Editor’s note: Please welcome our newest blogger at BillsMafia.com, Nicolas Marzak (aka @marzak47). His first contribution is a piece profiling the first five picks of the Bills’ 2011 draft class — all of whom started Sunday against the Jets.
Going into the 2011 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills had many holes to fill.
One of the most important needs was defense, which ranked 28th in the league in 2010. In 2010, the Bills actually ranked 3rd in passing yards allowed, but their rush defense was horrendous, finishing dead last in total yards against and 27th in touchdowns allowed. So with the 3rd overall pick in the draft, their highest since they took Bruce Smith first overall in 1985, the Bills seemed to be able to have their pick of the crop round by round. Teams are most often built through the draft and how you draft year to year will often be a good indicator on how good your team will be in the immediate future and in seasons to come. However, the tricky thing with the draft is you never know exactly how well you drafted until 5 years or so down the road. One good draft class does not make your team an immediate contender, but a bad draft can certainly set them back a couple of years. This was one of the Bills’ better draft classes in recent years, mainly because they drafted based on need. Four of the Bills first five draft picks were all defensive players, and all five actually started for the Bills this past Sunday against the Jets. The five players played well in a close loss. If this game was any indicator of future Bills’ teams I think the future can be pretty bright.
With the 3rd overall pick, the Bills selected the defensive end from Alabama, Marcell Dareus. When a player is chosen in the first round, let alone the first 3 picks, huge expectations are associated with him. No general manager wants to draft a bust (see: Jamarcus Russell) with their first round pick, especially when that pick is in the top 3. At 6’3 340 lbs, Dareus is a big man. Big men are always desirable on the front lines, but you must also have great skills to go along with your size. To be a top 3 pick, you are not only expected to be the best player at your position, but possibly best in the entire draft as well.
Dareus made the most of his time at Alabama and put together a very impressive resume. Right off the bat in his freshman year at Alabama, Dareus debuted in the team’s first game against Clemson. In that game he recorded 4 tackles and hurried the QB 3 times. As a sophomore at Alabama, Dareus played in all 14 games for the Crimson Tide and he started 4 of them. That year he compiled 33 tackles (9 for a loss), 6.5 sacks, and an interception. Dareus and the defense took the Crimson Tide to the BCS title game and with a 28 yard TD interception Dareus earned defensive MVP of the game. Even after being forced to sit out the team’s first two games due to NCAA infractions, he still improved in his junior season by recording 34 tackles (11 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks. Dareus has already helped out the Bills defense this year by posting 28 tackles and 3.5 sacks. I think that Dareus could be the anchor for the Bills defensive line for years to come.
With the 2nd pick in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft (34th overall), the Bills added some depth to their already top ranked pass defense. The Bills selected Aaron Williams, cornerback from the University of Texas. Williams was high on many experts’ draft boards, who projected the cornerback to be taken in the late 1st round. Williams ran a great time at the combine with a 4.44 40 yd dash. He has good size for a corner at 6’0 200 lbs., great quickness, and is very good at knocking the ball away. However, given his size he needs to be a little more physical against opposing wide receivers. He put up solid numbers while at Texas. He played every game as a freshman recording 16 tackles, 1 for a loss and 3 passes defended. He can make plays on special teams, something that the Bills are known for; also in his freshman year, he recorded 4 blocked punts which tied a school record. Williams improved in his sophomore year by recording 44 tackles, 6 for loss, 3 interceptions and defending 6 passes. In his junior year he was named All-Big 12. Although Williams did not record an interception he had 46 tackles, 5 for loss, 3 forced fumbles and 12 defended passes. Williams can match up with a team’s #1 wide receiver with his size and speed, but he needs to learn how to get more physical with wide receivers, and how to finish tackles. He can defend the run very well and make good ankle tackles, but he can get burned on double moves by wide receivers. I think Williams has the potential to be a number one corner, but not a shutdown corner. With Florence and McGee getting up in years, I think that Williams could be the guy to replace them.
