Buffalo's need for speed at defensive end has risen to code red this off-season. Aaron Schobel's bum foot remains a lingering concern, Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay were one notch above tackling dummies last season and third-rounder Chris Ellis reeks of Corey Moore.
Defensive end is unquestionably the Bills' most pressing need in this year's draft.
A solution was in town last week. Cincinnati's Connor Barwin – who ran a 4.47 in the 40-yard dash at Cincinnati's pro day Thursday – visited Buffalo on March 11-12. At the pro day, one onlooker even clocked Barwin at 4.43 seconds, a dash for cash that would have ranked first among all running backs at the NFL Combine.
In Buffalo, Barwin met with defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and new defensive line coach Bob Sanders. While some teams project Barwin as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, Buffalo sees him fitting in just fine at defensive end in a base 4-3. After playing tight end (and some basketball) throughout his collegiate career, the 6-foot-3, 253-pound Barwin was a revelation at defensive end. He finished with a conference-best 11 sacks and 16 tackles for loss as possibly the biggest reason the Bearcats were the surprise champions of the Big East.
Buffalo was the first of Barwin's first of many cross-country visits.
"I really enjoyed meeting with Coach Perry and Coach Sanders," Barwin said. "It was a good experience. They just explained to me how I could fit into their 4-3 and what they saw me doing. We talked about football, they got to know me a little better as a person and really just told me how I could fit into their system.
"They really wanted to get to know me more on a personal level. Obviously, the defensive coordinator knew the most about me, which is good. I had a good time. I was happy to be there."
Barwin initially cracked into the upper-tier of teams' draft boards back in February at the Combine. His 4.66-second time in the 40 was second-best among defensive ends. But Barwin knew this time was an aberration…he was much, much faster.
Rather than trying to jump the gun to get a quick start, Barwin stayed in his block in Indianapolis. He didn't want to be "one of those guys that had to keep going back to restart." No use looking like Chris "Birdman" Andersen in the 2005 NBA Dunk Contest.
"I knew I could run a good time and just hold my start and I'd just wait until my pro day to put up my best number," Barwin said.
So he waited for last Thursday to stun the scouts. Without hundreds of scouts breathing down his neck in Indy, Barwin was more willing to risk the quick start.
One blistering 4.4 later, he's considered a legitimate first round pick. And no, a 4.4 didn't surprise the shoot-from-the-hip Barwin the least bit.
"I knew I would run that fast," Barwin said. "But the only people that knew I could run that fast were me and the coaches that were training me. But we did that on purpose. We wanted to surprise everybody."
All last season, two cause-and-effect trends killed Buffalo's fast start. Without a dynamic No. 2 receiver, Lee Evans was suffocated all year and the passing game dwindled. And defensively, the team's sad pass rush forced a talented secondary to work overtime every game.
Terrell Owens should remedy the first ailment. Connor Barwin could fix the other. Two-hundred and sixty pounds motoring at a 4.4-clip would instantly amp up Buffalo's pass rush. If the Bills opt to pick Oklahoma State tight end Brandon Pettigrew at No. 11 overall, Barwin could be on the board at No. 42. The alternative is to draft either Aaron Maybin or Everette Brown at No. 11 and the a tight end like Jared Cook in the second. Seeing Barwin face-to-face surely helps. Scout.com also reported that Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers visited the Bills on March 17-18. These back-to-back visits suggest that Buffalo is strongly considered going with the TE-then-DE approach in April.
Barwin is still very new to the position. His raw skills still need molding – at Cincinnati, coaches simply unleashed him to the quarterback. But Barwin's sheer athleticism is bound to get him drafted high next month. Teams are just starting to realize the Godzilla-like presence Barwin could eventually pose.
Arguably no player's stock has risen faster than Barwin's through the Senior Bowl-Combine-Pro Day process. There's a good chance he'll be off the board before the Bills' second-round pick.
"I knew when people had me going in the later rounds – especially when I went to the Senior Bowl – I knew I was a much better player that players that were going higher than me," Barwin said. "I'm just excited that the process has worked out and allowed for teams to really get to know everything about me."
Next up for Barwin are visits with the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and St. Louis Rams. Still, it's safe to say his one-stop in Buffalo was productive. New defensive line coach Bob Sanders showed Barwin the scheme he is implementing along the front line and told him the team envisions him as an every-down defensive end – not just a third-down specialist.
In turn, Barwin likes the direction of the franchise, including the team's stunning go-for-broke signing of Terrell Owens.
"My honest initial thoughts were ‘good for Buffalo,' because (Owens) is a hell of a player," Barwin said. "He's instantly somebody defenses have to worry about.
"It seems like they are confident in what they're doing and where they're at right now. I like the idea that they felt good about where they were. They're moving forward and excited about the future."
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