As the 2017 NFL draft sits just six days away our ‘On the Clock’ series paints the picture of all things tied to the league’s selections of the top college prospects from analysis to under the radar players to prevailing thoughts as draft day draws closer.
In this installment we cover the kind of cornerback the Bills might see as the best fit in their defense, an underrated tight end from north of the border and examine how Buffalo’s spot at 10 could be a blessing or a curse.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott was understandably guarded when discussing the team’s final draft preparations leading up to this Thursday night. It’s his first draft as a head coach and it’s clear he’s supremely motivated to add quality talent to the roster.
Cornerback looks like an obvious positional need with Stephone Gilmore, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Corey White no longer on the roster from last year’s squad.
As we covered late Thursday on Buffalobills.com, the cornerback class is a deep one and the position plays a critical role in McDermott’s defense even though there is a good deal of zone coverage. But what is the template for what McDermott might prefer in a cornerback?
Carolina’s 2016 draft class might provide some clues. Last year after rescinding the franchise tag on Josh Norman, who subsequently signed with Washington, the Panthers had to re-load at the position. And re-load they did with three of their five picks being cornerbacks.
Two (James Bradberry and Daryl Worley) would go on to start in 13 and 11 games respectively as rookies, showing marked improvement under McDermott in his final season as defensive coordinator.
In looking at their draft profiles we see that both players fell into the en vogue category of “long corners.” Cornerbacks over six feet tall are very popular these days with receivers getting taller, but in a zone scheme they’re especially valuable as their wingspans can reduce the size of passing lanes.
Bradberry and Worley both stood 6-1. Carolina’s fifth-round corner, Zack Sanchez goes 5-11.
Not having a top end 40-time wasn’t a deal breaker. Bradberry ran a 4.5 at the combine and Worley ran a 4.64. Sanchez clocked a 4.5.
Bradberry and Worley both had sub seven-second three cone times (very good) and all had verticals better than 35 inches.
More important all three had a lot of experience, strong ball skills and had crooked numbers in the interception and pass breakups columns to prove it.
Bradberry and Worley, both outside corners were also willing tacklers in run support, a key component defending outside run plays in McDermott’s scheme.
Buffalo’s defensive system seems to make the cornerback pool deeper for the Bills to choose from, knowing they don’t necessarily need a burner at the position. Playmaking ability appears to be among the highest priorities along with length.
Those prerequisites could favor prospects like Colorado’s Ahkello Witherspoon whose 23 pass breakups tied him for first in the country last season. The fact that he ran a 4.45 certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Other players who fit the profile in this year’s class, who figure to come off the board on the first two days of the draft include Witherspoon’s college teammate, Chidobe Awuzie, West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas, Central Florida’s Shaqull Griffin, Washington’s Kevin King, Florida’s Teez Tabor and Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley.
All have length, have shown ability in zone coverage and production even if their 40 times weren’t ideal.
Name to know: Antony Auclair has drawn attention
Over the last few years it seems that Canada produces one draft worthy prospect for the NFL. In 2014 it was Lavant Duvernay-Tardif, who became a sixth-round pick of the Chiefs. Last year it was Manitoba defensive lineman David Onyemata going in the fourth round to the Saints. This year Laval University tight end Antony Auclair is the north of the border prospect who is likely to hear his name called on day three of the 2017 draft.
Invited to play in the East-West Shrine game this past January, Auclair put in a strong week and met with 25 NFL clubs, including the Bills. Buffalo also attended Auclair’s pro day with 16 other NFL clubs.
Auclair, who is coming off an eight-game season in which he posted 17 catches for 229 yards and two touchdowns, measured 6-5, 256 pounds with 34 1/8-inch arms and giant 10 3/8-inch hands. He ran a 4.82 40-time, benched 22 reps, had a 33 1/2-inch vertical and a 4.33-second short shuttle.
He’s considered a bit raw in terms of technique both in run blocking and route running, but has the natural tools to develop into a capable producer at the NFL level. For a team with an established starter at tight end, Auclair could learn on the job with the potential to become an eventual starter in the league according to some NFL scouts. Best case scenario is he develops into an Anthony Fasano type tight end.
-I wrote on the heels of the NFL combine a couple of months ago that the Bills should certainly entertain the option of moving down the draft board to collect more draft choices knowing they had just six in what is seen as an extraordinarily deep draft class at some of Buffalo’s positions of need (cornerback, safety, receiver).
The problem however, is most of the other 31 NFL clubs realize how deep the draft is as well and are likely less apt to move up the board and sacrifice picks to do so.
What also makes trading up to Buffalo’s spot at 10 less attractive is the fact that this year’s class is seen as one that has nine truly elite prospects, so provided those nine come off the board in succession, the Bills pick at 10 won’t be a coveted pick by other clubs.
“I think in this draft, beyond 10 or 12 in this draft about 40 guys all look alike,” said NFL.com’s Gil Brandt.
Senior Bowl Executive Director and former NFL general manager Phil Savage concurred.
“At a certain point from 10 to 50, in essence you’re getting a very similar player in many ways,” he said.
-Knowing this it was interesting to read reports this week of the Cleveland Browns looking to jump into the top five or six picks from their second first-round spot at 12 to leapfrog the Bills for fear that they would try to take one of the top quarterback prospects at 10. Chicago at three is also reportedly interested in DeShaun Watson at three and Jacksonville loaded up on defense in free agency. Might they look for an alternative to Blake Bortles at four?
I have to think Buffalo would actually welcome these kinds of developments. In a draft class where there are maybe six slam dunk elite prospects, nothing would make the Bills happier at pick 10 than to see quarterbacks, in what is seen as a ho-hum class, come off the board in front of them and push some of the elite talent down hopefully far enough where they can get one at 10.
-Most scouts around the league concur that it’s the best running back class in over 10 years, which goes back to the class that produced Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. It offers game breakers, multi-dimensional threats and even some decent late round prospects. Knowing the Bills may very well lose