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Why Buffalo Bills should consider drafting RB Travis Etienne in first round – Buffalo Bills Blog

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Mel Kiper Jr. hasn’t simply heard the arguments against taking a running back in the first round of the NFL draft. The ESPN senior draft analyst might have helped to spearhead the movement.

But that didn’t stop him from projecting the Buffalo Bills to select Alabama running back Najee Harris with pick No. 30 in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, on ESPN and ESPN the App) in one of his several mock drafts this offseason.

“Buffalo could do that and get a guy who’s a complete back, whether it’s Najee Harris, Travis Etienne or Javonte Williams,” Kiper said. “They’re in a position to take a running back. I’m not big on first-round running backs, I don’t think they’re necessary. But this team needs that type of player.”

The lesson to be learned here — context matters — could lead Buffalo to draft the speedy Etienne.

It doesn’t take much digging to find plenty of evidence against taking running backs in the first round. Of the NFL’s top 20 rushers last season, only two — Josh Jacobs (Raiders) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Chiefs) — were drafted in the first round. Of the 17 running backs selected in the first round since 2010, only four have had an All-Pro season. Meanwhile, stars such as Derrick Henry (Titans), Alvin Kamara (Saints) and Aaron Jones (Packers) — drafted in the second, third and fifth round, respectively — are proof teams can find starting-caliber backs later in the draft.

It’s not that first-round backs aren’t good; it’s that the pounding starters take often limits their longevity. Especially when drafted by a team that isn’t in position to compete for a Super Bowl, a running back’s best years could be behind him by the time his team is ready to make a championship run.

But the AFC runner-up Bills are ready to compete right now. So if Clemson’s Etienne is on the board when Buffalo picks at No. 30, the Bills should give him serious consideration.

One argument against the Bills taking a running back in the first round is that they used third-round picks on the position — Devin Singletary (2019) and Zack Moss (2020) — in the past two drafts.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane has expressed confidence in Singletary and Moss this offseason, but admits the Bills, who ranked 20th in rushing in 2020, need to run the ball better next season. And he didn’t dismiss the idea of drafting another back — especially if that player offers something Moss and Singletary do not.

“We feel very comfortable with the guys we have, so I’m not going into this draft going, ‘Man we got to find some back here in the top few rounds,’ or anything like that,” Beane said. “But there are some good players in here and if he’s the best guy on our board we wouldn’t hesitate to take them. What does his skill set have in comparison to what we have on the roster?”

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Check out highlights from Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris and North Carolina’s Javonte Williams as all three look to be top selections in the NFL draft.

The Bills ranked second in yards per game last season on the strength of their third-ranked passing offense — in spite of a rushing game that featured zero 100-yard rushers.

Some of the blame lies with an offensive line that ranked 29th in run block win rate according to NFL Next Gen Stats, but Buffalo played zero snaps with its top five offensive linemen on the field together. That meant fewer holes to run through, and Singletary and Moss didn’t make much of an impact outside of productive games against the New England Patriots (190 yards in Week 8), Los Angeles Chargers (172 yards in Week 12) and Denver Broncos (182 yards in Week 15).

Singletary had a 51-yard TD run against Denver, but it’s clear Buffalo’s backfield could use a big-play threat.

“I don’t think either one of our backs are home-run hitters, so is there an elite trait that [a prospect] has and says, ‘Man, he’s got something we don’t have?'” Beane said. “Those are the conversations you have … [where] you’re going, ‘Man, if we add that to the group that’s going to help our overall offense.'”

Etienne, who at 5-foot-10, 215 pounds ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at Clemson’s pro day last month, was arguably college football’s biggest home run hitter over the past three seasons. The ACC’s all-time leading rusher (4,952 yards) was also the conference’s all-time leader in touchdowns (78) scored when he took his final snap in the College Football Playoff last season.

He’s not just a big-play threat as a runner, either. After catching 17 passes over his first two seasons at Clemson, Etienne totaled 85 receptions for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns during his junior and senior seasons, silencing any doubt he can make an impact as a receiver.

