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Buffalo Bills photo / Former Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix believes the Jacksonville Jaguars should use the first pick of the NFL draft on Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal.

As the former general manager of the Buffalo Bills and a former assistant GM of the San Diego Chargers, Buddy Nix will forever be linked to selecting quarterbacks at the National Football League draft.

The popularity of that position has a way of affecting everybody in the sport, but it's not what has Nix excited about this year's extravaganza that begins Thursday night in Las Vegas. There are no franchise quarterback prospects this time around — Clemson's Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 to Jacksonville last year and LSU's Joe Burrow went No. 1 to Cincinnati in 2020 and already has competed in a Super Bowl — but Nix doesn't subscribe to the notion that this is a bad year to possess the first pick.

"I don't agree with that," Nix said this week. "I think it's a great year to have the first pick, especially if you're Jacksonville or Detroit or some of these teams that need somebody at every position except one or two. Jacksonville got their quarterback last year, so what a great year to be picking a big guy and somebody to help that quarterback.

"I was a guy who was always going to err on big players. I think the NFL is a big man's game, and any time it's close, I'm going to go with a size guy."

The NFL is staging its draft west of the Mississippi River for only the third time, with Los Angeles having hosted the first three rounds back in 1956 and AT&T Stadium in the Dallas suburb of Arlington having housed the entire event in 2018. There will be no lack of wall-to-wall coverage, with ABC, ESPN and the NFL Network again televising the selections, but the locations of some of the personalities will be different.

Longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper, who will be working his 39th consecutive draft, will not offer his viewpoints inside Allegiant Stadium but instead remotely. Kiper has not been vaccinated for the coronavirus, stating last week that his decision is "very specific to my own personal medical history."

Another recognized analyst who spearheads ABC's coverage of the draft, Kirk Herbstreit, announced on social media that he would not be attending due to a recent discovery of a blood clot.

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University of Georgia photo / Georgia 6-foot-6, 341-pound nose tackle Jordan Davis celebrates a sack of Clemson's DJ Uiagalelei during last September's 10-3 win by the Bulldogs in Charlotte, N.C. Former Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix considers Davis the most intriguing player of the 2022 NFL draft.

THE FIRST IN LINE

This year's top selections are expected to be overrun with those who protect the quarterback, such as tackles Evan Neal from Alabama, Charles Cross from Mississippi State and Ickey Ekwonu from North Carolina State, and those who pressure the quarterback, such as Georgia's Travon Walker, Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux and Florida's State's Jermaine Johnson.

Walker is a 6-foot-5, 272-pounder who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds early last month at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, but Nix will be looking out for an even bigger Bulldog on Thursday night.

"The most intriguing guy to me is Georgia's Jordan Davis," said Nix, who served as University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach from 1984-92 before turning to a lengthy NFL front office career. "Most people have him in the top 10 but late in the top 10, but a guy who's 6-6 and 341 pounds who runs a 4.78 and vertical jumps 32 inches — there has got to be somewhere he can play.

"The knock on him is his stamina, but he plays so hard. He lost some weight between the SEC championship game and the national championship game and looked like a different player."

Davis served as the interior anchor of a Bulldogs defense last season that yielded just 78.9 rushing yards and 267.9 total yards per game. The nature of his position coupled with Georgia winning most of its contests rather handily didn't yield a lot of flashy statistics, but the former three-star signee from Charlotte, North Carolina, routinely made his presence felt and finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

Whether he can be a three-down player at the highest level could be his biggest challenge.

"I think he can," Nix said. "He runs guys down outside the tackle box, and he can push the pocket. I love all these edge rushers who have length and speed, but if that quarterback can step up and there's not any pressure in his face, then all those edge rushers are not very effective.

"I think this guy can do that for you, and I really believe he can be a three-down player."

 

QUARTERBACK PLIGHT

Nix was with the Chargers in 2004 when they selected Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning as the top overall pick and within an hour traded him to the New York Giants for N.C. State quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers also received a third-round pick in 2004, which they used to select Iowa kicker Nate Kaeding, and a first-rounder in 2005 that they used to snag Maryland linebacker Shawne Merriman.

Kaeding would appear in two Pro Bowls, Merriman three and Rivers eight.

In 2013, Nix was Buffalo's GM when the Bills moved into the middle of the first round — "Our owner was 95 years old, and he said, 'I want you to get me a quarterback,'" Nix said — and selected Florida State's EJ Manuel. The Bills had signed former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb before that draft and had planned on starting Kolb and letting Manuel learn for a year or two, but Kolb suffered a concussion before the start of the 2013 season and never played again.

Manuel, who was then rushed into the starting job and faltered, was the only quarterback taken in the first round that year, with West Virginia's Geno Smith going in the second round, N.C. State's Mike Glennon in the third and Southern California's Matt Barkley as the first pick of the fourth.

"I think this quarterback class is very comparable to the class with EJ Manuel," Nix said. "I would hate to pick a quarterback out of this draft because it's going to be a little bit of a crapshoot. If you're in a position where you just don't have one, you've got to roll the dice.

"I like the 6-3 guys, and I like guys who have been in a pro offense. I think (Liberty's) Malik Willis will have a long learning curve."

Nix wouldn't take any quarterback this year in the top half of the first round and ranks Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett, Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder, Willis, North Carolina's Sam Howell and Matt Corral of Ole Miss as his top five.

So who would Nix take Thursday night if he had Jacksonville's top overall pick?

"Evan Neal would be the way I would go," he said. "I always like to see where those big guys go."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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