Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

April 28, 2013

MEILER: Bills draft a step in the right direction

By Mike Meiler
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — On Thursday, I wrote a column titled “No perfect scenario for Bills in first round,” mostly because I honestly thought there wasn’t.

The team’s needs didn’t fit the strengths of the draft class, and if management wanted to fill those needs, they’d have to take a risk (outside of drafting Dee Milliner — but we’ll touch on that later).

But after maximizing assets, getting guys management wanted and coming out with three potential high-impact players, it’s safe to say the past three days could have a very positive impact on the future of the Buffalo Bills

Top pick E.J. Manuel was a surprise, but not as big a one as some have made it out to be. Some pundits wrote prior to the draft that Manuel had the most potential in this year’s class, but f you pay attention to anyone outside Buffalo management, you’d know by now what a risk the Bills took, even after the trade down to No. 16.

The first chance the brain trust of Buddy Nix, Doug Whaley and Doug Marrone took was passing on the top-rated cornerback in Milliner, who was then scooped up by the rival New York Jets. In Milliner, the Bills could’ve drafted a top-five talent at a position where Stephon Gilmore seems to be the only above-average player on the roster. Instead, they passed on that opportunity and let a super-talented player fall to a division rival.

The second risk was in actually taking Manuel, who was almost never mentioned as the top quarterback in this year’s class. The Bills had their choice of quarterbacks, and selected the Florida State product over bigger names like Geno Smith, Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib. Smith ended up with Milliner with the Jets, a pairing the Bills could’ve had if they’d selected Milliner at No. 8. If Manuel isn’t a franchise quarterback and one of Milliner or Smith becomes a star (let alone both), it’s not likely Nix, Whaley or Marrone will be long for One Bills Drive.

What the team did well, though, was putting itself in a position to draft targeted players. Obviously, Manuel was Buffalo’s guy. But by trading down and picking up an additional second-round pick, management was able to fill three needs.

At No. 41, the Bills took USC wide receiver Robert Woods, who moves a lot like Stevie Johnson, only with higher top-end speed. Buffalo knew there would be receivers available at the top of the second, and while we’ll never really know if Nix and co. preferred Woods to guys like Justin Hunter and DeAndre Hopkins, they took a guy who can step in and contribute right away at a position of need.

We’ll also never know if the brain trust preferred Kevin Minter or Manti Te’o to Kiko Alonso at inside linebacker, but in taking Alonso at No. 46, they picked a guy who -- like Manuel -- was generally thought to have the highest potential in the draft at his position. The Bills had a shot at Minter at 41, but chose to take Woods instead, likely knowing they liked Alonso as well.

It’s been widely reported that Alonso has potential character issues stemming from two alcohol-related arrests in college, but if there’s one thing we should be able to trust Buddy Nix with, it’s judging character. Nix has gone to great lengths to build a high-character locker room. Given that and his penchant for preferring players from southern power schools (like Minter at LSU), Alonso had to have convinced Nix that his alcohol issues were a thing of the past.

If he pans out, Buffalo fans will probably fall in love with Alonso’s intensity. He’s a physically gifted linebacker, and if he can stay on the field, he should be a staple of the Bills’ defense for the foreseeable future.

The Bills other picks -- WR Marquise Goodwin, DBs Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, K Dustin Hopkins and TE Chris Gragg -- are mostly depth and special teams picks, though Goodwin and Hopkins create interesting roster decisions.

Goodwin, like fellow third-round pick T.J. Graham, is a track star turned football players (Goodwin placed 10th in the long jump at the London Olympics). While still raw when it comes to football, he has speed and athletic ability -- like Graham -- but comes with higher ratings. It will be interesting to see if Marrone and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are as high on Graham as Chan Gailey, and if they’re not, Graham may have to work just to make the roster this season.

Hopkins is the FBS career points leader and has shown a big leg and the ability to kick in less-than-perfect conditions, despite playing at Florida State. Gailey seemed to sour on Ryan Lindell as the season went on last year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hopkins taking Lindell’s job as early as this season.

The Bills failed to address needs on the offensive line and at cornerback, which could hold the team back, especially if injuries hit. But the team may have come out of this draft with four opening-day starters, and while that doesn’t inspire hope for this season, it could mean good things for the future.

2013 Buffalo Bills Schedule 9/8 NEW ENGLAND 1 p.m. 9/15 CAROLINA 1 p.m. 9/22 @ N.Y. Jets 4:25 p.m. 9/29 BALTIMORE 1 p.m. 10/3 @ Cleveland Browns 8:25 p.m. 10/13 CINCINNATI 1 p.m. 10/20 @ Miami 1 p.m. 10/27 @ New Orleans 1 p.m. 11/3 KANSAS CITY 1 p.m. 11/10 @ Pittsburgh 1 p.m. 11/17 N.Y. JETS 1 p.m. 12/1 Atlanta (@ Toronto) 4 p.m. 12/8 @ Tampa Bay 1 p.m. 12/15 @ Jacksonville 1 p.m. 12/22 MIAMI 1 p.m. 12/29 @ New England 1 p.m.

Respond to Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or by email at mike.meiler@niagara-gazette.com.