The Buffalo Bills have a chance to really build upon their 2017 NFL playoff run and lay down a solid foundation for the future by adding some young talent through the draft. Currently, the Bills hold nine picks, but that could all change if they choose to trade up for a franchise QB. Most of the roster moves over the last year point to that exact scenario happening, so there is a chance that they may not have as many swings at the draft as fans would like. With several apparent holes on the roster, the scouting department’s ability to find talent for their coaches will be that much more important.
Head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have obviously worked together in Carolina. Beane has been a part of the process to find players that fit McDermott’s defenses. That rapport, working relationship, and familiarity with each other should certainly help them when it comes to bridging the gap between the scouting department and the coaching staff.
If the Bills trade up and give up a bunch of draft picks this season, every little encounter, visit, game scouted, coach spoken to, becomes that much more important, especially when you talk about the mid to late rounds. A lot of times, the upper-level scouting personnel have not even seen film on certain prospects. So they rely upon their scouts and any prior information from their connections to make a decision. At times, this can include inside information the coaches may have with other coaches or personnel at a college institution.
Coaches that have crossed paths during their rise through the ranks can play an important role in the draft process. Defensive schemes that are utilized on Sundays have their Saturday versions, too. So player traits in those schemes are, at times, easier to identify by scouts, therefore making projecting them into their NFL scheme that much easier. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the Bills’ coaching connections and how it may shape who they draft.
Head Coach Sean McDermott
Since drafting LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White in the first round last draft season, we have heard McDermott refer to how well he was coached down in Baton Rouge. During a conference call in 2017, the Bills’ coach stated the following when asked: “what he liked about White coming out and has anything surprised him?”
“Not really. I hate to say it or not because that is really always the case with the draft. I know Coach Dave Aranda down there (at LSU) and so I felt like we had a really good feel for Tre as a person and player and we have seen that up to the halfway point of the season so far.”
Hearing this made me wonder how McDermott crossed paths with Aranda. I wondered if some of the techniques, concepts, plays, and, most of all, traits exhibited by players in Aranda’s defense mirrored McDermott’s. In fact, it did. A lot of the robber coverages (especially on 3rd downs) and bail techniques that I saw in Tre White’s film from his 2016 season were implemented by McDermott in Buffalo. My curiosity led me to uncover some pretty cool findings not just about HC McDermott, but also about some of his staff. Take a look.
Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator at LSU, initially crossed paths with McDermott when he was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator. Aranda interned with the Panthers in 2015 while he was still the defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach at Wisconsin.
McDermott felt comfortable with the player they got in White because of his in-depth knowledge of Aranda’s philosophies and scheme. Coincidentally enough, the team also recently signed former LSU WR Malachi Dupre to their practice squad. They also burned two of their top 30 visits on CB Donte Jackson and LB/Edge Corey Thompson, two players who obviously played for Aranda and are legitimate possibilities to be drafted by the team.
As I did more research, I found out a few more coaches that McDermott may be closer to than we know. The following was taken from a 2015 ESPN article discussing the sharing of information among coaches:
“Every coach has his networks. Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s “little circle” consists of Aranda, Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Manny Diaz (current University of Miami DC) and Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott (current Bills HC) . Sometimes they’ll each study an area — third-down defense, spread quarterback run — and then discuss them as a group.”
“Everybody’s trying to find a better way to defend the spread,” Shoop said. “Dave and Manny see it at the college level, and Sean sees [Panthers quarterback Cam Newton] every day.”
Shoop is currently the defensive coordinator and safeties coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, but he coached at McDermott’s alma mater William and Mary from 2007-2010, where he was the defensive coordinator and schooled the defensive backs. After his time at W&M, he was hired as a defensive coordinator by James Franklin, who had just taken over the Vanderbilt program in 2011 and proceeded to follow Franklin to Penn State in 2014. Now those connections bring up several prospects on both sides of the ball in this draft.
On defense: S Marcus Allen, S Troy Apke, ILB Jason Cabinda, DT Parker Cothren, DT Curtis Cothren, CB Grant Haley, and CB Chris Campbell
Of those players listed, I believe three are very much in play for the Bills. While he may go early day two, Gesicki tested as an explosive athlete, and he has the size that this regime likes. Clay’s knee keeps him out of practice often and his contract will probably be ripped up after the season, anyway. Add in how important tight ends are in Brian Daboll’s system, and it’s an easy case to be made. Wide receiver Hamilton is a no-brainer. He is one of the top route runners in this class and would produce from the slot position.
But it’s on the defensive side where I feel the link is strongest. Corner Chris Campbell is a long corner that excels in off coverage and could be added on day three and groomed by the staff, so if he is drafted, I wouldn’t be surprised. He is also a player that the coaching staff and scouts got a look at down at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. But I think a prime target is at the linebacker position.
Current Penn State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry has ties to Buffalo. Pry went to UB, played for the Bills, and he has coached one of the steadiest inside linebackers in this draft in Jason Cabinda. Cabinda doesn’t seem like your typical McDermott linebacker, as he lacks athleticism, but he does hold similar measurables to EJ Henderson, who was coached by Leslie Frazier from 2007-2011.
Cabinda started three years for the Nittany Lions, is a captain, and is known for his ability to quickly read and diagnose then bring the pain. If the Bills don’t have an answer at linebacker later in the draft, Cabinda is a definite option.
