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Modrak: "We got to nail picks."

Poor drafting has been the primary reason for the Bills' decade-long run of mediocrity. Tom Modrak, the vice president of college scouting, admits the team has had some misses during his tenure.

With the third overall pick and four picks in the top 100, General Manager Buddy Nix said "You really should get a lot better this year.'' That means the Bills can't whiff on these selections.

“It obviously is extremely important,’’ Modrak said during Tuesday's pre-draft news conference. “Especially where we’re picking, we’ve got to hit it on the nose. There’s no way around it. We got to get it done and we’ve got to hit those picks – hard.

 “We have certainly had our misses at the top. We’ve done pretty well in the middle and at the end. On the glamour-kind of picks, we’ve missed on them. It’s regrettable, but we’ve tried to make up for it in other areas. Will this draft, you’re going to try to solve some of those problems. I don’t think we can solve all of them, but we’re going try to solve some of them. If we can do that and keep making progress, that’s a good thing.’’

---Allen Wilson

Nix and Modrak discuss draft

Bills General Manager Buddy Nix and Vice President of Scouting Tom Modrak held court Tuesday during the team's annual pre-draft news conference.

Here's some highlights:

--Nix reiterated the Bills' interest in drafting a quarterback. He added that this is the right time to do it, saying there could be "a record number'' of QBs in the first round. But the top two prospects are clearly Cam Newton of Auburn and Blaine Gabbert of Missouri. One of them will be available when the Bills are on the clock with the third overall pick.

“There’s no doubt it’s an important position,’’ Nix said. “It’s a quarterback-driven league. But we think that we’re in a good position. And actually, as hard as it is to say when you’ve got other needs it’s probably the perfect time to take a quarterback.’’

--It was shocking no media member asked about Newton during the 45-minute news confererence. I'm sure Nix and Modrak were surprised, too. Perhaps Newton's name came up because most local media think it's a foregone conclusion that the Heisman Trophy winner is the Bills' top choice if he's available.

Nix did praise Gabbert, saying the Bills always had a positive opinion of him even though his high draft rating doesn't match his production during the season. 

"His stock hasn't risen with us," Nix said. "It's always been high."

--Head coach Chan Gailey did not attend the pre-draft session, but Nix made it clear that Gailey will have a major influence in who the Bills take with their first pick. When you consider Gailey’s reputation as a quarterback teacher, taking a quarterback in the first or second road seems like a certainty. 

“It makes it easier on us to pick one because I’ve got a lot of confidence in that guy after he gets him,’’ Nix said. “He’s very involved in any pick, whether it’s quarterback or anything else. We all are. We’re going to try to have a consensus. And to this point, being in the second year, we’ve been able to do that. You got confidence in the people around you. We talk enough about it until it comes down to the pick being pretty easy.’’

--Nix acknowledged the team is thin on defense and will have to address that in this draft. If the Bills don't a quarterback first, they'll probably chose either Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus or Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller.

Nix indicated stopping the run was more important than rushing the passer. The Bills couldn’t do either last season. They were last in the NFL in run defense and only three teams had fewer sacks. Modrak admitted Dareus would address both area.

"He gives you the best of both worlds,'' Modrak said.

--Nix said the Bills are in the process of putting their draft board together and would narrow their top pick down to three players by April 28, the day of the draft.

--The Bills aren’t likely to trade down from the third spot in Round One, though Nix said he’d listen to offers: “It would be determined by how far down you move. I wouldn’t rule out anything, but there will be a guy there [at No. 3] that we really want. So, probably wouldn’t move down. It would have to be a rare situation.’’

--Nix said the lack of free agency due to the NFL lockout has not impacted the Bills’ approach to the draft: “Nothing’s changed. We’ve gone about the draft the same way. Were going to try to take the best player and hopefully we can fill our needs by doing that.

 --Nix is not that concerned about the top pick being a starter, but he expects that player – if he’s not a quarterback – to contribute a lot immediately: “We sure hope he is [a starter]. We’d like him to be. He should be. And if not, it should be a guy that plays 40 snaps a game. It should be a guy that figures in making you a lot better.’’

---Allen Wilson

Breaking down Bills schedule

It's hard to predict how good NFL teams are going to be before any games are played, so don't put a lot of stock in the Bills' having the NFL's second-toughest 2011 schedule. Their opponents had a cumulative record of 137-119, but the New England Patriots (14-2) and New York Jets (11-5) account for more than a third of the wins because the Bills play both twice.

Having said that, the Bills' schedule is far from easy. Even though they face only three playoff teams going into their Week Seven bye, just one of the first six opponents had a losin record last season (Cincinnati).

The most difficult stretch comes around midseason when the Bills play three straight road games against the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. Throw in San Diego in Week 14 and the Bills have four road trips and a five-week span. They also draw the NFC's toughest division, the East. In addition to Dallas, the Bills play Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Washington in October.

