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By Joe Buscaglia
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Deciphering Doug's Code: The 2014 Bills Draft Luncheon

In the first year without former Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix holding court for 45 minutes during the pre-draft luncheon, it seems only right to head back to 2012 and bring up his advice to the onlooking media in Orchard Park.

"I tell you this every time, and you don't listen, you don't believe me. I'm gonna tell you anyway," Nix lectured. "Don't get pinned down now by connecting the dots. It's fun. I enjoy reading it, but it's fantasy football. It has nothing to do with what we might do."

With all due respect Buddy, we didn’t listen then when we narrowed it down to Stephon Gilmore, Dre Kirkpatrick, Cordy Glenn and Jonathan Martin, and we won’t start heeding the advice now either. In a cautious, but not reckless exercise, this is the time of year to try and put two-and-two together for the fun of it.

For the first time at this annual event, GM Doug Whaley was the man everyone in attendance was there to hear from. And, with one of his opening remarks, he only added fuel to the fire.

“I would say it's finally one time where we can use [the media] to our advantage,” Whaley said. “There's things you put out there to see if someone bites and some things that you put out there, and it's true. So you've gotta have people read between the lines.”

Consider it done, Doug. Let’s begin.

The Bills hold the ninth overall pick in the draft and, since January, have been telling everyone that they’re open to taking any position with their first round pick except a quarterback. If you could pick one theme of the press conference on Friday, it’s that Whaley and company are attempting to give EJ Manuel every resource possible and remove any potential excuses.

Consider quotes like this one, and you can really start to gauge what they’re thinking when May 8 rolls around.

“It's a quarterback-driven league. So we're gonna give every avenue and every piece of the puzzle to surround EJ and make him as successful as possible,” Whaley remarked. “What we did this offseason affords us the opportunity to go any way and every way in this draft. But our main focus is making sure EJ progresses.”

And if you’re a betting man, with the way things sounded on Friday, that seems to be indicative of the way they’re leaning on May 8. Defense can be discounted for the first round mostly because of a few different reasons.

On the defensive line, defensive tackle is one of their strongest positions both in the starting lineup and in depth. While they admitted Friday they could use depth at defensive end, outside of Jadeveon Clowney (who will likely be gone within the top two picks), there really isn’t any 4-3 defensive ends that fit Jim Schwartz’s defense that would be valuable enough to select at ninth overall.

At linebacker, they’ve signed two separate players through free agency to be a part of the starting lineup. They admitted more depth is needed there as well, but as they proved last year, impact linebackers can be found later in the draft.

Then in the secondary, Whaley was asked specifically about the safeties in lieu of Jairus Byrd’s offseason departure. In so many words, the GM said they believe in the three players they have in house besides Aaron Williams, and also brought up Corey Graham before going to his similar refrain that ‘they’ll draft any position.’ So, safety is out. 

As is cornerback, when the quartet of Bills’ employees touted the cornerback group to be strong enough to find big, physical cornerbacks in the later rounds. Unless the Bills trade back in the first round, it would be hard to fathom the Bills sticking at nine and taking a top ten corner for the second time in three years.

Unless of course Clowney or Buffalo’s Khalil Mack is on the board at ninth overall, which are both highly unlikely, defense will be pushed aside to Day Two at least.

So that brings us to the offensive side of the ball, namely at three positions. Offensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end. It’s been the same trio we’ve been hearing about since the season ended and the draft luncheon did nothing to suspend those beliefs.

With those three positions, there are a total of six names to ponder. At offensive tackle, there is Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan. At wide receiver, it involves Clemson’s Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M’s Mike Evans. The lone representative at tight end is North Carolina’s Eric Ebron.

If the Bills stay at ninth overall, it’s fair to say that this is the working shortlist just from a peripheral view. The likelihood that two of that six will be there, Robinson and Watkins, is not great by any means.

In talking with some people about the Bills’ first round pick, Buffalo is said to be incredibly interested in Watkins. It was evident in the way they spoke about him on Friday.

Whaley told WGR in the morning that he believed the Clemson wide receiver was a dynamic playmaker that plays bigger than his size (6-foot-1). He reaffirmed the assertion later in the day by saying that, despite Watkins’ size and the stigma that surrounds wide receivers under 6-foot-3 that are drafted in the top 10, he believes Watkins can be the outlier.

The kicker to the Watkins talk was with director of player personnel Jim Monos in the latter portions of the press conference. He was asked if, from a talent perspective, Watkins is on the same level as A.J. Green and Julio Jones when they came out of college in 2011.