In the 3rd round the Bills again tried to bolster their defense by selecting linebacker Kelvin Sheppard from LSU. The Bills claimed Shawne Merriman off waivers last year and signed Nick Barnett in free agency on July 30th, but I think Sheppard could be the best linebacker for the Bills’ future. Being the top defensive player on any team is a good thing, but to be the top player on an SEC defense is even better. In 2010 Sheppard led his LSU tigers (which as a team finished top 12 in the nation in pass defense, scoring defense, and total defense) with a team high 116 tackles. Of his 116 tackles, 46 were solo. He also added 11 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, and he caused 2 fumbles and recovered 2 as well. He finished 3rd in the SEC in total tackles, tackles per game (8.9), and had double digit tackles in 6 games. He produced the same output in in ’09, leading the team and again ranking 3rd in the SEC with 103 total tackles. He also tacked on 8.5 tackles for loss, one sack and an interception. In his sophomore and freshman years, Sheppard played in every game for the Tigers. I think that he could be a great player for the Bills and with his draft position I think it’s a great steal. He did not produce much early in the season as he dealt with injury, but he has been productive in the games he has played. He has 32 tackles for the year, and the safety he recorded against the Dolphins was the Bills first since December 2, 2007 when Angelo Crowell recorded one against the Redskins.
There are many things I like about the first three rounds from the Bills draft. First of all, they got the best players they could to help a defense that was one of the worst in the league. Secondly, the players they drafted are all winners, and have been on winning teams. Dareus was on the 2010 Crimson Tide who defeated Williams’ Texas squad. Kelvin Sheppard was also on the 2007 LSU national championship team. A winning attitude is important to a team and the Bills haven’t had that kind of atmosphere for a while. I think with this core of young winning players the Bills could have a good future.
With Donte Whitner’s status up in the air, the Bills went with a safety in North Carolina’s Da’Norris Searcy. Searcy’s senior year was cut short by the NCAA’s investigation of UNC. As a result Searcy had to sit out the first 3 games. However, in his first game back Searcy set the tone with a 46 yard interception return for a touchdown against ECU. He recorded a team best 4 interceptions along with 37 tackles and 4 defended passes. In addition to being the Tar Heels’ safety, Searcy also served as their kickoff and punt returner. In 2009, he started all 13 games at safety while splitting time as their punt returner. That year he returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown against the Citadel. He also ranked 2nd in the ACC and 5th in the country in punt returns with a 14.6 yard average. He closed 2009 with 35 tackles as well. In 2008 Searcy was primarily the teams punt returner, but he started at safety in the Meineke Car Care bowl against West Virginia. In that game he posted a career high 10 tackles and 2 sacks. Searcy is a versatile player who can play corner as well – and a little known fact is that he was actually recruited by UNC as a running back.
Against Miami in week 11, Searcy started for an injured George Wilson and recorded a game high 11 tackles. I think Searcy’s value with the Bills will come in his versatility. It is always good to have a player that can play multiple positions well, especially when a team is riddled with injuries as this year’s Buffalo Bills are.
With these positions filled on defense, it was time for the Bills to address a problem they have had continually for years on end, their offensive line. It seems like every year our quarterbacks, although many have not been remotely successful outside of Buffalo in recent years (J.P. Losman who has since played in the UFL and now is a backup for Miami, and Trent Edwards who is currently a free agent) they still have had little time to throw. That seems to have changed this year though, maybe in part to Fitzpatrick’s quick release. With their fifth pick and second in the fourth round, the Bills selected Chris Hairston from Clemson. Although he was plagued with some injuries during his career, he was the main reason why Clemson was in the Top 30 in the nation in avoiding sacks in 2010. He was named First team All-ACC offensive tackle in 2010 and only gave up one sack on the year and had at least one knockdown every game. In 2009 Hairston was also given Second Team All-ACC offensive tackle so it shows that he has improved. I think that Hairston could be a good contributor to a normally shaky Bills line. I would like the Bills to sign a veteran to give Hairston some time to grow, but I think that if the Bills need him to go at any given moment he’ll be able to go out there and produce for them. He also has some chemistry with C.J. Spiller, who he blocked for at Clemson.
What I like out of the Bills’ 2011 draft class is that their top 5 picks have all proven that they can contribute, even in their rookie season. The Bills are still in a rebuilding stage and with a nucleus of these 5 young guys, not to mention the other young star-potential guys on offense, the Bills can put together a team that can consistently compete with the New Englands and Pittsburghs within a few years. If these next few rebuilding years can build upon the buzz and momentum that the Bills already gained from just this year alone, the Bills could become relevant outside of Buffalo again, and could actually give us a team that we can “Bill-ieve” in year in and year out.
Bills Mafia Blog