How can the Bills have a winning NFL Draft? Here are 5 steps they need to take

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

After sending their first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to Minnesota as part of the trade of the year in the NFL, the one that brought wide receiver Stefon Diggs to Buffalo, it was a long and uneventful night for the Bills’ braintrust watching commissioner Roger Goodell host the opening round from his man cave.

There’s a chance that could happen again Thursday in the first round of the 2021 draft.

Only once since 2005 have the Bills not had a first-round pick, that in 2015 when they traded it to Cleveland in the deal that allowed them to move up from No. 9 to No. 4 to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the 2014 draft.

As of now, the Bills are scheduled to make the 30th overall pick of the first round, though it would surprise no one if they end up not making a choice for the second year in a row.

It’s possible that if general manager Brandon Beane – never averse to wheeling and dealing – doesn’t find a value in that spot based on how his board looks, he could try to trade out of the first round in order to procure an extra pick somewhere later in the draft.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane doesn't have any glaring holes to fill in the draft.

If nothing else, the long wait to No. 30 will be filled with speculation as to what Beane might do with that pick as well as the others at his disposal.

Here are five things the Bills need to accomplish in the 2021 draft:

1. Trade back if possible

It seems almost ridiculous to say this about the Bills, a franchise that not too long ago went 17 years without making the playoffs, but there isn’t a single glaring hole in the starting 22.

The Buccaneers made news by becoming the first defending Super Bowl champion to bring back their entire starting group on both sides of the ball, but the Bills are essentially doing the same thing. 

The only player not returning from the team that lost in the AFC Championship Game to Kansas City is wide receiver John Brown, and the Bills may have signed a better replacement in Emmanuel Sanders.

Picking No. 30, the Bills may not be able to get a player who can come in and make a difference in 2021, so if Beane can trade back and perhaps recoup the fourth-round pick the Bills gave up in the Diggs trade, that would be a smart play.

Looking at No. 30:Can the Bills find a good player here who can contribute in 2021?

Also, not having to pay a first-round pick would save a little money for a team that’s tight to the cap, and if Buffalo could make its first pick in the top half of the second round (to go along with its own pick at No. 61), the value might work out nicely.

2. Find a starting cornerback

Cornerback Levi Wallace has been a starter for most of the last three seasons.

For three years, Levi Wallace has warded off all challengers for the starting role opposite Tre’Davious White. At times he has played well, but then the inconsistencies in his game will crop up and opposing quarterbacks attack him with success.

Wallace went into the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, and the Bills did not tender him, yet still, the former undrafted free agent out of Alabama decided to re-sign a below-tender one-year deal to return to Buffalo.

It was a good move for both sides – Wallace gets another year to prove himself before unrestricted free agency, and the Bills bring back a decent player. 

Still, if they keep their first-round pick, they should try to upgrade the position with it and let that player compete with Wallace for the starting job. If nothing else, the loser of the battle will provide the team with quality depth at the position, something that’s lacking right now.

3. Add depth at edge rusher

A.J. Epenesa was Buffalo's second-round pick in 2020, but the Bills should consider drafting another edge rusher early in the 2021 draft.

One can make a great argument that the pass rush was the weakest part of the Bills’ defense in 2020. The Bills did not get much production from edge rushers Jerry Hughes (lots of pressure but only 4.5 sacks), Mario Addison, A.J. Epenesa, Daryl Johnson and Trent Murphy.

The edge rusher class contains four or five players with consensus first-round grades, but there’s really no one that blows you away, so the Bills shouldn’t spend a first-rounder there.

In their defense, coach Sean McDermott is a big believer in defensive line rotation and last season, Hughes led the way by playing 58.7% of the snaps. The 2020 second-round pick, A.J. Epenesa, played 27.2% of the snaps. If the Bills pick a cornerback in the first round and he wins the starting job, he could potentially play more than 90% of the snaps.

Thus, they should look for an edge rusher on the second day as several players have second- or third-round grades such as Carlos Basham of Wake Forest, Joseph Ossai of Texas, Payton Turner of Houston, Ronnie Perkins of Oklahoma, and Dayo Odeyinbgo of Vanderbilt.

One name to watch could be Gregory Rousseau of Miami. There’s a disparity among draft analysts on where he should fall. Some have him as high as No. 18 overall, others have him in the middle of the second round. If the Bills trade back from the first round into the top of the second and he’s there, it might be worth taking a swing.

4. Pick a running back

There’s been a lot of smoke around the Bills and Clemson’s touchdown machine, Travis Etienne. Peter King’s just-released mock draft has the Bills taking him. 

If he happens to be sitting there, I can definitely see Buffalo making the pick because he’s the one running back in this draft who would bring something different to the roster than what’s already there in Devin Singletary and Zack Moss: A speedy, game-breaking home run hitter.

Should Etienne be off the board, the Bills should think about picking a back on the third day. As we all know, running back is the one position where low-round picks can succeed.

Players like North Carolina’s Michael Carter, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, and Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson might be available in the third or fourth round.

5. Address interior of the O-line

Beane said he doesn’t expect the salary cap to make a huge leap forward in 2022, and with the Bills ready to pay quarterback Josh Allen several tens of millions of dollars per year, they’re going to need cap relief.

One way to get it would be to release players like center Mitch Morse and guard Jon Feliciano before next season, which means they should think about their potential replacements in this draft.

Finding someone who can play center and the guard spots would be ideal, someone like Ohio State’s Josh Myers, Stanford’s Drew Dallman or Kendrick Green of Illinois, all of whom fall in the late second- to late third-round range.

Sal Maiorana can be reached at maiorana@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.