When Buffalo puts four wide receivers on the field, which it did on a league-leading 20.3% of its offensive plays last season, Etienne’s speed and skill as a receiver poses a nightmarish matchup for opposing defenses.

“I just possess a lot of things that are God-given that most guys don’t possess,” Etienne said. “Just being able to impact the team every single down makes me different and makes me worthy of the first round.”

Etienne is a perfect fit for the Bills’ offense and he who wouldn’t necessarily render Moss and Singletary obsolete. Though it’s difficult to argue the value of a running back versus a cornerback or defensive end at pick No. 30, a back could provide a more immediate impact for a team ready to win now.

Teams picking at No. 30 tend to have a more complete roster, and in the Bills’ case, no glaring weaknesses. Buffalo would be getting Etienne’s prime years in the midst of its championship window; teams who couldn’t make their conference championship game are generally not a running back away from Super Bowl contention and have more obvious needs.

Beane insists the Bills will take the best player available when the time comes to turn in their card.

Don’t be shocked if that player is a running back.

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New York Jets rookie QB Zach Wilson doesn’t expect to be handed starting job — ‘Position has to be earned’

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson appears to have a clear path to the starting job, but he doesn’t expect to be handed a freebie.

“In this position, the coaches want to play the best player. That position has to be earned,” the No. 2 pick said Saturday on the second day of rookie minicamp. “I have to do what I’m supposed to do. That’ll take care of itself.”

Wilson said starting is “important” to him but not the priority. He said his main focus is learning the offense and getting acclimated to his new teammates. At BYU, he was a backup for his first six games as a freshman before becoming the youngest starter in school history at 19 years, 2 months.

Right now, he has no competition. The only other quarterbacks on the roster are James Morgan, a 2020 fourth-round pick, and former practice squad player Mike White. Neither quarterback has played in a regular-season game.

The Jets are expected to add a veteran before training camp. They have already met with journeyman Brian Hoyer, while former San Francisco 49ers backup Nick Mullens is another free-agent option. Both Mullens and Hoyer have ties to the Jets’ new coaching staff, most of which came from the 49ers. Chicago Bears backup Nick Foles also has been mentioned in media speculation.

New coach Robert Saleh hasn’t revealed his plan for Wilson, but the organization’s hope is that he will be ready to start by Week 1. After years of inconsistency at the position, the Jets are confident that Wilson — the highest-drafted quarterback in franchise history — can be a long-term fix.

“He did a really nice job,” Saleh said of Wilson’s first day at rookie camp. “The ball was in and out of his hand very crisp. He was in rhythm and was on time; the players were running the right routes. The ball was barely on the ground.”

Wilson, 21, already is showing leadership traits, as he reached out to several fellow rookies after the draft. Wide receiver Elijah Moore, a second-round pick, said Wilson is “like a general. … His passion comes out through the phone.”

At the same time, Wilson said he has received welcome-to-the-team texts from several veterans, including wide receiver Corey Davis, center Connor McGovern and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.

The former BYU star said he would like to organize informal offseason workouts with the veteran skill players, as previous quarterbacks did in the past. Former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold held workouts last offseason in South Florida. Wilson said it’s “definitely a priority” before training camp. “We’ll make it happen.”

One thing appears settled: Wilson is expected to wear No. 2. It’s not official, but he is leaning that way.

“Mixing it up, doing something new,” said Wilson, who wore No. 1 for most of his BYU career. “I like single-digit numbers. I think it’s kind of cool that I was the second pick. That’s kind of a cool reason to shake it up.”

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Former NFL defensive end Brandon Bair saves man after fiery train crash

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Former NFL defensive end Brandon Bair saved a man from a flaming semitruck minutes after it had been struck by a train, according to East Idaho News.

Bair said he was driving on a highway in St. Anthony, Idaho, on Thursday when he saw a train plow into a semitruck, triggering an immediate explosion. After calling 911, Bair was spurned into action after hearing a voice from inside the truck, which had caught flame following the crash.

