A tight salary cap, the loss of free agents and a couple of significant player releases put the Bills in a position where their only path to re-loading their defensive roster with quality talent was through the draft. Picking in the bottom half of almost every round only made the task more difficult when it came to acquiring some of the best prospects the 2016 class had to offer. By the close of the 2016 NFL draft Buffalo not only added defensive talent, but found three players who could be in the starting lineup in September.
"Last year for offense, we improved it," said Bills GM Doug Whaley. "We made a concerted effort to improve the defense and I think we did it."
By Whaley's own admission Friday the team not only filled holes, but did so with rookies they had pegged in their starting lineup before the draft was over. Shaq Lawson is going to start at right outside linebacker opposite Jerry Hughes. But that won't be the only place the disruptive, hustling pass rusher will line up. Lawson will be up on the line in passing situations maybe with Hughes sitting on his outside shoulder. Who do you want to double there?
Lawson is everything that Mario Williams is not. A talented player with a work ethic to match. He's dreamed of playing pro football because the game lives in his soul. Rex Ryan believes Bills fans will fall in love with him.
"He has that Buffalo and Bills mentality," said Ryan. "He's going to fit great in the community. He's just a tough guy, a passionate guy, loves to play the game and that's what we're going to see. Are they going to have guys with more sacks than him? Maybe. But there's not going to be anybody that's going to play harder than this kid, and that's what I think the fans are going to love about him."
Reggie Ragland's slide to round two was unexpected, but Whaley and his staff adjusted to what was unfolding and struck a deal due to a refusal to give up, despite being rebuffed by the first nine teams at the top of round two. Landing the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, who might be the most natural leader in the draft class, and has a punishing playing style to match, figure to pay big dividends in Buffalo's front seven.
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"He's physical," said Ryan of Ragland. "That's what we said we're going to bring here and that's we're used to that's what we want. This guy will run and hit and his cover skills are a lot better than he's given credit for. He played dime linebacker in Alabama, he played the WILL linebacker spot, sometimes plays MIKE, in a very similar defense. We had him in for a visit, he blew everybody away. All his teammates, if you're going to choose one guy, every one of them said, 'I want Reggie Ragland with me.' That's what we're bringing to this football team."
Adolphus Washington only added to the defensive bounty. Landing a defensive lineman with a second round grade in the third round provided the Bills with a player who can help fortify the first line of defense.
"The young man from Ohio State has got a ton of ability and when you put him in that rotation with the guys that we have, I think he's got a chance to really do some things," said Ryan.
At the outset of the offseason the holes on Buffalo's defense were noteworthy. The unit was also stripped of some depth. Fortunately defensive line and cornerback were two of the stronger position groups in the draft, and there was enough linebacker talent to provide the Bills with the answers they needed. The timing could not have been better.
"We can never envision the board falling the way it did, but with the way we kind of look ahead, we kind of knew that if we had the cap restrictions with our guys that we re-signed, we would not be able to go out and fill through the free agent market," said Whaley. "We knew this was going to be a draft heavy in some of the spots where we might be losing the guys. So it correlated pretty well. Is that always going to happen? No, but it happened this year."
Buffalo not only got talent that can step in right away and make a difference, they got players who reached the summit of college football.
"They're worthy talent-wise for where we picked them," Whaley said. "Their value and talent met up. But again when you start getting guys from winning programs that gets infectious in your locker room. It brings a sense of this is what we need to do to win because they've been there before. They've done it before. They're going to bring that into our locker room, which I think is a good injection of something we don't have."
So how much better does the 2016 class make Buffalo's defense?
"On paper, we think it's improved tremendously," said Whaley. "But paper doesn't win you games. We've got to put it on the field and show it. We'll see. We think we've added some pieces that will help us get to where we need to go."
In 2015 Buffalo ranked 19th in total defense. They were 15th in points allowed. They were 16th in run defense, 23rd on third down and 31st in sacks per play. Rex Ryan hasn't forgotten, but he'd like to use 2016 to prove it was an exception and not the rule.
"I am excited. We are keeping that chip on our shoulder though," said Ryan. "We will see at the end of the day. We feel good about the people we have added here. We feel great about the guys that are already on our roster. But when you add, especially the three young men at the top of our draft. These three guys will have major impact on our football team.
"I see opportunity and that is what I can't wait for. We are going to be young. We are going to be explosive. Yeah there is talent and all that, the big thing is we are going to have 11 guys working as one, and when we do that I think we are going to be very successful."