Speaking last month at the NFL owners meetings, Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley said what any other NFL shot-caller should say at this time of the year: that his team will keep its options wide open in the upcoming draft.
The same week, Bills coach Rex Ryan offered a similar take on the Bills' strategy in the draft, but singled out one position that might be off the table when the Bills pull a card in the second and third rounds on May 1.
"Well, there's a few things that we probably need that we're looking at [in the draft]," Ryan said at the AFC coaches' breakfast in Phoenix, "but I'm not going to sit back and competitively say, 'Well, we're looking for a defensive tackle,' which, of course, we're not."
My ears perked up at Ryan's comment because despite the Bills' sturdy interior of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, they could benefit by adding a big-bodied defensive lineman with one of their two early-round picks.
It sounds strange, but consider three factors that could make the position one for the Bills to address if the right player is available:
It's a critical spot on the team. The success of the Bills' defense the past two seasons is largely a result of the defensive line, where the Bills have devoted enormous resources and have reaped the rewards of having three Pro Bowlers on their front line. They've also been fortunate to stay healthy up front: Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus have missed a combined two games over the past two seasons. When Dareus was hurt in Oakland last December, the Bills' run defense suffered, allowing 4.5 yards per carry after he left.
They could use the depth. The switch from Jim Schwartz to Rex Ryan almost certainly means the Bills will return to a defensive front that requires three big bodies up front -- not just Dareus and Kyle Williams. At the NFL owners meetings, Ryan proposed using Dareus and Kyle Williams as 5-technique ends in his alignment and Stefan Charles in a nose-tackle role over center. That could work well, but behind that trio are only three players: Jarius Wynn, Corbin Bryant and Jeremy Towns. Wynn and Bryant don't have the size of the starting group and might have reached their ceilings in the NFL.
The Bills might not have Dareus much longer. With Dareus entering the final season of this rookie contract, the Bills would be wise to plan for the potential departure of their emerging star. With Mario Williams' mammoth contract and fresh extensions for Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes on the books, offering Dareus what he could demand -- a deal on the level of Ndamukong Suh's $114 million pact -- is potentially untenable for a team that already has the NFL's second-highest cap numbers in 2016 and 2017. While the Bills aren't going to find a replacement for Dareus in the second or third rounds this year, having a higher-level prospect in the pipeline could give them some leverage in their talks with Dareus.
The Bills wouldn't need to fit a specific mold if they opted to pluck a defensive lineman off the board next month. It could be a squatty tackle like Clemson's Grady Jarrett who could compete with Charles for the nose tackle spot, or it could be a longer lineman like Iowa's Carl Davis who could play multiple spots along the line.
In either case, the Bills shouldn't overlook the possibility. Faced with a draft in which they could use their limited resources on a wide range of options, bulking up their defensive line would be an unexpected but smart play by the Bills.