“It was a conscious decision that I’m going in because he needs help right now,” Bair told East Idaho News. “I ran up to the window and saw dripping hot flames all over inside of the truck. I could see a guy in a seatbelt and was able to reach in and get it off of him. He was talking, and I told him we had to get out of here now.”

Bair said he climbed halfway into the wreckage and pulled 25-year-old Steven Jenson out through a rear window between the passenger and driver’s seat.

“We walked away, and within seconds, the fire on the roof fell down inside, and the whole seat and cab went up in flames,” Bair said. “A few minutes later, there were a couple big booms and explosions.”

Jenson was airlifted to an area hospital and was in a stable condition as of Friday morning, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

Bair, 36, signed as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011 after a collegiate career at Oregon. He went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders before retiring in 2015.

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Zach Wilson’s path to the New York Jets

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The fascination started last October.

New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas received word from one of his scouts that there was a college junior out west he needed to watch. The 2021 NFL draft was six months away, but this was his typical starting point for in-depth tape study on potential prospects. So he punched up the video of the Oct. 16 BYU-Houston game, and it changed the course of the franchise.

Douglas picked this game because it contained no fewer than four prospects, most notably Houston defensive end Payton Turner, who would become the first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints. BYU’s offense included three draft-eligible players with pro potential, including a slick-throwing quarterback named Zach Wilson.

In the interest of efficiency, Douglas prefers to evaluate games that include multiple prospects. One of his right-hand men, senior football adviser Phil Savage, calls them “scouter’s delight” games. In the world of scouting, nothing beats mano a mano. In this case, it was Cougar a Cougar.

Douglas fell hard for Wilson, triggering a scouting and vetting process unlike any other. Because of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Jets scouted only two of his games in person and relied on five hours of videoconference calls (the maximum allowed by the league) to test his football acumen and get acquainted with his personality and leadership traits. Ultimately, they chose Wilson No. 2 overall, signaling the start of a new era.

Because it was a strange year, the only time Douglas saw Wilson in person was his March 26 pro day on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah. Afterward, they spoke for two minutes, certainly nothing in depth. There was no combine in Indianapolis and there were no private workouts, so Douglas had to rely on his scouts to dig up intel from their sources and on his medical staff to cull information that ordinarily would have been easy to obtain.

More than ever, Douglas relied on his eyes, and they told him last October to keep watching.

“[Wilson had] an unbelievable junior year,” Douglas said after the draft.

Wilson was brilliant in that game against Houston, completing 25 of 35 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. He delivered plenty of wow moments, combining physical skills, accuracy, a quick release and the ability to make off-platform throws. At 6-foot-2, he was able to change his arm angle to throw between and around defenders.

Sitting in his office, Douglas was blown away. He jotted notes on all the prospects in the game, but his eyes kept reverting to Wilson. Unlike Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, Wilson wasn’t a household name before he stepped on campus. He was a three-star recruit who wasn’t good enough to get an offer from his dream school, Utah, where his father, Mike, played on the defensive line. From a national perspective, the Houston game was his breakout performance.

One of the plays that stood out to Douglas was an 18-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Already ahead by three points, facing a third-and-15, Wilson read blitz and saw man-to-man coverage on the outside. Some quarterbacks would have played it conservatively with a safe pass, but he used his eyes to freeze the middle safety and fired a strike to Dax Milne in the back corner of the end zone to seal the victory.

Intrigued, Douglas stayed late and watched two more BYU games that night. The next time he saw assistant GM Rex Hogan, Douglas told him they needed to commence a deep dive into Wilson. Douglas wanted to know everything about him in case he declared for the draft.

TV scouting

At that point, the Jets weren’t bent on drafting a quarterback. Even though Sam Darnold was struggling and the team was losing, the organization hadn’t lost faith in the 23-year-old. But as they plummeted to 0-13, it became clear they would have a high draft pick. As fans and media clamored for Lawrence, the consensus top player and considered a generational talent, Douglas and his staff quietly investigated Wilson and the three other top quarterbacks, Fields, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.

