Toward the end of his 45-minute gathering with reporters Friday, Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley was asked to forecast how many quarterbacks he expected to be taken early in the first round of next month's draft.
"I hope before us, four of them go," Whaley said, laughing. "I mean, this is one of the years that the QB position is so up in the air about when they will go. I can’t tell you, but I will tell you this: If four of them go, we’ll be ready. If none of them go, we’ll be ready."
It was an off-hand response, but in many ways it is the key to what the Bills will do with the No. 9 pick.
There is a developing consensus about the top eight non-quarterback prospects in this draft. At this point, most mock drafts project defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker Khalil Mack, wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans, tight end Eric Ebron, and offensive tackles Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, and Jake Matthews to come off the board in the first 10-12 picks.
Arguments can be made for Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Pittsburgh defensive lineman Aaron Donald to be included in that group -- among a few others -- but they don't fit the Bills' needs and they most likely aren't under serious consideration at No. 9.
On Friday, Bills player personnel director Jim Monos said there were "five to six" players that the team considers "elite" prospects and it's likely that those players are drawn from that group of eight.
Here's where the quarterbacks come in. If one or more quarterbacks are selected in the first eight picks, the Bills should be free to select whomever is left from that "top tier" group of eight players -- and possibly from their own group of five to six "elite" players. In that case, I think the Bills stick with the No. 9 pick and are happy with whom they select.
But if the draft reaches the No. 5, No. 6, or No. 7 pick, and no quarterbacks have been taken, that's where things get dicey for the Bills. They could gamble that the Minnesota Vikings will take a quarterback at No. 8, which would push a top non-quarterback prospect down to the Bills at No. 9. In doing so, they risk another team jumping ahead of the Bills by trading with the Vikings, who could still find a quarterback later in the first round.
Or the Bills could trade up and control their destiny. We examined the costs of trading up earlier this week, and the No. 5, No. 6, or No. 7 pick range could be the sweet spot for the Bills, assuming whichever teams holding those picks are interested. Moving up into that range would likely cost the Bills their second-round pick, and at Friday's pre-draft luncheon, Whaley seemed content with that possibility.
"If we give up a second round or a pick next year [to move up], again it’s a calculated decision," he said. "I would say it all depends on the deal."
Let's say that Clowney, Mack, Robinson, and Watkins come off the board first. That leaves Evans, Lewan, Matthews, and Ebron left from that group of eight. If the Bills moved up to No. 5, No. 6, or No. 7, I think their most likely target would be Evans, who has the height that Whaley seems to covet -- and the Bills currently lack -- at wide receiver.
If the Bills are unable to trade up and none of those eight players are available at No. 9, that's where I think the Bills could consider moving down. At that point, every quarterback would still be on the board, and their most likely deal would be trading with a team that wants to secure Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, or Johnny Manziel. The Bills could slide down the first round, select a player like LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. or Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin, and pick up an extra Day 2 pick in the process.
These are all scenarios that the Bills -- just like any NFL team -- are studying in order to plan their moves.
It's a chess game and at this point, it's impossible to know exactly how the beginning of the first round will unfold. But if you're trying to read the Bills' tea leaves when the draft begins on May 8, look no further than quarterback.