Pump the brakes on the 'punt god' and an exciting fifth-rounder: Bills draft thoughts
Now that a few days have passed and we have digested some of the information on the eight players the Buffalo Bills drafted, the conclusion that I can draw is that Brandon Beane seems to have had a pretty good weekend.
He picked four players on defense, three on offense, one on special teams, and it looks as if three could become immediate contributors as rookies: First-round cornerback Kaiir Elam, second-round running back James Cook, and sixth-round punter Matt Araiza.
Back in the day we used to say you had to give a draft class two or three years before you could accurately assess it, but that’s not really the case anymore.
In today’s NFL, with skyrocketing salaries at the top of every team’s roster, they no longer have the luxury of developing rookies over time - they have to get their draft picks onto the field quicker because those players are easier to fit under the salary cap.
For instance, in 2021 the Bills had 15 players on the 53-man active roster who counted at least $5 million each on the salary cap, two who were above $10 million (left tackle Dion Dawkins and quarterback Josh Allen).
To offset that, they had 20 players who counted less than $1 million each on the cap including key contributors such as wide receivers Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie, offensive linemen Spencer Brown and Ryan Bates, kicker Tyler Bass, cornerback Dane Jackson, and special teamers Jaquan Johnson, Siran Neal, Reggie Gilliam, Tyrel Dodson, Damar Hamlin and Cam Lewis.
So, beyond Elam, Cook and Araiza, the Bills would love it if third-round linebacker Terrel Bernard, fifth-round wide receiver Khalil Shakir, sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford, sixth-round offensive lineman Luke Tenuta, and seventh-round linebacker Baylon Spector prove worthy of selection.
Buffalo Bills draft picks 2022: Round-by-round selections and analysis
Chances are they all won’t, though, because the Bills, given their depth, simply don’t have enough available roster spots.
Here are five thoughts I have on the draft class:
1. Lets’ pump the brakes on the Punt God
Heading into the draft, some analysts were saying that San Diego State’s Matt Araiza was going to be the greatest punter picked since the Oakland Raiders’ seemingly crazy selection of Ray Guy in the first round back in 1973.
First, a word on that. When the Raiders picked Guy, the rest of the NFL thought owner Al Davis and coach John Madden had lost their minds. A punter? In the first round, which had never been done before and has never been done since?
With the very next pick in 1973, the Steelers took cornerback J.T. Thomas who went on to start on three Super Bowl champion teams (it would have been four, but he missed all of 1978 with an injury). Three picks later, the Bills took future Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure.
Of course, Guy is the only full-time punter enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame so it’s tough to argue with what the Raiders did. But here’s the thing: Guy went to Southern Mississippi as an already accomplished punter, then became an all-time great in college as he averaged 44.7 yards per punt.
This is not the case with Araiza. He only became San Diego State’s full-time punter in 2021, so he’s not nearly as experienced as Guy was when he entered the NFL, and teams recognized this. There were some projections that had Araiza getting picked in the second round; instead, he lasted until the sixth and was actually the third punter taken behind Jordan Stout and Jake Camarda, both gone in the fourth round.
Araiza has a powerful leg, no doubt. He set a college record with his 51.2-yard average. But punting in the NFL is about much more than distance, and Araiza is definitely a work in progress. He was great when he was in his own territory and could just kick the heck out of it which is why he had 39 punts of at least 50 yards, two of more than 80 yards.
But he had 15 touchbacks on 41 punts in short field situations, his directional skills weren’t great, and his hang time was 3.92 seconds which resulted in only 17 fair catches on 79 total punts. In the NFL, punters try to achieve at least 4.3 seconds and hopefully more.
And now Araiza has to prove he can do it, not in beautiful San Diego but often cold and blustery Buffalo, plus he has to be able to hold on placekicks, something he’s never done before. I’m not saying he can’t, and I do believe he’ll beat out Matt Haack, but let’s just take a step back and let the punt competition play out before we put Araiza’s name on the Wall of Fame.
2. The Terrel Bernard pick felt like a reach
Questioning Beane isn’t something I’ve done too often since his arrival, but taking the undersized Baylor linebacker felt like a reach.
Bernard was a player who some thought would have been available in the fourth round, maybe even the fifth, but like all picks, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Beane liked the speed, instincts and energy that Bernard played with.
“We really liked him in the process, he was impressive,” Beane said. “We have Bobby Babich taking over at linebacker (coach). Bobby came back in and presented and he was one of the guys that he felt really connected. This guy picked it up like that.
