The 2021 NFL Draft has come and gone, and you know what that means? No more mock drafts! Well, for a few more weeks at least. The Bills came out of the draft with eight shiny new prospects to add to their roster: four on offense and four on defense. My primary focus leading up the draft was defensive players, so today we’ll take a first look at how each of these new defenders could fit into the Bills’ future plans.
Before we dive into the defensive players, I want to talk about Brandon Beane and his draft strategy. During the first two nights, especially, the reviews were a mixed bag. Some were openly wondering what Beane could possibly be thinking. A common question was does this get the Bills closer to the Chiefs? I don’t know the answer, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the wrong question.
You build an NFL franchise through the draft. The Bills have already done a magnificent job of that. Josh Allen is the most important piece to that puzzle, but the Bills have also acquired guys like Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Gabriel Davis, Tre White, and Dion Dawkins in the draft. Even Stefon Diggs was acquired with a first-round pick. Free agency is where you supplement your roster with proven talent or re-sign your own guys.
The Bills were in uncharted territory this year. 30th is the lowest first-round pick the Bills have had in franchise history. When you’re drafting that low, you’re not looking to add plug-and-play guys. Drafting that late suggests that you’re already a championship-caliber roster, and the focus shouldn’t be one more shiny piece. The focus should be on strengthening your foundation. I think the Bills did that on the defensive side of the ball.
First Round – DE Gregory Rousseau, Miami
If you had told Bills fans two months that they’d get Rousseau at 30, most would have been ecstatic. On draft night, the excitement seemed far more subdued. Rousseau was a home run pick for Beane in the first round. That doesn’t mean he’s a sure bet to be a star, but he does have superstar potential. Could he be a bust? Of course. Heck, I even listed him in my potential draft busts article a few weeks back. But at pick 30, you can take a risk on a guy with a vast ceiling.
Rousseau is coming off a 2020 season where he sat out to prepare for the draft. The last time we saw him on a football field was in 2019, when he was competing with Chase Young for the nation’s lead in sacks. Had Rousseau returned to Miami and had a successful 2020 season, there’s no way he’d have escaped the top 15. If that 2019 season was a true indication of his talent level, then the Bills likely found themselves a gem.
Expect Rousseau to have a similar impact in Year 1 as AJ Epenesa, last year’s 2nd round draft pick. Playing time may be a sparse at the beginning of the season, but the second half of the season should see Rousseau on the field for some meaningful snaps. He has incredible length and should find a way to be disruptive in his rookie year. With Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes getting long in the tooth, Rousseau should find himself in competition for a starting job as soon as next season.
Second Round – DE Carlos Basham, Wake Forest
Stop me when this sounds familiar. If you had told Bills fans two months ago that they’d get Basham at 30, most would have been ecstatic. I didn’t like this pick. I loved this pick. When the Bills were on the clock, I was thinking to myself too bad the Bills went DE in the first. If they knew Boogie Basham was going to be there late in the 2nd, they wouldn’t have taken Rousseau. No way they go DE, DE. Then Bills legend, Joe DeLamielleure, stepped to the podium and announced Buffalo was indeed taking Basham.
Basham is a squat, powerful edge defender who can set the edge in the run game and be a disruptor against the pass. He’s not a sack artist, but he did have 20.5 sacks in his career at Wake Forest where he wasn’t exactly surrounded by premium talent. Basham is in the 270-280 lb. range and has the versatility to play on the edge or slide inside. During Senior Bowl practices, Basham was regularly deployed as an interior pass rusher, and he excelled.
Expect to see Basham on the field early. He may not have Rousseau’s high ceiling, but he’s a much more polished prospect who should compete for playing time right away. The Bills will likely get Basham on the field as an interior lineman on 3rd downs. Having Basham and Ed Oliver next to each other on the inside has the potential to be a stellar interior pass rush.
Sixth Round – S Damar Hamlin, Pitt
This was another good value pick for the Bills. Hamlin was a very experienced college player and was a star for the Pitt Panthers. He brings good size and length to the position but lacks top end speed to hang with receivers in man coverage. Hamlin’s 4.6 forty time at his pro day was slightly disappointing, but his game isn’t predicated on speed.
Hamlin is a physical, hard hitting safety that doesn’t shy away from contact. He’s a willing and effective tackler in the open field. What he lacks in athleticism and speed, he makes up for in aggressiveness and intelligence. Hamlin is a heady, high IQ guy, who diagnoses plays quickly and reacts accordingly.
The Bills are set with their starting safeties for the next couple of years, but Hamlin provides depth at a somewhat thin position. Hamlin’s ability as a tackler makes him a good bet to be a regular on special teams, and I think there is a high probability that he makes the 53 man roster.
Sixth Round – CB Rachad Wildgoose, Wisconsin
One pick after selecting Hamlin, the Bills grabbed the best name in the draft in Rachad Wildgoose. Bills fans were wondering when they would finally draft a corner, and Beane found himself another nice value in the sixth round. Wildgoose is a physical corner with good speed and underrated athleticism. Wisconsin players have the reputation of being slow, but Wildgoose ran a 4.41 forty at his pro day and showed off a 35 inch vertical. Pro Football Focus had him rated as their 93rd best prospect, but the Bills got him at pick #213.
Wildgoose missed most of the 2020 season with a shoulder injury, which led to him opting out of the remainder of the season. His biggest asset is his versatility. He doesn’t do anything great, but he does everything well. He’s a solid cover guy. He can play in the slot or on the outside. He contests the catch effectively. He can play man or zone. He can play corner or safety.
Wildgoose will have to play well in camp to make the roster. Tre White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, and Dane Jackson seem like sure bets to make the roster. That will leave Wildgoose competing with Siran Neal, Cam Lewis, and any other veteran the Bills sign this offseason. Wildgoose has a chance, and if he makes the roster, he’ll be a solid special teams contributor. He’s likely a year or two away from earning playing time in the loaded Bills secondary.
I like what the Bills did in this draft from a defensive standpoint. They spent their top two picks on guys who play a premium position, but they play it very differently. They’ve got a potential superstar pass rusher in Rousseau. They’ve got a high floor, versatile defensive lineman in Basham. They have two aggressive, versatile young defensive backs in Hamlin and Wildgoose.
The Bills did what they needed to do in this draft. They got better by stocking the cupboard and building the foundation. It may be a year or two until we know for sure if this draft was successful or not, but on paper, it looks good.
What do you think #BillsMafia? Did you like the defensive players the Bills drafted?