Though the 2009 NFL draft is still three months away, the prospects at the Senior Bowl have kept draft talk on the front burner. The good news is at pick 11, Buffalo is virtually guaranteed to land an immediate impact player, and will likely have close to the pick of the litter at a few need positions.
There's little debate that the Bills need a big boost for their pass rush. With a limited free agent market for pass rushing talent, the draft is the next logical place to turn. Often NFL teams have to grab a pass rusher early if they want an immediate impact, and after just 50 sacks over the last two seasons Buffalo has to address the need.
Fortunately in the pick 10 to 15 range it's likely that two to three of the best candidates will still be on the board. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock believes teams in need of pass rush help in that range of the draft will benefit from some junior eligibles.
"(LSU's) Tyson Jackson is a defensive end that could play in either scheme," said Mayock. "At that level he's a logical guy. Brian Orakpo is going to probably be a top 10 or 12 pick. Then you start getting into some of the underclassmen. I don't think any of the other seniors are going to go that high as far as defensive ends."
Mayock has Orakpo currently ranked as his best defensive end prospect followed by Florida State's Everette Brown and then LSU's Jackson.
In all likelihood the Seminoles' Brown will be off the board not long after Orakpo, and likely followed by Jackson. Jackson isn't the pure pass rusher that Orakpo or Brown are, but would be a powerful and disruptive presence at left defensive end and should be among the top 20 selections according to most draft "experts."
Making the need for a pass rusher more interesting is the fact that San Francisco (10th pick), Washington (13th) and Houston (15th) are all looking to improve their pass rush as well. If some of these teams do not believe all of the aforementioned prospects are top 15 choices, jockeying for position on draft weekend could get very interesting.
A playmaking tight end is also an area the Bills would likely want to address at some point in the draft. Whether that comes at pick 11 is up for debate. If it is a position Buffalo wants filled early, Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew is widely considered the best all-around talent that the draft has to offer, and has put in some good work at the Senior Bowl this week.
"Brandon Pettigrew has just been dominant at the tight end position here," said NFL Network draft analyst Charles Davis. "He can run and catch. We watched him in a blocking drill and he won every rep that we saw. We saw three reps against high quality linebackers coming at him off the edge on the line of scrimmage and they played run blocking and pass blocking and all three situations that I saw it wasn't even close. He also looked very good running. He was a lot more fluid than people might understand. When he runs I think he'll surprise people with his 40 time. He's the total package."
Other top prospects at the tight end position after Pettigrew on Mayock's list are Florida's Cornelius Ingram, Rice's James Casey, Wisconsin's Travis Beckum and Missouri's Chase Coffman, though none of these prospects are considered to be first-round possibilities by the so called draft "experts."
Linebacker is another position where the Bills have a hole to fill. With Angelo Crowell an unrestricted free agent and still working his way back to full health, addressing that position in round one is not out of the question.
However, it would likely require Buffalo to trade down in round one to land a prospect of proper draft value. The only linebacker considered worthy of coming off the board in the top half of round one is Wake Forest's Aaron Curry, who is expected by many to be a top five pick.
In the second half of round one a worthwhile outside linebacker prospect is USC's Brian Cushing.
"Brian Cushing? Oh my," said Mayock. "Is he going to be an outside linebacker on the strong side? He can play that. He can play inside linebacker in a 3-4. The kid is unafraid of anything, he's very instinctive. I love the way he plays. He will light you up. To me his best football is ahead of him. When healthy he's one of the top guys out there."
"To me Brian Cushing is the prototype 4-3 SAM which means he's a strong side linebacker, can play over the tight end, can set the edge, also has the ability to drop back in coverage," said Davis. "A lot of teams think he can play the inside in a 3-4. Cushing provides scheme versatility because of what he can bring."
Another candidate expected by the "experts" to come off the board in the second half of round one is Ohio State's James Laurinaitis.
"Laurinaitis is one of the most consistent linebackers in the country," said Mayock. "He's instinctive, he's smart, he's tough and he doesn't make major mistakes. I believe he could play all three positions in a 4-3. He's not as explosive as Maualuga and doesn't have as many big hits as some of the other big name guys, but what gets lost in that is his consistency. He's durable, tough and smart and going to be a top level player."
Obviously a lot will happen between now and the draft, most notably free agency, which will likely shift the priority of the positional needs for the Bills and the other NFL teams drafting around them in round one. But at 11, Buffalo is sitting in a good position to greatly improve their overall talent level.