Back in January, during the team’s initial off-season press conference, GM Buddy Nix discussed with the local media what he believed his team needed to do to improve upon their disappointing finish to the 2011 campaign. This practice, sharing a list of generalized targets and areas of opportunity, is not an uncommon one. The fact that the list was incredibly short, now that’s uncommon – at least for us. Sensible re-signings and aggressive acquisitions in the free agent market shored up some of those needs, further shrinking the list and earning the team some freedom in April’s draft. Over a stretch of three days, the team added nine new players whom they hope could play a part in achieving what CJ Spiller, this regime’s first draft choice, called “the ultimate goal.”
1 (10) – Stephon Gilmore, CB South Carolina [6'0" - 190 lbs.]
From the early free-agent courtship of Stanford Routt, it was apparent that Nix was looking for a re-imagining and upgrade upon the cornerback position in Buffalo going forward. Routt passed on signing with the Bills, landing instead in Kansas City, so the team was put into a precarious situation of having to re-negotiate with their top corner, Terrence McGee, or release him due to his salary and extensive injury history, further depleting their secondary. Thankfully for the Bills, McGee agreed to restructure – but it was clear that there was still work to be done. Enter Gilmore, the tenth overall choice in this year’s draft. With Stephon Gilmore, you get an abundance of athleticism, intelligence, and physicality. While he excels in zone, he’s still very good in man-to-man coverage in most instances. Gilmore does have some concerns with his speed, but since he is rarely beaten off of the line so his lack of elite recovery speed is often concealed. He is a welcoming and more-than-capable tackler who loves to get involved in run support and in the short passing game, where he looks to be used often in his rookie year against game-breaking tight ends such as Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gilmore will compete for and should have no problem securing a starting role on the Buffalo defense for this season and going forward. His skill set and size, compared with the existing talent level on the roster give him a prime opportunity to shine early and often. He’s a smart player who calculates the consequences before he takes a chance on the field and keeps himself out of trouble off of it.
2 (41) – Cordy Glenn, OT Georgia [6'5" - 345 lbs.]
In an expressed position of need that seemed more desire than legitimate need, Nix was vocal over the winter about wanting a starting left tackle that could give quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick more time in the pocket. Over the entire 2011 season, Buffalo allowed the fewest sacks in the league with multiple fill-ins at the position, the most notable being fourth round rookie Chris Hairston. Out of Clemson last year, scouts had said emphatically that, due to slow feet and lack of an explosive first step, Hairston would never be a left tackle in the NFL. After seven starts protecting Fitzpatrick’s blind side, Hairston proved scouts wrong. With Glenn, many scouts and talent evaluators had spent months of the draft process saying that he could never play left tackle professionally, and may even be better suited as a guard. Nix, however, saw things differently and told the media immediately after Glenn’s selection that he will be a tackle in Buffalo. Due to his size and the incredible agility he possesses despite that frame, Nix and other Bills personnel men drew comparisons two two-time Pro Bowl tackle Marcus McNeill, another former Nix draft choice with question marks. Glenn is very powerful and has a surprisingly dominant initial punch off of the snap, which shakes opposing linemen up, but he has a tendency to get lazy with his blocks if the play isn’t designed to head his way. In pass protection, he has quick feet for his size and has a great anchor which renders bull rushers useless, but struggles with speed rushers at times. Glenn has long arms and is exceptional in the open field, moving downfield to the second level against the run like a seasoned veteran which should be incredibly beneficial to the team’s runningback tandem. His main knocks are his lack of ideal explosiveness and occasional inability to diagnose complex defensive attacks, but he should have no issues earning the starting left tackle position over Hairston throughout training camp. The system that the team runs is more of a fast-release offense and will take pressure off of any inadequacies that he may have. If Glenn proves ineffective on the left side, the team has the luxury of moving him around the line as he has played a majority of his career at right tackle and guard, so the transition should be smooth for him.
3 (69) – TJ Graham, WR North Carolina State [5’11" - 188 lbs.]
