Two defensive needs Bills could fill in the draft

Posted Mar 5, 2018

A number of draft analysts agree that two of the deeper defensive positions in the 2018 class are defensive tackle and linebacker, two positions where Buffalo will be making additions this offseason.

When it comes to fortifying the Bills defensive lineup this offseason, one need not look any further than Buffalo’s pending free agent list to see where they’ll need to make additions. Defensive tackle and linebacker are both positions where the team has just two and five players under contract respectively.

Those positional needs could be assuaged to a degree if Kyle Williams chooses to play another season, and the Bills manage to re-sign one of their veteran linebackers.

The good news, however is Buffalo’s personnel department will have options in a 2018 draft class that provides quality and depth at both positions.

“Interior defensive line at the high end is outstanding,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “I think at least four are going to go (in the first round) -- Vita Vea, Da’Ron Payne, Maurice Hurst, and Taven Bryan.

“I also think the off-the-ball linebackers are really good this year -- Tremaine Edmunds, Roquan Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Rashaan Evans. I think those four have the chance to go as (first round) off-the-ball linebackers. Typically, there's only two off-the-ball linebackers, so that would be a big year. I really like those two groups.”

If Buffalo holds onto each of their two first and two second-round picks, they could go a long way in shoring up a run defense that ranked 29th against the run and 29th in sacks.

Assuming the Bills stay at picks 21 and 22 in round one however, it’s unlikely they get a chance to take the talented Washington nose tackle off the board.

“Vita Vea is a dancing bear. He's a freak. He's 340 pounds, and everybody says he's going to run a sub-five 40,” Mayock said. “The last defensive lineman to do that was Dontari Poe, and I think he went at No. 11. And Vea is a better player than Poe was coming out of college, more advanced. He's a plug-and-play nose tackle in any scheme. If he runs 4.85 or 4.9 at 342 pounds, to me that's more impressive than watching John Ross run a 4.22 (last year).”

Vea ran a 5.1, still an impressive number for a player that weighed in at 347, though he had to pull out of the field workout with a hamstring injury.

Barring a run on defensive tackles it is likely that the Bills will have options at 21.

“I think the (defensive tackles) that can rush the quarterback are going to be gone quickly,” said Mayock. “Vita Vea, Maurice Hurst, Da'Ron Payne.”

Hurst’s recently discovered heart condition at the NFL combine could be a major blow to the top end of defensive tackle talent in the class. He told NFL Network that he expects to be cleared for Michigan’s pro day later this month. Even so, there could be viable options in round two and three as well.

“Harrison Phillips from Stanford is an interesting player,” Mayock said. “B.J. Hill from North Carolina State. I think in the second or third round, an ascending talent is Andrew Brown from Virginia.”

One player that Mayock was especially surprised by during his film study was Virginia Tech DT Tim Settle, a projected second-round prospect.

“He's one of those players I didn't know anything about when I first put his tape in. Actually I noticed him when he went in to watch (Tremaine) Edmunds and was like: Who is this big dude in the middle,” said Mayock. “I mean, wow. I love it when I notice a guy and I'm not even studying that particular player.

“He's got short area quickness that can threaten the pocket, that's rare. That's the first thing that jumps off. Can he affect the pass game at 335? Maybe. Again, that's rare. I know he can stop the run. When he stays low and plays with leverage, he's hard to move, even with the double team. And he plays hard. I can't remember which tape it was, but he chased down a screen pass about 30 yards from behind. You don't ever see 335-pound guys do that.”

And now more than ever NFL teams are looking for interior defensive linemen who can push the pocket consistently, knowing most protection schemes focus on the edge rushers.

“I think the hard thing for some of these guys to get used to is the NFL -- defensive linemen coming out early, every snap you have to play with your hair on fire in the NFL. Every snap. Can't take downs off. Got to make every snap count. I think the rotation helps in the NFL, but I think it's something that young players have to get used to.”

The linebacker class is a bit stronger outside than inside, which is often the case. But much like defensive tackle, there’s good top-end talent and good depth.

He believes Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Georgia’s Roquan Smith are locks for round one.

“I love Roquan Smith, and I think he's today's NFL off-the-ball linebacker,” said Mayock. “It's mostly about speed. He's 225 pounds. Deion Jones was drafted in the second round in Atlanta two years ago, and he's been the prototype. I think Roquan Smith takes it a step further. Very similar type guy. I love the way he plays. I didn't even know who he was the first tape I put in. I think it was Notre Dame-Georgia and he just jumped off the tape.”

Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans have an outside chance of being first-round picks too.

“A guy that I'm really intrigued by is Vander Esch,” Mayock said. “If you put his tape on against Oregon, which I believe was his Bowl game, it was as good as off-the-ball linebacker tape as I've seen in years. He goes sideline to sideline. He's great in the pass game. He's one of those guys that naturally slips under or over blocks to make the play. He's like 6'4", 240. I think he'd be a great fit.

“Rashaan Evans is a great off-the-ball linebacker. He can run, shows up in coverage, comes downhill, tackles. He's going either late one to early two.”

Beyond that, Mayock likes Uchenna Nwosu from USC, who will have to make the switch from edge rusher in college and play off the ball. Ohio State’s Jerome Baker, South Carolina State’s Darius Leonard and BYU’s Fred Warner are all prospects with some question marks, but each of them have the athletic skill set to play linebacker in Buffalo’s defensive scheme.

So even if the Bills decide to part with some of their draft capital for a move up the board, they should still have the opportunity to address a pair of critical positions on the defensive side of the ball with quality, whether it’s day one or two of the 2018 draft.