Buffalo Bills' draft needs in focus after first wave of NFL free agency

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills are intent on running it back in 2021 with largely the same roster as last season's AFC runner-up team -- and made it clear with their moves during the first week of NFL free agency.

Buffalo re-signed Matt Milano, Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano, shoring up what would have been weaknesses on the offensive line and at linebacker. It also brought back cornerback Levi Wallace, securing a high-floor starter opposite Tre'Davious White.

In addition, the Bills signed punter Matt Haack and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Though Sanders didn't necessarily fill a glaring need, even after they released John Brown, the move did support their philosophy of sticking to what they know.

"In terms of what we were able to do last season, we thought it was important ... to make sure that we didn't lose our fastball with respect to the play at the wide receiver position," Bills coach Sean McDermott said.

Despite its moves, Buffalo has remaining needs to address. Here's a look at some positions the Bills, who hold the No. 30 overall pick, could target when the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29:

Tight end

Buffalo's tight ends averaged the fourth fewest yards per game in the NFL last season, and Beane previously said he didn't think any opponent felt threatened by the Bills' players at the position. Their 2019 third-round pick, Dawson Knox, headlines the room but didn't pop in 2020 the way it seemed he would after a promising rookie season. He finished with 288 yards and three touchdowns on 24 catches.

"We think Dawson going into Year 3, we have big expectations for him. It's a big offseason for him. He's already told us that he plans to link up with [quarterback] Josh [Allen] out in California, which will be good for those guys to continue to get more reps. [2019 seventh-round pick] Tommy Sweeney had his [COVID-19] setback and was ruled out for the year, but he's excited about joining back in again."

The Bills were interested in Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski, with Beane confirming they spoke with the Buffalo native's agent before declining to extend an offer. Buffalo also was rumored to be interested in Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, but a league source told ESPN there was "nothing there" between the Bills and Eagles and multiple sources said Philadelphia's asking price was too high.

The Bills did sign free agent Jacob Hollister, a former college teammate of Allen. In the draft, a player such as Penn State's Pat Freiermuth could be an option on the second day, but he would represent a lot of draft capital invested into the position over the past three years.

Running back

After finishing eighth in the league in rushing yards in 2019, the Bills' production on the ground dipped last season when they finished 20th with 107.7 yards per game. The tandem of second-year back Devin Singletary and rookie Zack Moss combined for a respectable 1,168 yards and six touchdowns on 268 carries, but neither cracked 100 yards in a single game.

Buffalo's offensive line didn't fare well as run-blockers, either, finishing with the league's fourth worst run block win rate, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

There are explanations for each position's struggles; injuries to Feliciano, Cody Ford and Mitch Morse prevented the Bills from playing a single snap with their top five offensive linemen. And Moss missed three games with a toe injury after an offseason shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We believe that we have the pieces to run the ball better," Beane said. "We believe in Devin. We believe in Zack. Again, we'll continue to look for competition ... whether it's [for] the O-line or the running back room. But we feel good with who we have, even if we don't add anyone."

If they decide to add to a running back via the draft, the list of possibilities begins with Clemson's Travis Etienne and Alabama's Najee Harris. The former would give Buffalo the elite speed it lacks in the backfield, as well as an accomplished pass-catcher who can make defenses pay in space. Harris is the more physical back with enough speed to threaten defenses.

They can get a good back in the middle rounds, such as Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, Ohio State's Trey Sermon or North Carolina's Javonte Williams or Michael Carter. If they want a great one, the Bills might have to pay a premium price.


Wallace was re-signed to compete with 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson for the starting job opposite White, a Pro Bowler. Beane says he feels "content" with the team's cornerbacks, but he has also said he is always looking to improve, so cornerback could be in play as early as Buffalo's first-round pick.

Prospects such as Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley or even South Carolina's Jaycee Horn might not be available by the time the Bills pick, but Alabama's Patrick Surtain III or Northwestern's Greg Newsome II could be. Even Florida State's Asante Samuel Jr., who might not have the length the Bills prefer, possesses elite ball and coverage skills and is a willing enough tackler to endear himself to McDermott.

If Buffalo looks beyond the first round, Syracuse prospects Ifeatu Melifonwu and Trill Williams should be available on Day 2.


Tampa Bay's defense shut down the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, and considering Buffalo sees the Chiefs as the final obstacle to winning an AFC title, Beane could emulate what the Bucs did well in that game -- constantly pressure Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes.

The Bills' pass rush started slow in 2020 while acclimating several new pieces, but turned things around toward the end of the season and finished with the NFL's second-best pass rush win rate according to NFL Next Gen Stats. But the unit lacks an elite pass-rusher.

Jerry Hughes is a very good defensive end, even as he progresses into his 30s. Mario Addison wasn't quite the player he had been with the Carolina Panthers last season, but is still a starting-caliber option. The Bills drafted AJ Epenesa in the second round in 2020 and he overcame a slow start to become a rotational player at defensive end. That turned current free agent Trent Murphy into a healthy scratch in five of the Bills' final six games.

With the return of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who opted out of last season because of the coronavirus pandemic, and a year of continuity under its belt, the Bills' defensive line isn't a glaring hole, but is an area marked for improvement. However, when looking at the defensive end prospects, it might not be worthwhile to invest a first-round pick in an edge rusher this year.

If they do, Miami's Jaelan Phillips or Gregory Rousseau are possibilities at No. 30, as is Penn State's Jayson Oweh. Washington's Joe Tryon could be around for Buffalo's second-round pick at No. 61 -- or at least be close enough to consider trading up for him.