NEW YORK — Reading “tea leaves” to guess which player an NFL team might select with its first-round draft pick is pure folly.
So let’s give it a go.
Our test case: the Buffalo Bills.
Based on what GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have said to me over the past two months, I am absolutely certain (ahem) who the Bills will pick at No. 10 overall on Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall.
At the scouting combine in February, Gailey lamented his team’s awful defence — rated 26th in 2011. The offence markedly improved, so now it’s the defence’s turn, he said.
With the league so in love with the pass, Gailey said by far the two most important positions on any defence are “corners and pass rushers — that’s where it is. That’s our game.”
The next day I asked Nix if he agreed.
“I do,” he said. “But I think, too, that cover linebackers are also important. Those are our definite concerns and needs.”
Then Nix added a caveat.
“I think you can get by with lesser corners if you can get pressure on the quarterback. If you can disrupt a quarterback’s rhythm, you’ve got a chance, and that’s a priority.”
A few weeks later, of course, Nix took care of that priority with the monster signings of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, pass rushers extraordinaire.
By the NFL annual meeting in late March, most mock-drafters were sure the Bills will take the best offensive tackle available at 10, with Demetress Bell bolting to the Eagles.
“I hear (that),” Nix told me in Palm Beach. “We feel good about Chris Hairston at left tackle, but we do need some depth there.”
Scratch OT, then.
What about a speedy wide receiver? The offence sure could use one.
“I think that’s important. We need that,” Nix told me at the combine. “Stevie (Johnson) is a medium route runner. He separates good underneath, but he’s not going to stretch the field much. We need somebody to do that. We think we’ve got two or three candidates already on the squad, but we still need to add one or two.”
Neither Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State nor Michael Floyd of Notre Dame, however, is a field-stretching burner, even if they’re the top rated WRs.
And so, bearing in mind that both Nix and Gailey said their off-season priority is upgrading the defence — and considering the WR class this year is ridiculously deep, meaning they can always get one with one of their other nine picks — I think the Bills will select a defender at No. 10.
I don’t think it will be a cornerback, for as Nix told me, the need to get a top cornerback has been lessened with the huge upgrade to the pass rush.
Two more things to consider.
Nix said “if you can get a guy who can start for you for 10 or 12 years, you’d have a good pick.”
And he has tried to convince every reporter and his dog that “we won’t reach. We won’t go past a playmaking guy that we’ve got graded higher to go down the board just to fill a position need. We won’t do that. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. We’ll take the best player.”
What, then, about one of Nix’s three priorities for his defence — a pass-covering linebacker?
Namely, Luke Kuechly of Boston College?
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock calls Kuechly one of the 10 best players in the draft, and “the best pass-dropping inside linebacker I’ve ever seen in college football … He’s never been hurt. He’s got no significant injuries. He’s clean off the field. Intelligent. He’s got great instincts, and he’s a better athlete than people think.”
What’s more, Kuechly can play any of the three LB positions in a 4-3 — Mike, Sam or Will. And to beat the Patriots in the AFC East you have to defend the short passes that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady loves to throw — hooks, ins and outs to his tight ends, backs and slots. Who covers a lot of those routes? Linebackers, not cornerbacks.
In Palm Beach I asked Nix about Kuechly. His eyes lit up.
“I think Kuechly will play 10 years in this league, barring serious injury,” Nix said. “I think he’s that good a player. I think he blew everybody away … He would certainly be a consideration (at No. 10 overall).”
Will he last that long, though?
“There’s a pretty good chance he’d be there, I say.”
And if he’s the highest-rated player on the Bills’ board at No. 10?
“That means he might be the guy,” Nix said coyly, playfully or uncomfortably — I couldn’t tell which.
What’s more, with Kuechly helping to back up the new, ferocious line in Dave Wannstedt’s new 4-3 defence, the Bills suddenly would have one of the best front sevens in the AFC.
That’d be a helluva one-year improvement on defence. Exactly what Nix and Gailey are after this off-season.
I think the Bills will draft Luke Kuechly at No. 10.