In a normal year, Douglas probably would have traveled to Utah to check out Wilson. In 2018, former GM Mike Maccagnan flew to California on four consecutive weekends to scout Darnold in his junior year at USC, returning on red-eye flights so he could make it back for the Jets’ game. Scouts see things in person they can’t see on tape, such as how a player conducts himself on the sideline. This is particularly important for a quarterback. Does he interact with teammates? Is he a loner? Does he mope after a bad play? How does he lead?

The Jets scouted the win at Houston and the Dec. 5 contest at Coastal Carolina. The latter was BYU’s biggest game of the season and only loss, 22-17. Douglas, whose Jets were 0-11 and seemingly careening toward the No. 1 pick, scouted the game on TV. He didn’t see a stellar performance from Wilson, but he didn’t view it as a negative given the circumstances. Because of the pandemic, the game hadn’t been scheduled until that week, and BYU had to make a cross-country flight to face a nationally ranked team.

Douglas reverted to TV scouting again on Dec. 22, as he watched Wilson tear apart Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl — 425 yards and three touchdown passes. By now, Douglas was down the rabbit hole, as he likes to say. He had watched tape from Wilson’s freshman and sophomore years, including a road win at Tennessee, a home victory against USC and a flawless performance against Western Michigan in the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl — 18-for-18, 317 yards and four touchdown passes.

Wilson attempted 837 passes in his college career. By the end of January, Douglas had studied every one of them.

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Take a look at the highlights from Zach Wilson at BYU as the QB prepares to be a top pick in the NFL draft.

Two staffers were heavily involved in the vetting process — area scout Andrew Dollak and personnel executive Zach Truty. Unable to be on campus because of COVID-19 restrictions, they had to rely on their connections. They spoke to assistant coaches, trainers, the equipment manager, BYU boosters and friends of the Wilson family.

They got so far into his background that they compiled notes on his college recruiting. Wilson had given a verbal commitment to Boise State, but he flipped to BYU. The Jets wanted to know why. (BYU, closer to home, made a late push.) Fortunately, Dollak and Truty had backgrounds in recruiting. In fact, Dollak was familiar with the Western region. He grew up in Arizona and worked in the Arizona State recruiting department.

In scouting, there’s no such thing as too much information.

Ready for Broadway?

To the surprise of many, the Jets actually won two of their final three games to finish 2-14, blowing their shot at the No. 1 overall pick — i.e., Lawrence. While outsiders bemoaned their fate, team officials loved their position at No. 2. They knew it was a strong quarterback class.

In February, the Jets started their draft meetings. When they got around to Wilson, one of the topics that came up was how he would handle the New York spotlight. He grew up in Draper, Utah (population 49,000) and played college ball in Provo (116,000), a long way from Broadway. Hogan, the assistant GM, made a comment in the meeting that resonated.

Early in his career, Hogan spent a year as Utah’s director of football operations under coach Urban Meyer. He got a feel for the local vibe and saw how BYU, which now has its own TV network, generated a large share of the media coverage. There’s inherent pressure in being the BYU quarterback, he told the group, comparing it to Notre Dame. BYU has a reputation for quarterback excellence, having produced Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer, among others.

“It’s huge there,” said John Beck, a former BYU and NFL quarterback. “It’s really a cool thing. It’s a mantel you have to carry, a responsibility. There are super-high expectations. You feel all of those expectations all the time.”

Wilson’s personal coach, Beck, a renowned quarterback guru based in Huntington Beach, California, became a valuable resource for the Jets. He has known Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur for many years, and they had several conversations during the run-up to the draft. Early in the process, the Jets asked questions about Wilson’s size. He was 6-foot-2 and 214 pounds at his March 26 pro day. Prior to that, there were concerning rumors about his actual height.

“Everyone thought I was 6 feet,” Wilson said, laughing. “I mean, that was a little harsh.”