Both Nix and head coach Chan Gailey were open about wanting another slot-type player who was similar to former Bill Roscoe Parrish and they may have found that with Graham. Graham was a standout on the track field at NC State, which could give him more opportunities to see the field with his ability to get deep. He was seen by many as an incredible reach in the third round, especially considering Nix traded up to acquire him, but it was clear that they thought this young man was worth having in the fold. Both Nix and Gailey believe that he can be a starting outside receiver, which considering the production they got out of the similar-statured Parrish in that role before being hampered by injuries, it’s not farfetched. Still, TJ is more polished as a punt returner – an exceptional one at that – than he is at receiver at any level. He has a habit of letting the ball get to his body and thus dropping passes when contact is made, and he isn’t the most effective in traffic. Even with these deficiencies, Graham continued to improve at receiver throughout his collegiate career and looks to have plenty of upside to continue doing so. He may split return duties with Justin Rogers and CJ Spiller early, but he also has a great chance to see the field often and early. In Gailey’s offense, there isn’t a true number two receiver, so Graham could be moved to any of the receiver positions on the field and create mismatches, especially in the slot. I don’t know that he, immediately, is the outside threat that so many fans wanted, but he does have potential and should receive plenty of playing time to prove himself and better his game going forward.
4 (105) – Nigel Bradham, LB Florida State [6'1" - 241 lbs.]
Even if the team plans on going into the season with Kirk Morrison as the strong side linebacker, depth was needed across the board amongst linebackers, and Bradham can provide that. Nigel Bradham is an extremely versatile player who spent most of his time with the Seminoles on the weak side, but has the ability and size to play any of the three linebacker positions in this defense. He has very good cover skills, both in man and zone, and has the speed to keep up with slot receivers, runningbacks splitting out wide, and tight ends crossing through his zone. Bradham is a sure tackler and keeps himself in incredible shape, as can be seen not only in appearance but in his impeccable injury history. He is ferocious and aggressive against the run and works hard in any application on the field. He’s not going to wow anyone with his pass rushing skills – if there’s not a wide open lane between him and the quarterback; it’s rare that he’ll reach him, and he has a tendency to take stupid penalties that can be avoided. His versatility will earn him plenty of opportunities to play, and a strong summer could even push him into the SAM role over Morrison. If not this year, you can expect Bradham to be a starter for the Bills in 2013 – also a possibility that he could preside on the weak side as he did in college in anticipation of Nick Barnett’s retirement down the road.
4 (124) – Ron Brooks, CB Louisiana State [5'10" - 190 lbs.]
Brooks is a bit of a surprise this early, as he is an incredibly unrefined defender. Recruited by LSU out of high school as a wide receiver, he was moved to cornerback where he rarely played, hidden behind the talents of Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne. He is extremely fast, clocking in the sub-4.4’s in the forty yard dash and is an experienced special teamer, on both sides of the coin. He’s got good height and bulk for an incoming rookie, which should only improve by the time he’s ready to take the field defensively. Brooks has good ball skills and managed to bring all three of his interceptions for the Tigers in for scores. He isn’t a sound tackler, preferring to throw shoulders rather than wrapping up, and needs to calm down and become a bit more disciplined as he takes far too many penalties that can be avoided. Considering his lack of experience as a corner and very raw nature in coverage, it’s a stretch to imagine Brooks making it into the secondary with any regularity this year and possibly even next year. Considering he was such a touted recruit at wide receiver when he came to LSU, it’s not crazy to imagine Gailey working him out on offense, where his speed can be showcased better in the short term. If nothing else, Brooks will get a shot at returning kicks and will be an early stalwart on the coverage units, due to his time spent as a gunner over the years.
5 (144) – Zebrie Sanders, OT Florida State [6'5" - 320 lbs.]
