulate false start penalties, I would've given the pick a "C" grade.
Now it's time for the final pick, the 245th pick overall. With it, the Bills selected defensive tackle Michael Jasper from tiny Bethel College. I'm going to be totally honest, my reaction was, "Who?? Why??" after the selection. After some quick research, I found out enough to give the Bills pick their second "F" grade of the draft.
What's the reason for that grade? Simple. Jasper lacks any type of conditioning other than deplorable. He is 6'4" and weighs in at 394 pounds! No, that is not a typo, and I didn't mis-transpose any numbers either. In fact, I checked the number three different times to make sure. I realize you aren't going to find any blue-chippers with such a late pick but couldn't Buddy Nix at least have taken a shot at someone who will have some kind of chance to make the most of his opportunity and is highly deserving of it? I know I could, and so I will.
Everyone likes a feel-good story, and given who our team is, most of us Bills fans like to root for the underdog. Therefore, my pick for the Bills at 245 in the seventh round is Mark Herzlich, linebacker from Boston College.
By this time, I'm going to make the assumption everyone has heard Herzlich's story. Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year award winner for the 2008 season, he lost his entire junior season to Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He came back to play his senior season but still has a steel rod in his left leg to stabilize it. So, while I absolutely realize he is a long shot, the game means enough to him that he fought tenaciously to return to it. This speaks highly to both his resiliency and his work ethic. Exactly the kind of player I want on my team, or trying to make it. Still, Herzlich, like every player taken this late, is a long shot to make the team. For that reason, I grade the pick with a "C-."
So, I've run down the Bills actual draft and submitted my own selections for the Bills as well. Now let's see how the overall drafts would grade out.
To grade both drafts, I assigned a sliding number scale to each letter grade, with an "A" grade garnering six points, a "B" five and so on down to one point for an "F" grade. Plus or minus grades were counted as half points higher or lower than the raw grade itself. Hence a "C+" would be worth four-and-a-half points and a "C-" three-and-a-half points.
The Bills draft totalled 32 total points. Then dividing the points by the total number of selections, nine, I arrive at an average of 3.5 points per pick. This gives the Bills an overall draft grade of D+
When I graded my own substitutions, I realized that my first issue was that I obviously was going to prefer my picks to theirs. They are my preferences after all. So, the first thing I did was review them with a very hard eye. After doing so, I felt I'd been essentially fair with my grading, so I continued. My picks for the Bills totalled 42-and-a-half total points. Dividing this by the nine selections made, the average was a tad over four-and-a-half points per pick. I slid the grade down and obtained a grade of C+.
In the interest of total objectivity, I will be including a poll in my article where I ask all of you to grade my draft. Whether you comment on the article or not, I would like to ask everyone to at least please participate in the poll, because I don't harbor any dreams of knowing everything, or of being perfect, so I truly want input from you, the reader.
In any case, after reviewing the Bills draft and making my own selections in place of theirs during the three-day course of the draft, I am once again left with a feeling that the team not only could have done more to improve the team but should have as well. Regrettably, this has left me with the feeling that I have seen this movie before, I know the ending and I'm not very happy with it. But what do you, my fellow Bills fans think? I want to know, so please tell me.
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