(WGR 550) -- The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine has come and gone and the players have gone through the biggest job interview of their lives.
The Buffalo Bills, along with all 32 teams across the National Football League, came to Indianapolis not only to get a firsthand glimpse of the prospects, but to start to figure out how their individual off-seasons will go. There's a reason every decision maker and agent travel to Indianapolis each and every year, and it's not just for the workouts and agent conferences.
Meetings are had, values are gauged and markets are set for some of the upcoming unrestricted free agents. So what will happen with the Bills' upcoming free agent decisions, and what was the talk from the week that could affect their drafting in May?
Here are the biggest takeaways, in regards to the Bills, from the week spent in Indianapolis:
1) All's quiet on Byrd front
- One of the biggest story lines for the Bills in Indianapolis, once again, revolved around what will happen with one of the best players on their roster. Jairus Byrd is slated to become an unrestricted free agent on Tuesday, March 11 unless one of two things happens. The first, the Bills sign him to a long-term deal. And the second, the Bills use the franchise tag on him once more. The two sides met on Saturday, but all has been silent as to how productive that sit down may have been. There is one thing that's clear that has been learned from talking with people around Indianapolis: the Bills will not hesitate to franchise tag Byrd once again if they feel as though all hope is lost in signing him to a long-term contract. Except this time around, the end result would likely be Byrd being sent on his way through a trade rather than playing another year under the tag. The Bills want Byrd back for the long-term, but may only be willing to spend a set amount per season to keep him. If the Bills end up tagging him for the second straight year, it's likely that will be the first step towards a split. A small possibility remains that they could tag him in the hopes of getting him under a long-term contract before the draft. However, for the time being, March 3 (the deadline to assign franchise tags) will be quite an important one for the future of Byrd with the Bills.
2) Byrd and Aaron Williams? Can't have your cake and eat it too
- Speaking of safeties, there's another tidbit regarding the position and the Buffalo Bills. The general sentiment around the National Football League is that it's foolish to pay both your safeties with extremely lucrative, long-term sums and the Bills will likely fall in line with that thinking as well. If all goes well with Byrd and he signs for the long-term, the Bills will pair him with Aaron Williams in 2014 as their safety tandem. That would likely be the last time you see those two playing together in Buffalo. Barring a complete collapse in production from Williams or an injury that would decrease his value, the Bills re-signing Byrd would likely mean the former Texas Longhorn Williams will walk after the 2014 season. Williams would be in line to make somewhere around $5-6 million per season in his next contract, and that's if he has a campaign similar to the one he just had. If Byrd leaves, however, it'd be fair to expect the Bills will do whatever they can to keep Williams in house for the long-term.
3) The onus is on EJ
- Part of the job is reading into answers and trying to figure out what made a head coach or a general manager say things the way that they did. When Bills GM Doug Whaley addressed the western New York media while in Indianapolis, one part of his answer on EJ Manuel really stood out. When asked what he wanted to see out of Manuel in his second year, Whaley said this:
"I want to see some progression just with his being comfortable in the system and I think you're gonna get that because now he knows what to expect. He knows what to expect in this off-season, he knows what to expect in camp, he knows what to expect in the regular season. And with what coach put around him with the quarterback coach and the offensive assistant, we're giving him every resource to do what he has to do to take that next step to get us where we need to go."
Read the last sentence very carefully. Listening to him say "we're giving him every resource," makes it sound like he's saying "No more excuses, it's on you now to get better," albeit in a nice way. The second year is a humongous one for any young quarterback, because that's a proving ground to see if the player can adjust well enough to make the leap in the NFL. Now with a quarterback coach basically hired because EJ is comfortable with him (Todd Downing), the offensive assistant with copious amounts of experience (Jim Hostler) and likely a few additions to the offense to make it an easier time for him in 2014, Manuel needs to break out and prove to the Bills that he was worthy of the first-round billing. If he doesn't, the Bills could find themselves in a peculiar situation in the 2015 off-season.
4) Sammy Watkins could actually make it to 9th overall
- Heading into the NFL Scouting Combine, it never really seemed like a genuine possibility that Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins would be there when the Bills are on the clock at ninth overall. However, looking at the way some of the players worked out and the general team needs of the top eight, it's not as crazy as you might think. There will be three teams in the top eight that will be legitimate threats in selecting the explosive wide receiver before Buffalo gets a chance to. St. Louis (2nd overall), Oakland (5th overall) and Tampa Bay (7th overall) all conceivably could use their first round pick on Watkins. But all three have reasons dictating that they could potentially pass on him. The Rams need an offensive tackle badly, the Raiders need a quarterback and two solid pass rushers and Tampa Bay already has a solid pair of starting receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams (although Williams is in some hot water down in Tampa for the time being). If all three elect to pass, Buffalo might have a shot at landing Watkins. And know this: they like Sammy Watkins. If available, the Bills would be hard-pressed to find a bigger impact player for EJ Manuel and their, at times, anemic offense.