“He's on par with them. His style I think is more like a Percy Harvin with the ball in his hands. He's special like that,” Monos said. “But yeah, he's right on par with those guys.”

It probably won’t happen, but if Watkins somehow gets to ninth overall, the Bills may already have the card ready to hand in.

Now it dwindles down to the final four of Matthews, Lewan, Evans and Ebron. If they had their pick of these four at ninth overall, based on both conversations regarding Buffalo’s first round pick and what was heard at Friday’s draft luncheon, Jake Matthews would likely be the next member of the Buffalo Bills.

If there has been a phrase associated with Matthews above any of the other top offensive tackles available, it has been that most believe he is a “plug-and-play” type for his readiness to contribute and be successful in the NFL right from the day he’s drafted. Now, read what Whaley had to say regarding the worthiness of taking a right tackle with the ninth pick in the draft:

“If he can plug-and-play and we forget about him for 10 years, why wouldn't you?” That, of the players remaining, is Matthews.

Okay, so now let’s say that Matthews is gone within the top eight picks which is very, very possible considering the perceived pushback of quarterbacks in the first round. That leaves you with Lewan, Evans and Ebron.

In that scenario, considering their roster and what they’re trying to accomplish, in order to give offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett the kind of versatility he covets there is only one choice of the three.

“Every offense is different, but I know a tight end and running back are great friends to a quarterback,” said Whaley of the importance of tight end to an offense. “Just look at the production of the tight ends, like Jimmy Graham and all those guys. It's trending towards those basketball, athletic guys that can position their body and go up and get balls. Take balls away from smaller defenders. There's a less emphasis on the blocking of the tight end position nowadays. So that's the way it's going and you've gotta get with the times.”

With due respect because it’s certainly easier said than done in finding one of those types of players, the Bills have yet to get with the times. The GM later referenced the types of mismatches that brand of tight end brings to a defense if you choose to either attach him to the offensive tackle or to split him out wide.

That’s how Whaley feels about tight ends in today’s NFL, so what about Ebron as a prospect?

“Just overall athleticism. He's a playmaker as a receiving tight end, but at the same time, he's a complete tight end,” Monos told reporters. “He blocks, he gives you great effort. He's strong, he's got good size.”

Can he be in that mold that Whaley had talked about previously, like the Jimmy Graham’s of the NFL?

“If everybody knew that he might be the number one pick,” Monos joked. “Does he have the potential to be? Yes.”

Ebron mentioned to Sirius XM that he believed the Bills and Lions to be the most interested in his services, which is akin to the words of another draft pick back in 2013. And from conversations around the league about who the Bills may be targeting, the team's words on Friday and Ebron’s beliefs aren’t just fluff. There is legitimate interest.

At one point in the draft luncheon, the Bills were asked how many elite type of talents there were in this draft. Monos replied that there are “five or six guys we consider elite.”

Based on how they were talking, and, pairing that with trying to absorb some intel through this crazy draft process, that group of six could involve in no specific order, Clowney, Mack, Robinson, Matthews, Watkins and Ebron.

That list obviously does not include Lewan and Evans, two players that haven’t registered any strong opinions from conversations regarding the Bills top pick. That could mean there’s little to no interest, or that could mean they’re playing coy and are fairly interested in those two.

It’s not a determining factor, but in the past four years of the draft the team’s first round pick has gone to Orchard Park for a pre-draft visit. While Evans was one of them, Lewan was not.

Over the past few months you’ve heard the phrase “board dependent” on WGR regarding the ninth overall pick, and that will likely be the case on draft day. The top three of the draft will likely be Clowney, Robinson and Mack in some order. If what we learned today is true, that means the Bills preference of the other possible “elite” talents are, in order, Watkins, Matthews and Ebron. 

If all six are gone the Bills might then look to either Evans or Lewan, but trading down also enters the equation. Especially if, only one or even zero quarterbacks have been picked by the time they’re on the clock, they could be in the catbird seat to trade down and gain some additional picks.

Either way, it should be a fun evening on May 8 to see just how the unpredictable top eight could play out. In the end though, they are going to do something with the ninth overall pick to benefit EJ Manuel immediately.

Upon Whaley’s request, that’s the best shot at reading between the lines. Hopefully, we’ve done him proud.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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Locations : BuffaloMichiganNorth Carolina
People : A.J. GreenAaron WilliamsCordy GlennCorey GrahamDoug WhaleyDre KirkpatrickEric EbronGreg RobinsonJake MatthewsJim MonosJim SchwartzJimmy GrahamJonathan MartinJulio JonesKhalil MackMike EvansNathaniel HackettSammy WatkinsStephon GilmoreTaylor Lewan

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