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Speed and versatility personified in Bills draft class

At the end of the 2013 NFL draft Bills head coach Doug Marrone said his high school coach always told him that luck follows speed. As an offensive lineman, Marrone was anything but fast. The Buffalo Bills however, were quick to add speed to their roster with each of their eight draft picks over the past three days. That along with a priority on player versatility has bolstered Buffalo's roster with talent that will not only be hard to catch, but difficult to diagnose.

"Speed is hard to coach," said Marrone. "I think that when you look at the picks you're looking at players that have a lot of speed. I think the versatility is important because I think when you have versatility within the players then you don't get stuck. Then you can get the best players on the field."

Playing speed on the game field can sometimes differ from timed speed, but if the 40 times of Buffalo's eight draft choices are any indication, the Bills have perhaps one of their fastest draft classes in recent memory.

Only one player in the draft class failed to run a sub-4.7 40 time and that was Dustin Hopkins, Buffalo's sixth-round pick, who ran a 4.71, a very good time for a kicker.

Buffalo's fastest draft choice is also the Bills fastest player on the roster in third-round pick Marquise Goodwin, who was clocked running a 4.27 40-time at the NFL Combine.

Beyond the pure speed is the versatility of almost every player selected. Top pick EJ Manuel offers a skill set and football smarts to execute in any offensive scheme. He can make plays on the move or in the pocket and at nearly 240 pounds runs a 4.64.

Robert Woods lined up at all three receiver positions during his time at USC and even returned punts on occasion for the Trojans and ran a 4.51.

Kiko Alonso is a three-down linebacker candidate that can play outside or inside linebacker with run stopping ability and coverage skills. He had a 4.68 40 time.  

Goodwin can stretch the field on offense and return or cover on special teams.

Perhaps no one is as versatile however, as fourth-round pick Duke Williams. Though he played safety at Nevada his 4.48 speed has Buffalo's talent evaluators believing he can do more.

"I think the big thing about Duke is the fact that he can play more than one spot," said Bills GM Buddy Nix. "Our coaches and everybody else thought he could be a nickel guy, maybe even an outside corner and also a safety."

Fifth-round draft choice Jonathan Meeks, who ran a 4.49, is interchangeable at the safety position between strong and free, something that is essential in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme. With the advent of athletic tight ends slicing up teams in the passing game, NF L defenses need solid coverage safeties to neutralize them. They also need linebackers that can run with the dynamic tight ends too.

Buffalo feels they did that with the selection of Alonso and Meeks.

"When you look at Duke, even for us where do you start him out? Obviously he can play safety, he can play nickel, he can play corner. Meeks is a deep fill safety and that's on film, but he also has good range and good speed and can do a lot of things," said Marrone. "I think it's important will all the types of tight ends that you see who is matching up to him. When you look at Kiko as a linebacker he can be not necessarily just a nickel or a third down linebacker, but a three down backer potentially in the system. I think you have to keep changing that up on what that matchup is."

Buffalo's offensive and defensive coaches have been clear that they want to be multiple. That means constant change when it comes to personnel groupings. What makes all those different alignments and assignments easier for the coaches is having players that are capable of handling multiple roles rather than making wholesale changes down in and down out with specialized role players.

When you have players that can do it all they prove to be more difficult for opponents to diagnose in terms of their role in the scheme.

"When you look at this league it's about putting a personnel grouping on the field and you want to see what the defense is putting out there for a personnel grouping and see where you can get that mismatch," said Marrone. "Defensively, the versatility of wait a minute is he an outside linebacker? Is he an inside linebacker? Is he dropping or rushing? When you have that versatility you really can't get a bead on who you want those five guys up front to protect."

On offense seventh-round pick Chris Gragg from Arkansas has just as good a chance to cross up opposing defenders. A former receiver Gragg runs a 4.5 and has lined up everywhere. Marrone sounds interested in exploring just how varied he can get with Gragg's roles.

"He's been on the ball and off the ball some even though mostly he's split out. So I think he can give you some value there. There are clips of him in the backfield so I'll take a look at that," Marrone said. "But he's a guy that runs well, has good catching skills, good catch radius. He has a lot of upside."

A secondary benefit to having great versatility on your roster is it reduces the headaches that NFL coaching staffs go through every weekend leading up to a Sunday game when they have to decide who will be inactive for the next contest. If coaches have more players that can do more things, and do them well, it makes the challenge of dressing 46 players on game day a bit less stressful.

"You can only dress so many for that game, how much are you going to get to use at this position or this player and that, so that's why you have to look for the versatility I believe."

And when you're versatile you can attack. If there's speed to go with that versatility the combination can be remarkably effective.

"I think that you have to be that way," said Marrone. "I think that you defensively have to attack people. I think offensively you have to attack the defense and I think that people talk about competition amongst the players, there's competition amongst us right now. We're going to be going against each other. And I think that you need to do that in this league, because I think that if you stay the same and unless you have 11 players that are better than the other 11 players on the field, I think you can find yourself getting into some difficulty and being able to get your goals accomplished, which is winning."

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