The softest part of the Bills' schedule is towards the end when they have three games in the first four weeks in December. 

Speaking of Philly, a radio station in Toronto had reported the Eagles would play the Bills in Toronto. The Bills get the Redskins instead. That's a bummer for Canadian fans, who haven't warmed to the Bills-Toronto Series the first three years. The Eagles would have been a sexier opponent with Michael Vick as the draw. No doubt Bills fans that can't get to Toronto are thrilled to know Vick is coming to Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Some other interesting tidbits:

The Bills won't have a night game for a second straight season. It's no surprise given last year's 4-12 season. As a writer, I don't mind because there are no deadline worries.

The Bills avoided a Thanksgiving game. It had been reported that the Bills and Dolphins were the candidates to play in Dallas, but the Dolphins got the nod. The Bills are playing on Saturday (Christmas Eve), hosting the Denver Broncos.

 ---Allen Wilson

Bills' 2011 regular-season schedule

Here is the 2011 schedule for the Buffalo Bills.

Sept. 11: @ Kansas City, 1 p.m.

Sept. 18: Oakland, 1 p.m.

Sept. 25: New England, 1 p.m.

Oct. 2: @ Cincinnati, 1 p.m.

Oct. 9: Philadelphia, 1 p.m.

Oct. 16: @ N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.

Oct. 23: BYE

Oct. 30: * Washington, 4 p.m.

Nov. 6: N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

Nov. 13: @ Dallas, 1 p.m.

Nov. 20: @ Miami, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27: @ N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4: Tennessee, 1 p.m.

Dec. 11: @ San Diego, 4:15 p.m.

Dec. 18: Miami, 1 p.m.

Dec. 24: Denver, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1: @ New England, 1 p.m.

*-Game in Toronto

Thanksgiving in Dallas?

The Bills are one of a couple of candidates to visit the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. The Cowboys and Detroit Lions have home games every Thanksgiving and alternate networks they will be on.

This year, CBS gets the Cowboys' game. That means they'll host an AFC team. According to various reports, it will either be the Bills or the Miami Dolphins.

The last time the Bills played on Thanksgiving was 1995 when they lost at Detroit, 35-21.

The Bills are 3-4-1 all-time on Thanksgiving.

---Allen Wilson

Bills-Eagles in TO?

Despite the on-going NFL lockout, the league is going ahead with releasing the 2011 regular-season schedule tonight at 7.

According to The Fan (590 AM) radio station in Toronto, the Bills will host the Philadelphia Eagles at the Rogers Centre. The station reported that the game would take place either November 13 or November 20.

The Eagles would easily be sexiest matchup the Bills have had in Toronto, mainly because Philly quarterback Michael Vick is such a big fan attraction. The previous three games have been snoozers for Canadian fans, who haven't embraced the idea of supporting wha they consider to be someone else's team.

The only meaningful Toronto game for the Bills was the first one when they played the Miami Dolphins. That was a controversial decision because the Bills were still in the playoff hunt. They also were upset about losing weather advantage of playing outside at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills are 0-3 in regular-season Toronto games, but are 2-0 in the preseason.

---Allen Wilson

 

The Road to the Draft: G Will Rackley

THE ROAD TO THE DRAFT

Will Rackley, G, Lehigh
6-foot-3, 309 pounds
Draft projection: Third round

Lowdown: Another small-school offensive line prospect who has a chance to be a quality starter in the NFL. Rackley was the first true freshman to start at Lehigh in 20 years. He started 45 games in his career at left tackle and dominated the competition. Because of his height, he projects as a guard in the pros. He’s a powerful run blocker.

On how he wound up at Lehigh: I was 6-2, 260, so I wasn't too highly recruited, but fortunately I had good academics out of high school. I was getting recruited by a lot of Patriot League schools - Lehigh, Lafayette, Colgate. I took my visit to Lehigh, loved the atmosphere, loved the academic tradition, loved the football tradition, so it was a good fit. I wasn't highly recruited, coming from a triple-option team. Georgia Tech recruited me for a small bit, but nothing serious. Went to a basketball school - Gani Lawal (Georgia Tech) and Chris Barnes (Georgia) played there.”

Rackley got a close-up look at NFL linemen during college. The Philadelphia Eagles hold training camp at Lehigh.

Said Rackley: "I used to go out there every morning and watch them, watch the O-linemen practice and Coach Castillo (Eagles O-line coach). I was fortunate enough to get a field pass and after talked to Coach Castillo told me to keep at it, reminded me that a lot of the guys he had were small school guys ... I would size myself up against those guys.”

---Mark Gaughan

The Road to the Draft: DT Stephen Paea

THE ROAD TO THE DRAFT

Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State
6-foot-1, 303 pounds
Draft projection: Second round.

