There has been more than enough speculation about what direction the Bills could go with the third overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft. Some speculate defensive line, other prognosticators predict quarterback and still others believe pass rushing linebacker will be the play. What's lost in those discussions is what happens in front of the Bills could be the biggest factor in steering them toward a particular prospect.
With that in mind we take a closer look at the two picks ahead of Buffalo at the top of the draft board to see just what the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will be doing when they're on the clock.
For the Panthers the first overall pick is a great place to be, but how they got there was not. Finishing the season at 2-14 Carolina has a new head coach in Ron Rivera, who is looking to turn things around sooner rather than later. That's why he and the scouting department have already narrowed their focus considerably as it pertains to their number one draft pick.
"What we've done as far as the first pick is concerned is we've evaluated our own roster first and foremost to determine the positions we feel warrant the first pick," said Rivera. "We've eliminated it to a specific number of players and we'll be watching those players very closely over the next month and a half, evaluating, trying to get as much information as we can and most certainly trying to see which player, regardless of position, fits our needs most urgently."
Rivera said they have between seven and 10 players targeted.
"We are exploring all positions," he said. "Quarterback is one of them, but we're exploring all positions."
Carolina drafted a pair of quarterbacks last year in Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike. They also have veteran Matt Moore. Still, Rivera did subscribe to the long held premise that if there is a franchise quarterback available you have to take him.
"We do believe we have to have a franchise quarterback to lead your team for the next six, seven, eight years," he said. "We certainly believe that. Do you have to take that guy or is he on our roster right now? That's all part of our evaluation process. We've gone through it in terms of our guys and we're going through it with guys potentially out there in the draft and we'll address it in free agency when that time comes. As we go through each month the elimination process will go on for us."
"The Panthers under general manager Marty Hurney have a history of trying to draft the best available player, a philosophy that new head coach Ron Rivera has embraced," said Panthers.com senior writer Bryan Strickland. "However, the Panthers historically aren't opposed to drafting based on position need if they consider the talent level of two or three prospects to be very close."
The Panthers, much like the Bills, face a similar question. It's not a matter of if they need a franchise quarterback, but if one even exists in the draft pool?
"What Ron (Rivera) has to do is assess what Jimmy Clausen is," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. "He's a quarterback he inherits. He wasn't 100 percent this year coming off the foot injury and had no talent around him. What do you think about Jimmy? Is he a franchise guy?
"Defensive line is a priority. You can make an argument for (Nick) Fairley for (Da'Quan) Bowers or (Marcell) Dareus. You can make an argument for (Blaine) Gabbert or Newton. You have all kinds of options. Trading down is a distinct possibility."
When asked specifically about Auburn's Cam Newton, Rivera believes the Heisman trophy winner has a promising NFL future.
"As far as skill set goes, the young man has tremendous talent," he said. "He has natural size and can run and has a tremendous arm. He's got a good pocket presence already. I think he's well on his way. Again, we have to go through that process. We went to his workout. We're going to bring him in obviously and we'll go through that whole process to try to get a feel for how he learns. There are several guys we will go through that process as well. He's not the only guy. As I said, right now there are 8-10 young men that fit our needs very well."
Defensive line is a position group that has to be among the Carolina considerations position-wise, but playing in an NFC South division against quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan twice a year the Panthers could be compelled to take a quarterback.
"Look at it throughout the league and franchise quarterbacks are what's happening in this league in terms of it becoming a passing league," Rivera said. "Teams that have those guys that can attack you vertically really I think are tough. Again, I come from a place, having been in San Diego, you've got Philip Rivers, a tremendous quarterback, and we've got to find a situation like that again. Whether that guy is on our roster and we develop him or he's here in the draft we have to get him."
For Denver the situation appears stable if not spectacular at quarterback. The Broncos have veteran starter Kyle Orton, and they invested a first-round pick in Tim Tebow last spring. They also have Brady Quinn
"It's a group of three I think are very capable," said Broncos head coach John Fox. "Right now, I think Kyle Orton's our starter. We've got a very young guy, a high draft pick in Tim Tebow who got his feet wet last year toward the end of the season. He did an outstanding job. He's got some of the intangibles you're looking for. And then Brady Quinn I'm looking forward to seeing him play."
A comment like that would appear to rule out quarterback knowing how badly they need help up front defensively after finishing dead last in total defense in 2010. Fox is switching Denver's scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3 front. Elvis Dumervil missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle, but figures to be the right defensive end in 2011. Former first-round pick Robert Ayers has struggled as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, but could be re-born at his more natural 4-3 end spot.
"I evaluated him coming out, and I saw him as a 4-3 defensive end," said Fox. "He's played primarily as a 3-4 outside backer. So we have him penciled in as a defensive end. I have the utmost confidence he'll be a productive player for us this coming year.''
The ends would seem set for Denver's starting defense leading one to think that defensive tackle could be an option for the Broncos at two and Dareus and Fairley would appear to be the two most likely options. And Denver apparently won't be scared off if a prospect's college resume is light on longevity.
"General Manager Brian Xanders said the team will evaluate every position group, regardless of depth on the club's current roster, but he admitted that the defense in particular needs help," said Broncos Team Media coordinator Gray Caldwell. "Xanders has said the team won't shy away from players some consider to be 'one-year wonders.'"
With Fox coming over from Carolina there's a prevailing thought that the former Panthers turned Broncos coach will have intimate knowledge as to Carolina's plans. But Fox simply sees the number two pick as a giant opportunity.
"I think other than the record part of it, you'd like to have the No. 1 pick," said Fox. "I think with the second pick, obviously, you're going to get a heck of a football player. We're counting on that . . . it's pretty exciting, very similar to when I first went to Carolina. We had the second pick in the draft. The Broncos and myself are very excited about that. We're in that process as we speak in figuring out who that pick will be.''
Either way Buffalo is likely to be looking at one of the two best quarterback prospects in the draft and has a chance of landing one of the two best defensive linemen in the class. Despite being so close to the top of the board this year, with no prospect head and shoulders above the rest determining who comes off the board in front of the Bills is a guessing game at best.
"There's no consensus number one," said Kiper. "Everybody is all over the place with who the number one player should be or is. You're talking about eight guys that are worthy of being the number one pick overall."