ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) The Buffalo Bills’ approach to the NFL draft this year has much to do with EJ Manuel.
After selecting the quarterback in the first round last year, the next step is adding talent to give Manuel the opportunity to progress after an inconsistent and injury-shortened rookie season.
”It’s a quarterback-driven league, so we’re going to give every avenue and every piece of the puzzle to surround EJ and make him as successful as possible,” general manager Doug Whaley said. ”What we did this offseason affords us the opportunity to go any way and every way in the draft. But our main focus is making sure EJ progresses.”
Manuel’s progression is a point of emphasis for a team that hasn’t had stability at quarterback since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired following the 1996 season. And questions remain whether Manuel is capable of providing that stability.
He went 4-6 and oversaw a sputtering offense that contributed to Buffalo (6-10) extending the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 14 seasons.
The Bills can do little but cross their fingers in hoping Manuel can stay healthy after being sidelined by knee injuries on three separate occasions. What they can control is adding pieces to the offense.
Buffalo began by creating two new offensive positions on coach Doug Marrone’s staff, including quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. Whaley also acquired Mike Williams, a proven receiver with a troubled off-field past, in a trade with Tampa Bay.
The next step is the draft, which is top-heavy on receivers and offensive tackles.
Here are five things to look out for from Buffalo, which opens with the ninth pick:
DOUBLING DOWN ON WR: Despite acquiring Williams and drafting receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin last year, the Bills might not be done restocking the position.
Buffalo’s passing attack lacked a dependable threat, finishing 29th in the NFL in yards gained. At 6-foot-5, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans has the size and range Buffalo lacks. And Clemson’s Sammy Watkins has the overall talent that might be too good to pass up despite his 6-1 frame.
”We believe so,” Whaley said of Watkins, for whom Buffalo probably has to move up. ”We think his traits are dynamic enough to overcome his lack of height.”
Tight end is another option, with North Carolina’s Eric Ebron in the mix.
O-LINE NEEDS: With left tackle Cordy Glenn protecting Manuel’s blind side, the Bills are interested in upgrading the other side of their line.
Whaley expects more teams to adopt what he calls ”NASCAR packages,” featuring swift-footed pass rushers across the defensive front.
”You need a right tackle nowadays as athletic as your left tackle,” he said.
The draft features several highly regarded tackles, including Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews.
The Bills also have a pressing need at left guard that is expected to be addressed in later rounds.
REPLACING BYRD: The Bills believe they have enough depth to overcome losing three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. Aaron Williams was solid in making the switch last season from cornerback. Returning players Da’Norris Searcy, Jonathan Meeks and Duke Williams will compete for regular jobs. And then there’s the free agent addition of Corey Graham, who can play cornerback and safety.
WHALEY’S DEBUT: After spending his first three years in Buffalo being groomed for the GM’s job, Whaley gets to run his first draft after Buddy Nix stepped down a year ago. At 41, Whaley has extensive background as a scout after working his way up through the Steelers organization.
And he’s eager to begin being judged on how he does rebuilding the Bills.
”Call me crazy, I like it,” Whaley said. ”I’m a competitor and I want to win. If that’s my role and that’s my job, I embrace my destiny.”
REMEMBERING RALPH: This is the Bills’ first draft since owner and founder Ralph Wilson died in March.
Wilson enjoyed being involved in the draft. Wilson proudly recalled the time he broke a deadlock among executives by urging them to select running back Thurman Thomas in the second round of the 1988 draft. Thomas went on to a Hall of Fame career.
”This was his favorite time of year,” Bills president Russ Brandon said. ”People ask me all the time how we can honor Mr. Wilson’s legacy. And my answer is always the same. It’s one word: Win.”
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