The Bills brass has been up front about their defense since the regular season has ended. Granted there are many factors that contributed to finishing 27th in sacks, 27th in first downs allowed per game, 30th in points allowed per game and last in the league in red zone defense. At the top of that list however, is the lack of a pass rush.
“I think everything would look better if we had some pressure on the passer,” said Bills GM Buddy Nix. “If you can’t disrupt passers in the NFL and make them get out of rhythm and make the move any of them, they’ll wear you out. We had some rookie (quarterbacks we faced) that looked like Dan Marino and we let them look like that way because we let them stand there. You’ve got to disrupt the quarterback.”
This offseason the Bills intend to address that deficiency on the defensive side of the ball. With Dave Wannstedt installed as the new defensive coordinator and the 4-3 announced by Chan Gailey as their base set moving forward the type of pass rusher they’re looking for is clear.
“Defensively I would say the priority would have to be pass rushers, defensive ends,” said Nix. “We need pass rushers, one, maybe two.”
Nix has said if the right fit is there in free agency they’re not opposed to being aggressive and addressing that need with a veteran. However, picking 10th overall in the 2012 NFL draft there figures to be a couple of options available when Buffalo is on the clock this spring as well.
With the need for instant impact the Bills need to find an NFL ready type prospect and those typically reside at the top of the draft board.
“Everybody is looking for the next Aldon Smith,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper in reference to San Francisco’s rookie, who finished with 14 sacks in 2011. “You look at those combo guys and normally they transition pretty quickly. We saw that with Smith. Will it be Whitney Mercilus at Illinois? Will it be Andre Branch who could possibly play on his feet at Clemson, but is probably more of a defensive end? Nick Perry is more of a 4-3 defensive end. Courtney Upshaw is an already proven entity as a pass rusher.”
In Kiper’s first mock draft he had Upshaw going to the Bills with the 10th pick in the draft . North Carolina’s Quinton Coples, largely viewed as the best 4-3 defensive end in the class, he had going to Jacksonville at seven.
“He’s a guy that is very interesting,” said Kiper of Upshaw. “He draws comparisons to (Pittsburgh’s) Lamarr Woodley. If you want a guy that’s a proven entity it would be Upshaw.”
Kiper believes Upshaw is athletic enough to play outside linebacker in a 3-4, but at the Senior Bowl he spent the whole week playing in a three-point stance at defensive end.
“Some teams I spoke to at the Senior Bowl liked him better as a defensive end in a 4-3 as a rush end,” said NFL analyst and former player Matt Bowen. “He’s real powerful with his bull rush. He uses his hands well also. I think he’s a first-round talent.”
Upshaw played a ‘jack’ linebacker position in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme and spent most of his time as a edge rusher lending credence to the thought that he could be a defensive end in a 4-3 after logging 15 sacks over his final two seasons. The only pause scouts might have is with his measurables.
At 6’1 ½” and 273 pounds Upshaw is a bit short for defensive end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4.
Until he runs at the NFL Combine clubs that play a 3-4 defense will openly wonder if he can effectively drop and cover from an outside linebacker position in their scheme at 273 pounds. Upshaw was quoted as saying he wants to get down to 265 pounds by the Combine.
What seems apparent at this point is Buffalo is going to strongly consider a pass rusher with the 10th overall pick, provided they don’t land a big ticket one in free agency beforehand. And with the strong likelihood that a player of Upshaw’s caliber will be on the board, the Bills stand a good chance of getting a much needed piece for their defensive puzzle.