After that, LaFleur probed Beck on Wilson’s physical and mental traits, digging deep into the X’s and O’s. How would you rate his arm strength on an 18-yard “dig” route? Which quarterback does he compare to on that route? In the beginning, the Jets were cagey about their interest in Wilson. As Beck noted, “This may sound funny, but it’s kind of like ‘The Dating Game.’ Two people like each other, but they’re not telling each other yet.”

Soon, it became the worst-kept secret in the NFL. The clincher was Wilson’s pro day.

Five months after seeing Wilson on tape for the first time, Douglas flew the 1,964 miles to Provo to watch him throw 70 passes before representatives from 31 teams. He was joined by LaFleur and coach Robert Saleh, who made an unusual request that day. He bumped into one of his former players, San Francisco 49ers linebacker and BYU alum Fred Warner. He asked Warner to hug Wilson. The idea, as first noted by Albert Breer of the MMQB, was to get a feel for the size of the quarterback’s upper body. There was talk around the league about his narrow shoulders.

In the pre-pandemic world, Saleh could have done the hugging himself at the combine. Warner carried out the assignment — what linebacker would pass on a chance to wrap his arms around a quarterback? — and reported back to Saleh that Wilson’s size reminded him of Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes. The Jets are confident Wilson can fill out; his father was a 6-foot-3 and 283-pound defensive lineman at Utah, and his two younger brothers play linebacker.

If Douglas was smitten before the pro day, he was head over heels after watching Wilson finish the workout with an off-balance 50-yard dime that went viral on social media.

“Ultimately, that pro day really, really cemented it,” Douglas said.

By then, the Jets were comfortable with Wilson’s intangibles. In five videoconference calls, one hour each, they showed video clips and grilled him on specific plays from his career. For each play, they wanted to know the call, the protection, his progression, the coverage and the audible (if there was one). He spit back each answer with the speed of a “Jeopardy!” champion.

In an effort to stump him, they didn’t show plays in sequential order. They bounced around his career, pulling up plays from his freshman season. They were amazed by his recall. On some plays, he knew the outcome before it started, simply based on down, distance and opponent. Wilson has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), like some others in his family, and it created challenges in the college classroom, but it has no effect on his ability to absorb football concepts, according to people close to him.

“His mental horsepower is through the roof,” Saleh said.

The Jets didn’t want to overwhelm Wilson with a dozen people on the videoconference calls, so they limited it to five or six, including LaFleur, passing-game specialist Greg Knapp and quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese, each of whom wrote separate scouting reports on the top five quarterback prospects.

As the Jets’ three offensive coaches ranked the draft’s quarterbacks, the organization weighed offers for Darnold. They eventually traded him to the Carolina Panthers on April 5. There was some sentiment within the building to keep their 2018 first-round pick, but the prevailing thought was that Wilson was too good to pass up.

The final piece to the puzzle was obtaining medical information on Wilson’s surgically repaired throwing shoulder. In a normal year, the Jets would have had imaging results of the shoulder at the combine in early March. Forced to scramble, the Jets’ trainers and doctors got the intel by reaching out to the BYU medical staff and the doctor who performed the labrum surgery in 2019. They received the actual notes from the procedure, creating a comfort level that allowed them to move on from Darnold and lock into Wilson.

In the end, it came down to a football decision. With Lawrence heading to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the No. 1 pick, the Jets faced a choice among Wilson, Fields, Lance and Jones. If they had finished 0-16 instead of 2-14, it probably would’ve been Lawrence, but the pro-Wilson sentiment in the organization was strong. The coaches and personnel department were in lockstep, essentially resulting in a final decision four weeks before the draft. There was no 11th-hour wavering, no entertaining of trade offers. They were so committed to Wilson that people in his inner circle knew ahead of time he was New York-bound.

In their view, Wilson separated himself because of his pure passing ability; his quick eyes, hands and feet really popped on tape. They felt he was the cleanest fit in Kyle Shanahan’s version of the West Coast offense, which uses play-action and boots. They also loved how he approached everything with bright eyes.

On April 29, at 8:33 p.m. ET, it became official: Wilson was the Jets’ new quarterback, six months after he was just an image on Douglas’ screen and a possibility in his mind.



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