5) TE may not be as big a need as some want it to be
- This likely won't be popular to fans of the team, and it might even elicit responses that would only consider it to be a "smokescreen" for their "actual" intentions. The Bills like their tight ends currently on the roster and think they could make an impact with a heightened role. That's right, the trio of Tony Moeaki, Chris Gragg and Lee Smith makes the Bills believe they can get an adequate amount of production for their offense. The door hasn't been closed on Scott Chandler just yet, but even if he doesn't re-sign, ninth overall might be a little too rich for their blood to nab the top tight end in the draft, Eric Ebron. Most fans and media would disagree with those sentiments, but at this point, the Bills would likely go for a different position in the first round and perhaps pick one up sometime outside of the first night of the draft.
6) Offensive tackle is very much in play at 9, and it might be for a RT
- How much is a right tackle worth in today's NFL? Many would argue (including your author) that a serviceable player at that position can be had in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft. The Bills, and the way their roster and coaching staff are currently constructed, might just feel differently. Just like in 2013, the Bills will attempt to set the tone in games by running the football. Knowing Doug Marrone's background as an offensive line coach and that particular game plan, the Bills simply don't have the talent on 60-percent of their offensive line to follow that line of thinking. Following the rave reviews from both Marrone and Whaley at the Combine, it appears Cordy Glenn is set in stone at left tackle. If one of Greg Robinson or Jake Matthews become available at ninth overall however, the Bills very well could make that their first selection in 2014.
7) Don't be surprised to see 2 new starters at guard
- There are two players along the offensive line that should consider themselves as 'safe' for a 2014 starting position.
"I think Cordy Glenn had a very good year for us. I think Eric Wood had a very good year. I think Eric's close to probably getting himself some recognition at that position. I think the other guys went out there, scraped, played extremely hard for us. We're looking forward to developing them still." - Doug Marrone
As you can see, he lists two and said the rest "scraped." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the other three starters on the offensive line. The play of left guard Doug Legursky, right guard Kraig Urbik and right tackle Erik Pears all left a lot to be desired in the way the Bills now want their offensive linemen to play the position. While the Bills won't spend a relatively high draft pick on an offensive guard, the position still warrants them to add one through the mid-to-later rounds, with a middle-tier free agent or by way of both avenues.
8) Kiko to the weakside?
- As it currently stands, the Bills have two starters set at linebacker. Manny Lawson will play the strongside and Kiko Alonso will be on the field. It just hasn't been determined where Alonso will be on the field just yet. While he showed a high level of play at middle linebacker as a rookie, even GM Doug Whaley pointed out that Alonso could benefit from a move to the weakside.
"He would excel there, just like he excelled at middle linebacker. I think he's got the skill set to excel at any of the three linebacker positions. One thing that will maybe help him, because of his frame, it would probably help him not being able to take on those offensive linemen as frequently. So he might be a little more productive."
More production should be what the Bills are after. If there is a viable option on Day Two of the draft to man the inside, they wouldn't hesitate in putting Alonso on the weakside to shield him from some blocks. They know they haven't been able to stop the run for four straight seasons and it's a draining problem for the franchise since the days of Chan Gailey.
9) Searcy not in the plans?
- If the Jairus Byrd talks go awry and they end up having to tag him with the idea of trading him sometime before the draft, the next man up may not be fourth-year player Da'Norris Searcy. When asked if Searcy could be an every down safety, Marrone quickly brought up second-year player Duke Williams. When Whaley was asked about the talent at safety behind Byrd, he brought up Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, with no mention of Searcy. The fourth-year player has proven to be a liability in coverage but instinctive in run support, so his role as the third safety in the defense would likely not change. It didn't seem abundantly clear that the Bills viewed him as a viable replacement for Byrd in the event the safety was sent elsewhere.
10. Don't expect Whaley to ever use a top pick on a RB, unless…
- An "Adrian Peterson" is on the board. Whaley cited the devaluation of the position and the fact that all teams needed two because of the wear-and-tear on all these players as reasons for not selecting a first round running back. Not only should that signal that the a running back pick won't happen on his watch, but perhaps that could also indicate what might happen with C.J. Spiller after the final season of his rookie contract. The devaluation of the running back should not only be linked to the draft. Unless the player is truly special and consistently stretches the limits of opposing defenses within your scheme, running backs aren't going to make a lump sum of money in today's NFL. Keep that quote in mind not only for future drafts under Whaley, but when the season ends and Spiller is looking for a new contract.