What do you give the team that finished with the No. 1-ranked defense last season?
More defensive players, of course.
Although Buffalo has needs at receiver, guard and running back, the Bills may take a proactive approach to the upcoming draft and add more defensive players with an eye on potential free agent losses next year and beyond.
Buffalo has eight picks in the April 28-30 draft, including three of the top-90 picks.
The team drafted four defensive players last year, including pass rusher Gregory Rousseau, defensive lineman Boogie Basham and defensive backs Damar Hamlin at safety and Rachad Wildgoose at cornerback.
However, of those four, only one, Rousseau, received significant playing time, as the first-round defensive end out of Miami finished with 50 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 passes defended and 1 forced fumble. He even had an interception.
Basham, on the other hand, had trouble getting on the field. The Bills’ second-rounder out of Wake Forest was a healthy scratch in more than half of Buffalo’s games, finishing with 18 tackles, 4 TFLs and 2.5 sacks as he transitioned from defensive end to defensive tackle. Hamlin, one of the team’s three sixth-rounders, saw most of his playing time on special teams. The former Pittsburgh safety received 125 snaps on special teams compared to 50 on defense. Wildgoose, a 2021 sixth-rounder out of Wisconsin, is now with the New York Jets.
Buffalo, though, didn’t need major contributions from its rookie defenders last season. The Bills finished No. 1 in the league in fewest points (289), passing yards (2,771) and total yards allowed (4,637).
Then the team signed star pass rusher Von Miller to a six-year, $120 million contract during free agency.
But Buffalo also lost several defensive tackles and one of its key members of the secondary, cornerback Levi Wallace, who signed with Pittsburgh.
The team made up for the losses along the defensive line with a trio of relatively low-budget signings in DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle and Jordan Phillips joining current starter Ed Oliver. However, Phillips is on a one-year contract, while Settle would only cost the team $2.7 million in dead cap money if he’s cut after the season, so his hold on a roster spot is tenuous, at best.
Those potential losses would pale in comparison to the potential loses of several other defensive stalwarts.
Free safety Jordan Poyer and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the upcoming season. Those two combined for 1,857 snaps and 201 tackles last season.
And, not to be forgotten, Oliver and Buffalo’s other starting safety, Micah Hyde, will be UFAs in 2024. Hyde led the team last season with 1,024 snaps, meaning he played in 95 percent of the team’s plays on defense.
Sure, Basham and Hamlin could have a breakout sophomore campaign, but it’s hard to envision those two being counted on to fill in for one of those tackles or safeties after both struggled to get on the field as rookies.
As for linebacker, the depth chart already looks like it could be shaky beyond this season.
Because the Bills already have one of the deepest rosters in the league, finding prospects who will start or at least contribute as rookies won’t be easy.
With that said, Buffalo should also come out of this draft with another receiver, interior offensive lineman and running back. The Bills also might draft a tight end after meeting with eight of them, including two who were part of the team’s official 30 visits.
Overall, pencil in cornerback, receiver, guard, defensive tackle, linebacker, running back and tight end as their biggest needs, plus maybe safety.
Of that total, only CB and WR are considered “premium” positions. The good news? The draft is chockfull of quality cornerbacks and receivers through Day 2 of the draft.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper thinks as many as six wide receivers could go in the first round, while the Fanspeak-Jake Rigdon big board lists five cornerbacks among the top 32 prospects.
The top tier of corners should be gone by pick No. 25, but the second-tier is a strong group and includes Washington’s Kyler Gordon (No. 27), Florida’s Kaiir Elam (No. 30), Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. (No. 38), and UTSA’s Tariq Woolen (No. 41). Any of them could be taken on Day 1.
Therefore, if Buffalo doesn’t take a cornerback on Day 1, then the Bills might struggle to find a starter, especially if the best-remaining tier 2 cornerbacks are gone by pick No. 57.
Meanwhile, there are nine receivers ranked among the top 40 prospects. Like CB, that, too, puts Buffalo in a tough spot, because it’s possible all of the top receivers are gone by the second round.
With that said, Buffalo is in better shape at receiver than it is at cornerback. The Bills signed long-time Washington slot receiver and former New York Jet Jamison Crowder to a one-year deal in the offseason. However, the loss of Levi Wallace in free agency still looms large. Wallace’s 994 snaps on defense last season was the second-most on the team.
Since receiver is more of a luxury than cornerback, assume the team goes defense in Round 1. Ideally, one of the remaining top receivers falls to Buffalo in the second round.
Also assume that doesn’t happen. The top interior linemen could be gone by this point, too.
That’s the bad news. The good news? This is about the spot in the draft where the next tier of linebackers go off the board. That includes Georgia’s Quay Walker (No. 47), Alabama’s Christian Harris (No. 65), Wyoming’s Chad Muma (No. 66), Wisconsin’s Leo Chenal (No. 71) and Penn State hybrid LB/Edge Jesse Luketa (No. 74).
The second round wasn’t a good spot to draft a receiver, but the third round to early fourth round could yield great value. Overall, there are six receivers ranked between No. 89 (South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert) to No. 121 (Clemson’s Justyn Ross).
Of the players in that draft range, Buffalo hosted one of them as part of the team’s official 30 visits: Alabama’s John Metchie III. He’s the No. 94 overall prospect in the Rigdon big board.
Metchie might have been ranked higher had it not been for the torn ACL he suffered during the SEC title game.
Remember, the lower you get in the draft, the less likely you are to find a contributor, let alone a starter. You hope the players you draft in the first two rounds become immediate starters, while the third- and fourth-round prospects should push for a starting role by Years 3, at the latest.
The leaves the Day 3 prospects. It’s a huge bonus if any of them get any kind of semi-regular playing time as rookies, and you hope that some can turn into starters over time. Otherwise, teams are happy just to have all Day 3 picks make the 53-man roster.
However, the strength of the draft this year is said to be on Day 3 due to the unusually high number of players with Round 3 to 5 ratings.
Plus, the Bills don’t need to find a starter at defensive tackle, tight end or safety right now. They just need depth at those positions. And if any of them could turn into a starter before their rookie contract runs up? Even better.
Start with guard. There are five ranked between picks 106 to 143 and another player, UTSA’s Spencer Burford, who is listed as a tackle but is also projected as a possible guard at the next level.
However, Virginia’s Lecitus Smith, Michigan’s Andrew Stueber and North Carolina’s Joshua Ezedu could be available. Smith is the highest-ranked of the three at No. 131 overall and the only one known to have had informal discussions with the team (Senior Bowl). But Stueber and Ezedu give Buffalo more roster flexibility, as both can play tackle.
Need a running back? Arizona State’s Rachaad White met with the team at the Senior Bowl, the Combine and through an online meeting. He should be available in the fifth round.
This leaves defensive tackle, tight end and safety as Buffalo’s lone remaining draft needs with three picks to go.
If the team is looking for a run-stuffing 1-tech who can provide a little pass rush, then Texas A&M’s Jayden Peevy could be a solution in Rounds 5 or 6. Same goes for Virginia Tech tight end James Mitchell, who, like Metchie, might have been a higher pick had it not been for a knee injury that cost him most of the season and required surgery. Mitchell also was one of Buffalo’s official visitors.
Buffalo can also find several developmental safeties late in the draft, too. Florida A&M’s Markquese Bell might not be as highly ranked as the safeties the Bills brought in for an official 30 visit, but he does share something in common with them: elite size and athleticism. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound senior ran a 4.41-second 40 and had a 36.5-inch vertical and a 123-inch broad jump at the Combine.
And remember, almost half of Buffalo’s defensive starters were drafted on Day 3.
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