“Some guys are, ‘He’s going to be able learn it, but it’s going to take some time.’ But he’s like, ‘This guy will be teaching it to other people pretty quick. He’s got it.’ I had Sean reach out to their head coach, which we know (Dave) Aranda a little bit. Leslie (Frazier) reached out as well, and Aranda could not say enough about this kid’s leadership, his work ethic, his habits. He’s an alpha leader of that defense.”
As I said, questioning Beane isn’t usually a good idea and if Bernard is all that the Bills think he is based on their evaluation, he may end up being the third linebacker on the field on the rare plays they aren’t in nickel, and he could be Matt Milano’s eventual replacement a couple years down the line as they have similar physical traits and mental makeups.
3. Khalil Shakir might be the biggest surprise
The Bills were boxed out in the first two rounds when receivers were flying off the board, but getting Shakir at the top of the fifth round could prove to be a steal.
In it’s post-draft recap, The Draft Network wrote, “While Elam and Cook are the headliners of the Bills’ 2022 draft class, the steal is Khalil Shakir who realistically could have been selected two rounds earlier.”
There’s a lot to like about Shakir, though he will need to clean up some drop issues he had at Boise State. But this is a player with 4.43 speed who can really help the Bills in run after catch yardage, something that was a weakness for an otherwise outstanding Buffalo offense in 2021.
Because he can line up inside or out and has proven to be a good runner on jet sweeps, he feels like a younger version of Isaiah McKenzie. And unless 2021 sixth-round pick Marquez Stevenson makes a leap, Shakir could also win the punt return job.
The player Shakir said he tries to emulate? The Rams’ Cooper Kupp, a 2017 third-round pick out of Eastern Washington who has become a star.
4. Bottom round guys have a tough task
The Bills are Super Bowl contenders, and some believe they’re the team to beat, though I’m not sure I’d go that far yet seeing as they’ve never won a road playoff game under Sean McDermott.
But there’s no doubt that this roster is loaded, so unless something crazy happens in training camp, it’s tough to see the last three picks - Benford from Villanova, Tenuta from Virginia Tech and Spector from Clemson - making the team. Practice squad? Maybe.
Benford has played boundary corner, slot corner and safety so with that versatility, if he shows he can play on multiple special teams, I’d give him the best chance.
Tenuta is a coach’s son who grew up around the game, and former Bills’ defensive line coach Bill Teerlinck is now at Virginia Tech and he gave the Bills rave views on the way Tenuta went about his business on and off the field.
And Spector is a player who has some big-time experience in high-level games at Clemson, an intangible Beane pointed out, as well as the fact that he played inside and outside linebacker and was a hard-nosed kid on special teams.
All that said, these are sixth- and seventh-round picks, so they have warts.
5. You never know on undrafted free agents
As many NFL execs will tell you, the most chaotic part of draft weekend isn’t the actual draft when everything is slotted and timed, it’s the race to sign players who weren’t picked.
These are the undrafted free agents who fill the bottom of rosters for training camp, and every once in a while you can unearth some legit talent.
In recent years, among the UDFA’s who made the Bills and became contributors were cornerbacks Levi Wallace and Cam Lewis, long snapper Reid Ferguson, linebacker Tyrel Dodson, and fullback Reggie Gilliam.
The Bills haven’t announced any of these signings, but several players - either by their own social media, their school or their agent - are connected to Buffalo. A few that stand out:
► Syracuse defensive lineman Kingsley Jonathan, a 24-year-old native of Nigeria who came to America in a human trafficking situation, had 15 sacks during his 56-game career for the Orange. The 260-pounder did 29 bench press reps of 220 pounds at his pro day.
► Tight end Jalen Wydermyer, who came to Buffalo for a top 30 visit, caught 118 passes for a TE school-record 1,468 yards and 16 TDs at Texas A&M, doing so both inline and split out. If he can learn to run block, he could earn a backup spot behind Dawson Knox and O.J. Howard.
► Wide receiver Keith Corbin III played for Deion Sanders at Jackson State and had a 36-inch leap at his pro day. Last year he caught 69 passes for 921 yards and seven TDs.
► Another wideout, Malik Williams of Appalachian State, had 190 catches for 2,382 yards and 17 TDs during his career.
► Running back Raheem Blackshear totaled more than 1,000 yards rushing and receiving during his career at Virginia Tech, one of only four backs last year at a Power 5 conference school who could make that claim.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.