Now the next part is where the lines between Aranda, McDermott, and Bills defensive coordinator intertwine. So when Aranda was a student at Cal Lutheran University in California, he began cold-calling coaches at the nearby schools to obtain an entry-level job as a coach. He befriended two coaches. The first was Jason Tarver, who was the defensive graduate assistant at UCLA, and Dave Doeren, a grad assistant at USC.
Tarver has bounced around the NFL the last few years, but he just took a job under head coach Derek Mason. Mason is a familiar face to Bills DC Frazier. Mason was Frazier’s defensive backs coach from 2007-2009 back in Minnesota, which is why I believe that senior linebacker Oren Burks is in the Bills’ crosshairs. The senior is a former safety that played all of the linebacker positions while racking up 228 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, deflected 21 passes, and registered 5 interceptions. He may be a day three player, but he has the measurables McDermott likes to see from his linebackers, including a 4.59 forty-yard dash and 33 3/8″ arm length to stack offensive linemen.
Another very good read by Burks. The DE and OLB get washed down, stays over the stop, sifts through traffic then lays a lick on Ballage. pic.twitter.com/1CM1Vm3tXs
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) March 31, 2018
Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips has been mocked to the Bills for several months now because of how much he dominated opponents to the tune of 153 total tackles, 29 tackles for loss, and 16.5 sacks.
Phillips leveraging his gap and easily disengaging.. pic.twitter.com/QpXzCocF3A
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 1, 2018
He plays a position of need, reminds most Bills fans of Kyle Williams and, oh yeah, he is a former wrestler. So it’s easy for mock drafters to link Phillips to the Bills. But in actuality, the stronger link is coach Frazier to USC’s defensive line coach Diran Reynolds.
Reynolds served under Frazier from 2009-2013 as an assistant defensive line coach of the Vikings. His defensive line unit led the league in sacks with 48 in 2009 and reached another 50 in 2011. So Frazier definitely has a confidant in Reynolds, one who could provide some insight on Phillips, a defensive player they met with at the Senior Bowl.
Aside from Dave Aranda and Bob Shoop, Dave Doeren is another colleague with whom McDermott has ties to. Doeren is the current HC of the NC State Wolfpack. Doeren has been in that position since 2013, and the Wolfpack have a slew of players that not only fit the Bills’ scheme on both sides of the ball, but more importantly fit needs in the mid to late rounds.
On offense: RB/H/TE Jaylen Samuels, RB Nyheim Hines, OT Will Richardson, G Tony Adams
I really could see Buffalo targeting just about all of them. But to narrow it down, I witnessed the entire Bills’ coaching staff and scouts watch B.J. Hill and Justin Jones dominate Senior Bowl week. Samuels met with the team at the Senior Bowl and the combine. He is what coaches call a ‘swiss army knife’. He aligned as a slot receiver, H-back, and as a ball carrier.
Samuels is fun to watch. Here he is the slot WR in the 3×1 set. Sits in the soft spot, catches the ball away from his body, transitions upfield and rumbles for a big gain! pic.twitter.com/F2vmLjnoad
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) April 19, 2018
Over the course of his career, he racked up 47 touchdowns from the line of scrimmage in 50 games! That kind versatility and production catches coaches’ eyes. He could steal some snaps from TE Charles Clay and Chris Ivory year one.
Honorable mentions are Hines, whose 4.38 speed would be a nice complement to RBs LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory. Finally, I believe Street would have been an option until he blew his knee out while working out for a team.
This play is one of Daboll's favorites. He ran this at least 1x a game last season. https://t.co/wDfmz1Np0N
— Cover 1 (@Cover1) April 19, 2018
The final big name from the ‘little circle’ mentioned in that article is none other than Manny Diaz, the current defensive coordinator of the Miami Hurricanes, who also coached at Louisiana Tech, where Panthers 1st round pick Vernon Butler played.
Miami is a program and defensive unit that has their swagger back. In 2017, he led a defensive unit that was 3rd in turnovers with 31 and first in the nation in sacks with 44. Their defense is stacked for the foreseeable future, but several defenders along the defensive line could be of interest to the Bills in the mid to late rounds.
This starts with edge defender Chad Thomas. Thomas has NFL measurables at 6’5″ and 281 pounds but when I turned on his tape, he was disappointing, and it starts off with his hand usage. He doesn’t appear to have a set pass rush plan, but even worse, when he attempts a combination he is unable to execute it.
I think the defensive tackles Kendrick Norton and R.J. McIntosh are more apt to be looked at closely by the organization. Norton is the wide-bodied tackle who could be a solid backup to Star Lotulelei. When I turned on Miami’s film, I immediately saw Norton (#7) executing similar 1- and 2-gap run fits often held down by Lotulelei.
McIntosh is more of your 3 technique defensive tackle. He’s very quick off the ball, able to execute swim and arm over moves before offensive linemen can even punch out.
On 3rd-and-long situations, Diaz utilized McIntosh as a penetrating nose tackle, and R.J. was able to get home here with a smooth spin move. This is a strategy that McDermott and Frazier utilized last season with DT Kyle Williams. Both of these defensive tackles would be high-level depth players, which is extremely important when the staff likes to roll guys in and out as much as they do.
By no means am I saying this is the entire evaluation process. These connections are only a piece of the scouting cycle puzzle. But when you’re a team that may only have a few draft picks because you traded picks away, the pressure to fill holes on your roster or add depth becomes that much more important. Sometimes the decision to draft a player may come down to scouts banging the table for him. Sometimes it will come down to how well that player’s traits fit the coaching philosophies, techniques, and schemes. So the coaching staff and player personnel departments need to be on the same page in drafts like this, because it could make all the difference.