CAPACCIO: The Bills' top-five positional needs heading into the draft

The team's needs have changed through free agency

Sal Capaccio
April 12, 2019 - 10:04 am

Since the free agency period started back on March 13, the Buffalo Bills have added 17 different players from other clubs. 17! That’s a huge number for any team in any season. It was no secret they wanted to add to the offense, both on the line and weapons for young quarterback Josh Allen, and they certainly did that, at least by quantity. It remains to be seen how the quality will pan out and translate on the field.

Before free agency and all the additions, it was basically negligent for anyone to slot anything other than an offensive lineman, wide receiver, or tight end to the Bills in any mock draft they did. As I always point out in February and early March, it’s way too hard to forecast what a team needs prior to seeing what they do in free agency.  

Now we know, and now the Bills have given themselves a lot of options not only at the ninth overall pick, but throughout the draft. The roster has been given a huge makeover, and some of their bigger needs have changed, as well.

Heading into the NFL Draft in less than two weeks, here are what I consider the Bills’ five biggest needs and why:

1.) EDGE/Pass rusher

The Bills have only signed one defensive end/edge rusher during free agency, and that just happened this week with the addition of former Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers DE/OLB Eli Harold. Harold has played outside in a 3-4 system and the strong side in a 4-3. The Bills listed him as a defensive end in their press release about the signing, which may indicate their plan on using him in a pass rushing role, something Harold excelled in at Virginia. That's where he totaled 15.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss over his final two years with the Cavaliers. However, they signed him only to a one-year deal. Jerry Hughes will be 31-years-old and is going into the last year of his contract. Shaq Lawson had his best season as a pro last year, but hasn’t quite lived up to his first round status and may also be entering the final year of his deal, if the team doesn’t exercise his fifth-year option for 2020. They have until about a week after the draft to determine if they’re going to do that. Trent Murphy was one of the team’s main free agent signings a year ago and had trouble staying healthy all season. The team re-signed Eddie Yarbrough to a one-year deal, but Yarbrough is much more of an edge setter than pass rusher. The good news is this draft is loaded with edge players, especially near the top. The Bills should have a few options there if they want to grab one at No. 9.

2.) Interior defensive line

The Bills had the second-ranked defense in the NFL last year, as far as yards per-game given up. They were third in yards per-play allowed, and 10th and third per-play against the run and pass, respectively. However, they still gave up over 200 yards rushing and over 5.0 yards per-carry in three different games. There’s no doubt they’d like to improve in that area and be more consistent stopping the run. They also need to get a little bit if a push up the middle, and have the interior defensive line add to the pass rush when it can, someone they can pair with gap-controller Star Lotulelei. Kyle Williams was the best defensive lineman they had at doing that. Not only did Williams finish third on the team with 5.0 sacks last season, he was the only interior defensive lineman who even had a sack! Of course, Williams retired following a 13-year career. The team did bring back Jordan Phillips, who is a valuable contributor, and still have Lotulelei and Harrison Philips. However, they need to add to this spot both for production and rotation purposes, especially considering head coach Sean McDermott loves to rotate along his defensive line to keep bodies fresh. There are some very good interior defensive linemen in this draft, including some top-end talent that will be on the board when the Bills select in Round 1.

3.) Tight end

This has been a glaring need for the Bills since last season ended, and is still a need this deep into free agency. The team released Charles Clay earlier this year, then signed former Cincinnati Bengals tight ends Tyler Kroft and Jake Fisher. Kroft is a good all-around tight end, used both as a blocker and pass catcher in Cincinnati, but he’s not overwhelming in any particular area. Fisher is a converted offensive tackle, and will mainly be a blocking tight end. The only other tight end on the roster is Jason Croom, who is a former college wide receiver who can be a nice mismatch in the passing game when called upon. However, he’s still refining his game as a blocker. Bills tight ends last year, as a group, only caught 55 passes for 520 yards. Croom scored the only touchdown for the entire group. They clearly need more production from the spot, and it would be great for them to pair a young, pass-catching tight end with second-year quarterback Josh Allen and let them both grow for years together. It just so happens there are two tight ends in this draft, both from Iowa, who are considered elite-level prospects. T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, and another in Irv Smith, Jr. from Alabama who many believe could also be a first rounder. I wondered this week if No. 9 is too high to draft a tight end? It’s an interesting debate, but there’s no debating the Bills need to add to this position.

4.) Wide receiver

Going back to the midway point of last season and continuing so far through free agency, the Bills' wide receiver corps has had a massive overhaul. What was once considered the No. 1 need heading into this offseason, now looks like a spot where they could still benefit by adding a playmaker or two, but not the unquestioned need they had to have early-on. The Bills actually seemed to change their entire philosophy of what kind of receivers they wanted to have on their roster last season. They went from taller receivers with large catch-radiuses to faster players who could spread the field both vertically and horizontally. Exit Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes, and enter Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie. Then they added more speed via free agency with John Brown, and a sorely needed underneath slot presence in Cole Beasley. They also inked Duke Williams, who led the CFL in receiving yards last season, and returner Andre Roberts, who has been productive as a wideout in his career and says he wants to earn a spot there. Of course, Zay Jones is also still on the roster, and going into his third season, looking to build even more on a bounce-back sophomore season when he led the team in both catches (56) and yards (652). He’s not giving up his starting spot without a fight, but that fight looks much deeper now, and could get even moreso if they select anyone high in the draft. There are a lot of wideouts who are considered possible first round talents, but the evaluations on the position are all over the place, as far as the top-rated players. It looks like the second-to-third round will really be the sweet spot to grab a solid wide receiver prospect.

5.) Offensive line

The Bills will have at least four new starters on the offensive line, and although I don’t think they’ll be replacing Dion Dawkins at left tackle, there’s always the chance they could really love someone else enough to grab and take over there, moving Dawkins to guard or even looking to trade him or fight for one of the two tackle spots. So, four and possibly five, because they’ve signed six new linemen, including guards Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano, center/guard Spencer Long, and tackles LaAdrian Waddle and Ty Nsekhe, who can also play guard. They clearly focused a lot of their free agent resources not only on the line, but offensive linemen with experience. According to Mike Rodak of ESPN, the six have combined for 317 career NFL games and 196 career starts. So where does that leave them now? Well, still with possibility of adding more talent, but younger players who can be planted in front of Allen for years to come. If they get a chance to take the highest-rated lineman on their board, it wouldn't be a surprise if they pulled the trigger, and also justified.



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