Whether their interest is legitimate or not, the Buffalo Bills appear to be in the market to trade up in the first round of next week’s draft.
If it means giving up their first-round pick next season, the Bills shouldn’t make the deal.
Why? The Bills need to save their top 2015 pick for a quarterback. Trading away that selection has the potential to set back the franchise in a way that having Clowney, Watkins or Mack wouldn’t overcome.
The Bills are in a critical second year of a rebuilding project. Their results this season could begin to determine the fate of coach Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley, although it would take a significant downturn for either to be fired after this season.
Second-year quarterback EJ Manuel might not have that same security. The 16th overall pick last April, Manuel enters what could be a make-or-break season.
If Manuel improves on his 4-6 record and 42.3 QBR of last season, the Bills have a better shot at making the playoffs. The pressure would be eased and the Bills would be free to use their first-round pick as they wish next spring.
But if Manuel continues his average to below-average play -- or suffers another injury (or three, as he did last season) that muddles the picture -- then the Bills will need to mull over their options. Drafting a quarterback in the first round of the 2015 draft should be on the table.
In a way, that makes last year’s draft and next year’s draft more important to the Bills than what they will do next week.
The Bills could use the 2014 draft to build around Manuel. They could stay put with the No. 9 pick and select an offensive tackle -- Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan could be on the board -- and bolster their offensive line to help protect Manuel.
Buffalo could also keep its original pick and select a difference-making receiver or tight end. North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron is a popular choice, while LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. would be more of a sleeper pick at ninth overall.
The Bills could also move up a few spots and pluck Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans, who has the size (6-foot-5) that Whaley covets.
But moving up for one of the draft’s blue-chip prospects like Clowney or Watkins would undoubtedly mean trading for the first, second or third overall picks. The Bills can probably get as far as No. 4 with their second- or third-round selections from this draft, but it will take a future pick -- probably their 2015 first-round pick -- to get up any higher than that.
Clowney has long been considered the top player available this May. He has rare athleticism and would join forces with current Bills defensive end Mario Williams, as well as Pro Bowl defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, for unquestionably the NFL’s best defensive line.
Yet Clowney is not a quarterback. He’s not Andrew Luck. Clowney can start 16 games, rack up double-digit sacks and the Bills could still go 6-10 again.
Why? Because the team’s success hinges on Manuel.
“It’s a quarterback-driven league, so we’re going to give every avenue and every piece of the puzzle to surround EJ and make him as successful as possible,” Whaley said last week. “Our main focus is making sure EJ progresses.”
Clowney would help the Bills’ defense get off the field on third downs, which would have some benefit to Manuel, but his presence would hardly aid Manuel’s development beyond that.
What about Sammy Watkins? The Bills would likely have to give up a little less to secure the Clemson standout’s services -- he could drop to No. 3 or 4. But if getting him means giving up a first-round pick next season, the Bills shouldn’t do it.
Watkins would help Manuel more directly. In fact, having Watkins and a strong running game -- spearheaded by Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller -- would be the most ideal environment for Manuel to succeed.
It’s not just a guarantee that Manuel will succeed, and the Bills shouldn’t give up their most valuable future asset banking on Manuel’s improvement.
Would the Bills even consider giving up their first-round pick next season? Whaley hinted at the possibility last week.
“We give up our whole draft? You’re mortgaging our future,” he said. “If we give up a second-round [pick] or a pick next year, again it’s a calculated decision. I would say it all depends on the deal.”
Part of the Bills’ calculations should be placing a premium on their top pick next season. Their optimism in Manuel may very well come to fruition, so having that selection will give the Bills flexibility to push even further.
If Manuel doesn’t pan out, the Bills need a fallback plan, which should include using that pick on a quarterback in next year’s class.
It would be wrong to say this isn’t an important draft for the rebuilding Bills, but it’s sandwiched between two drafts in which the Bills could use their first-round pick on the game’s most critical position -- quarterback.
Not even Clowney should get in the way of the Bills’ keeping that card in their hand.