Sanders, once seen as a possible first-round talent, has one major knock on his game – he simply cannot hold up well against speed rushers on the edge. He tends to lose balance when he misses the initial punch, but otherwise has good footwork and hands in pass protection. Sanders has a decent knee-bend to anchor against the bull rush, but nothing special. He excels as a run blocker, sinking hips to generate power with his very strong hands and consistently pushing blockers back, often to the ground. His agility allows for above average blocking on the move and he shows a good ability to get into the second level to spring downfield runs. Zebrie is a very smart and durable kid with no off-field concerns and the experience level that appeals to Nix and his staff. His ability to swap seamlessly between left and right tackle will give him more chances to see the field early on. Sanders’ weakness against edge rushers may move him inside later in his career if coaches can’t help him improve on that, but at worst he should be a utility lineman during his initial year with the team – more than likely third string at both tackle positions behind Glenn, Pears, and Hairston.
5 (147) – Tank Carder, LB Texas Christian [6'2" - 236 lbs.]
Carder was lightly recruited out of high school due to a serious car accident that he was involved in, limiting most of his young football career to kicking and punting. After making it to TCU, Carder became a standout linebacker in the team’s 4-2-5 scheme, which asked him to shoot gaps often, which took him out of plays frequently. Due to this, though, Carder gained an ability to close on ball carriers and take the right pursuit angles to make big plays. Also adept in coverage, Carder projects as a strong side linebacker in Buffalo’s 4-3 alignment. Though he possesses good hands and speed for rushing the passer, his moves to beat blockers are almost non-existent and his lack of upper body strength may hinder his ability to get into the backfield. Ricky ‘Tank’ Carder is a very aggressive player, always looking for the ball but sometimes overrunning plays due to going full-speed on every play. Due to the lack of depth, he could see time with the defense in certain situations early in his career but he still needs to develop and calm himself down a bit as a player before there’s any regularity. Carder’s explosive play and solid tackling will see him with special teams units often, and fans will come to love the intensity that he brings. A prime concern with Carder which led to his fall to the fifth round is whether or not he has fully recovered from the injuries sustained in his youth and whether there are still lingering effects. If there are none and he can stay on the field with the same physicality and intensity as he showed through his tenure with the Horned Frogs, Carder may find himself a prominent role with this team down the road, potentially even starting over Bradham and some of the other young talent recently acquired. For now, he’s simply depth on the strong side and in the middle and, again, should be seeing ample time on special teams coverage units.
6 (178) – Mark Asper, OL Oregon [6'6" - 319 lbs.]
Asper is seen by the Bills as a center prospect with the capabilities of backing up multiple positions. In his time at Oregon, Asper played right tackle and right guard primarily, and his ability to play those positions should assist him in making the team’s final roster. Offensive line depth is absolutely a necessity, especially at center where Eric Wood is the only man on the roster titled with that role. His age (26) doesn’t help him in an area that will undoubtedly take time to develop and ease into. He’s very strong and is an experienced zone blocker, but still is more of a project than anything else at this point. Expect Asper to make it to the practice squad at best for this season.
7 (251) – John Potter, K Western Michigan [6'2" - 209 lbs.]
With their final pick, a compensatory selection, the Bills went with a kicker that Nix was quick to anoint as a kickoff specialist. In his senior season, Potter hit on 16 of his 22 field goal attempts and every one of his extra point attempts, but he sent 36 of his 85 kickoffs out of the endzone. That ability is something that Rian Lindell doesn’t possess at this point in his career and it is becoming increasingly important in this league in order to neutralize the opposition’s return men. Potter is also very athletic, used occasionally on trick plays with the Broncos and is a capable tackler. Considering Lindell injured himself making a tackle on a kickoff during this past season, it’s entirely fathomable that Potter sticks on the roster as an insurance policy for the kicker the team invested so heavily in this offseason. He may never be a traditional placekicker for this team, but in the short term looks to make the team for kickoffs and may develop otherwise. If Lindell happens to simply fall off his game as seems to be the case with kickers later in their careers, Potter could be the guy to step in and be the replacement. For now, however, that looks highly unlikely. Expect Potter to make the team and join Lindell, Brian Moorman, and Garrison Sanborn as the team’s core specialists.