BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)The Buffalo Bills addressed their defensive pass-rush and offensive rushing needs with their two picks in the NFL draft Friday night.
Buffalo opened by selecting Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who led the Big Ten with 10 1/2 sacks as a junior last season, with the 54th pick. The Bills then followed up by choosing Utah running back Zack Moss at No. 86.
Epenesa’s selection was Buffalo’s first of the draft after the Bills traded four picks, including their first-rounder (22nd overall), to acquire receiver Stefon Diggs from Minnesota last month.
Having addressed many of Buffalo’s immediate needs in free agency and with Diggs’ addition, general manager Brandon Beane approached the draft with the objective of targeting the best player available rather than filling a positional roster spot.
And yet, both additions did fill depth needs for Buffalo.
Upgrading the pass rush was considered a partial need for Buffalo, given that returning starters Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy will both be 30 or older before the end of this year.
Listed at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Epenesa was a three-year starter at Iowa, and joins a Bills defense that lost backup pass-rusher Shaq Lawson in free agency last month. The Bills did address Lawson’s departure by signing Mario Addison in free agency.
A scouting report posted on NFL.com referred to Epenesa as having ”average instincts against the run, and is a step slow to shed, but he’s strong at the point and does his job.” He was also noted for having a strong bull rush. Overall, he had 26 1/2 sacks and forced nine fumbles in 37 career games.
At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Moss has the potential to play a complementary role to Devin Singletary, who supplanted LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore to become the Bills starter last seaosn.
Moss set six school records – including most career yards rushing (4,067) and career touchdowns rushing (38) – in completing his four-year career at Utah. Last season, he led the Pac-12 with 15 touchdowns and 1,416 yards rushing to earn the conference player of the year honors.
Barring trades, Buffalo had five picks remaining over the final four rounds Saturday, with their next coming at No. 128.
Expectations are on the rise in Buffalo. A majority of the roster returns intact from a team coming off a 10-6 finish that qualified the Bills for the playoffs for the second time in three years.
The continuity has led to a belief of the Bills being in a prime position to challenge the New England Patriots for the AFC East title this season. The Patriots, who have won 11 straight division titles and 17 of the past 19, are suddenly in flux with quarterback Tom Brady leaving for Tampa Bay.
Beane certainly appears to be taking an all-in approach, given his bold move to acquire Diggs and address what he considered the team’s biggest offseason priority. Diggs provides the Josh Allen-led offense a trio of proven receivers, rounded out by John Brown and Cole Beasley.
Beane spent free agency shoring up needs on a defense that’s been among the NFL’s stingiest over the past two years. The Bills allowed the third-fewest yards in the league last season, a year after ranking second.
Buffalo’s additions also included defensive tackle Vernon Butler, linebacker A.J. Klein and cornerback Josh Norman after losing only two regulars in free agency – Lawson and Jordan Phillips – and with linebacker Lorenzo Alexander choosing to retire.
The offense remains the team’s most pressing concern. It’s a unit that finished 24th among NFL teams in yards gained, 26th in yards passing and 23rd in points. Buffalo scored 20 or fewer points 11 times last season, including a 22-19 overtime wild-card loss at Houston.
The playoff loss to the Texans stung in how Buffalo blew a 16-0 third-quarter lead.
Though the defense was unable to hold the Texans in check, Beane placed most of the blame on Allen and the offense, which squandered numerous scoring opportunities in the second half and overtime.
Allen enters his third season still facing questions about his accuracy. Though his completion percentage jumped to 58.8, six points over his rookie season, Allen still finished 32nd last year. He did have 20 touchdowns passing, doubling his production from the previous year, and nine interceptions, three fewer than his rookie season.
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