Lowdown: The big man from Tonga is a great story. He set the Scouting Combine record by lifting 225 pounds 49 times. That broke the mark of 45 repetitions, held by three others. Paea’s family had a plantation in Tonga (in the Southern Pacific Ocean) where they grew yams and kava plants. Paea was a good rugby player. He learned about American football by playing the Madden video game on his PlayStation 2. His favorite team was Philadelphia, because he liked the Eagle emblem on the helmets. At age 16, his family moved to Utah, where he started playing football. He started 36 of 37 games over three seasons at Oregon State.

Paea is plenty stout enough to anchor in the middle and tie up blockers. He has not shown a lot of agility in putting any pressure on the pocket. Paea had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee on Jan. 27. The injury occurred at the Senior Bowl. Chris Kemoeatu, Koa Misi and Vai Sikahema are notable NFL player from Tonga. 

Paea on rugby: "In Tonga, rugby is the No. 1 sport. I feel like growing up watching the rugby stars in New Zealand, Australia, they're all Tongan. So I feel like I wanted to be a rugby star. But once I went to the United States, I wanted to change that and have the same mindset toward football. ... I think rugby helped a lot (in football). To myself, I'm able to stay low, and you need a lot of energy for rugby. You're running at a specific way and a specific time. You could also say the same in football. So I feel like that has helped me transition easier to football."

Paea on coming to America: "My mom worked here in the United States two years before we did. It was a big decision for me and my brothers. My older brother was already here. I felt like coming here - to the Land of Opportunity - I felt like it was a blessing of a choice for us. We just made the decision to come here to America."

---Mark Gaughan

 

Rookie wage scale & the Bills

The rookie wage scale should be one of the easier elements of the NFL labor impasse to solve. Both veteran players and owners agree that top rookies get too much money before they ever play a down. For players taken after the first half of the first round, the compensation is not a bad deal for NFL owners. Most young players who start give teams more than their money’s worth – relatively speaking.

Here’s a breakdown of what Bills top picks have received (or will receive) in guaranteed money this decade:

2010-2005: C.J. Spiller ($18.9 million), Aaron Maybin ($10.9 million). Eric Wood ($6.5 million), Leodis McKelvin ($12.5 million), Marshawn Lynch ($10.2 million), Donte Whitner ($13.8 million), John McCargo ($5.7 million).

2004-2000: Lee Evans ($7.7 million), J.P. Losman ($5.8 million), Willis McGahee ($4.5 million), Mike Williams ($14.4 million), Nate Clements ($4.6 million) and Erik Flowers ($3.0 million).

The big numbers for the picks in the top half of the first round are the ones that stick out. Mike Williams was the fourth overall pick. He started 47 games for the Bills but played about one half of a good season and arguably ranks as the biggest bust in Bills history. He took home $23 million over four seasons with the Bills. Aaron Maybin, meanwhile, got $3.45 million his first season and $7.48 his second. Maybin needs to produce this year or his time in Buffalo probably will be over.

J.P. Losman was the 22nd overall pick. His overall contract paid him $1.5 million a year. He started 33 games. He was a bargain – or he would have been one if he had played well. Eric Wood, the 28th overall pick, has a deal that averages $1.6 million a year. Again, a bargain, given he’s a solid starter.

The owners and players can strike a compromise by limiting the length of the contracts rookie draft-picks sign. Restricting the top 16 picks to five-year deals and the second 16 picks to four-year deals is a middle ground where both sides can meet. (The owners want all first rounders to get five-year deals; the players have proposed four-year deals for all first-rounders.)

Then both sides have to find an agreeable pay scale for the top 32 picks (with the focus on the top 16). That will be a little trickier, but since all the money saved would be going to veteran players (and veteran benefits), it won’t be a stumbling block to the collective-bargaining talks.

The real hard part of the CBA talks will be how to split up the overall revenues after the first couple years of the deal - in 2013 and beyond - when leaguewide revenues are expected to skyrocket higher and higher.

---Mark Gaughan
 

The Road to the Draft: OLB Akeem Ayers

THE ROAD TO THE DRAFT

Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA
6-foot-3, 254 pounds
Draft projection: middle of the first round.

Lowdown: Ayers has ideal size and athletic ability. He played defensive end in college but will be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense as a pro. He has a great body. He has versatility. He can rush the passer, cover a bit and play the run a bit, although he’s not real physical. He makes some big plays on occasion. The issue is he didn’t play that great overall. He looks better than he played. As a sophomore in 2009, he had six sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. But his junior year in 2010 did not build on that showing. He had four sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 12 games. His 40-yard dash time at the combine was a disappointing 4.8, not as good as Georgia’s Justin Houston (4.68), another defensive end converting to linebacker. It would have been nice for scouts to see Ayers play another year in college. But he shows enough skill and athleticsm to be a first-round pick.

---Mark Gaughan
 

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