Why drafting a running back in first round makes little sense for Bills
Mel Kiper has changed his mind. Again. Shocker.
Such is the nature of mock drafts, one of the greatest clickbait topics in sports journalism where one week, yes, this is the player team X should pick and then the next week, well, maybe not.
In the latest iteration of his guessing game, the ESPN draft analyst is back to believing the Bills should take Alabama running back Najee Harris with the 30th overall pick in next month’s NFL Draft.
“I’m just a big fan of Harris,” Kiper said in his most recent mock. “He runs hard — he led the FBS in forced missed tackles last season — and adds value as a pass-catcher. He will make better the team that drafts him. Buffalo doesn’t have many clear needs, but it has to create better balance on offense to take some of the pressure off quarterback Josh Allen. Harris is an every-down back who can share the load.”
Harris was certainly a fine player for Nick Saban and he helped the Crimson Tide win another national championship last season, but the Bills picking a running back in the first round didn’t make much sense when Kiper first proposed it in an earlier mock draft, and it doesn’t make much sense now that he has made another revision.
The player he suggested for Buffalo in the mock between the Harris selections, Oklahoma State offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, was more in line with the Bills’ needs. Even more useful would be a cornerback or edge rusher.
Here’s why the Bills won’t spend a first-round pick on a running back. First and foremost, their offense scored a team record 501 points last season and is returning almost completely intact in 2021 – the only major change being wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders replacing John Brown. Does it really need fixing?
Secondly, the Bills, who almost always use just one running back at a time, have invested third-round picks in each of the previous two drafts, Devin Singletary in 2019 and Zack Moss in 2020.
The Bills should not be in a hurry to give up on either of them, because while they may not be game-breaking players, they also didn’t get a lot of help from the offensive line last season. It was a unit that saw plenty of upheaval on the interior due to injuries or poor play, and the fivesome the Bills had hoped they’d be lining up with did not play a single snap together.
Now that the Bills have re-signed guard Jon Feliciano and right tackle Daryl Williams, decided not to move on from center Mitch Morse, and will have left guard Cody Ford back from injury, those four and left tackle Dion Dawkins as a unit should be able to get more push in the run game in 2021.
Both coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane said in their season-ending Zoom conference calls back in late January that running the ball more effectively will be a priority in the coming year. They know that even though the Bills have clearly become a pass-first team, the need to rely on the run game will always be prevalent in the NFL, and last year the Bills weren’t good enough.
Last week when they returned to the world of Zoom, McDermott and Beane expressed confidence that the returning players will be able to make the necessary improvements.
“We believe that we have the pieces to run the ball better,” Beane said. “Sometimes it’s execution, sometimes it’s reps. Again, the limited offseason isn’t perfect for that, but that’s something that I know (offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, line coach Bobby Johnson and running backs coach Kelly Skipper) will be emphasizing this year; we want to be able to run it.”
McDermott doubled down on that opinion, saying, “We believe in the personnel we have. We can run the ball with the people we have, and that’s where it starts.”
Singletary took a step back from his promising 2019 rookie season as his average yards per carry fell from 5.1 to 4.4 and his rushing yards per game dropped from 64.6 to 42.9. Moss’ rookie season was curtailed by injuries which limited him to 13 games, during which he gained only 37.0 yards per game.
Both players flashed their potential, though, and the Bills think they can each take steps forward this year, especially Moss who now has a year under his belt and will benefit from a more normal offseason, one that will presumably include preseason games.
One under the radar way the Bills could see improvement corresponds with the signing of free agent tight end Jacob Hollister. The Bills ran the second-fewest plays from 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) in the NFL last year and for good reason; they were dynamic in three- and four-wide sets.
However, when they did go with two tight ends, it was usually with Lee Smith on the field, and every defense knew Smith was out there to block for a running play.
Hollister could change the metric. When the Bills line up with him and starting tight end Dawson Knox, defenses won’t be able to automatically expect a run because Hollister is a far more productive pass catcher than Smith. They will have to respect that, and it could provide slightly larger running windows.
“We believe in Devin, we believe in Zack,” said Beane. “I think it's so unfair to look at the running backs to point blame on the running game. Running the football is very complex and it's obviously the O-line, it’s the tight ends, it's the receivers, and if one guy doesn't make his block the play’s probably dead. I'm not looking at Devin Singletary and Zack Moss and thinking those guys came up short for us.”
Which probably says all you need to know about Beane’s eagerness to draft a running back in the first round.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.