ORCHARD PARK — The question has been persistent since last season ended.
Bills’ fans want to know who Buffalo will take with the No. 8 pick in the NFL’s 78th annual draft which starts tonight at 8 o’clock with the first round.
It’s a bigger mystery than usual.
Some teams make no effort to disguise the identity of the player they covet.
But most — including Buffalo — hide behind a veil of secrecy.
You want proof?
Those of us who cover the Bills haven’t been unanimously right in our prediction of Buffalo’s first-round pick since guard Ruben Brown in 1995 ... 18 years ago, though it should be noted a number of us prognosticated the selection of offensive lineman Mike Williams at the No. 4 spot in 2002.
That, despite the fact, in nine of the past 11 drafts the Bills have picked 13th or higher, where the chances of being right are increased.
Of course, for a team that has made such “we’re smarter than everybody else” opening-round choices as Erik Flowers (2000), an injured Willis McGahee (2003), Donte Whitner (2006), Leodis McKelvin (2008) and Aaron Maybin (2009), it’s hard to be right.
And, no, I’m not one of those who fillet the Bills for that Williams pick.
He was the consensus top offensive lineman in that draft and there were at least two dozen other teams that would have taken him at the spot ... and made the same mistake Buffalo did.
THIS YEAR, though, might be the toughest first round to dope out in recent memory.
If it was a better draft for quarterbacks, it would likely be a no-brainer for Buffalo.
But the leading candidates — USC’s Matt Barkley, Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Florida State’s EJ Manuel — all have significant blemishes.
Barkley’s stock dropped after a less-than-stellar senior year, Nassib was underwhelming at the Senior Bowl practices and in the game, Smith was so badly ripped in a Pro Football Weekly profile — from poor work habits, to lack of leadership skills to sloppy mechanics — that Sports Illustrated did a story on it and Manuel has durability issues.
Even Bills’ general manager Buddy Nix admitted of Barkley, “So much changes. This time last year everybody said, ‘If (the Bills) lose 12 or 13 games (they) can get Barkley.’ Well that changes.”
And one change is the signing of Kevin Kolb, a talented but injury-prone QB who has yet to play a full season in his six years in the NFL.
BUT THE Bills’ needs have changed too.
When last season ended, besides quarterback, Buffalo’s most critical position to be updated was linebacker.
Since then, leading tackler Nick Barnett and backup Kirk Morrison have been waived and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will install a 3-4 alignment utilizing former defensive end Mario Williams and Manny Lawson, a free agent from Cincinnati, as outside starters.
In addition, the Bills have signed former Eagle Marcus Dowtin.
And there’s talk Buffalo might add former Miami inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.
Does that reduce the urgency of making a linebacker a high draft pick?
THEN THERE’S guard where starter Andy Levitre and top reserve Chad Rinehart were lost to free agency.
A cynic might argue, if the Bills are thinking of taking one of this year’s two highly-rated guards with the No. 8 pick — if they’re still there — why not just pay Levitre to begin with?
There’s Steve Johnson, the No. 1 wideout, T.J. Graham, last season’s third-rounder who showed little as a rookie, and Marcus Easley, the fourth round pick in 2010 who has had injury and health issues but whom the Bills see as a player with an enormous upside.
“We’re all excited about Marcus,” Nix said. “I say, ‘We all, (but) I am. Marcus being healthy for a year ... this guy, if you want to draw up (a wide receiver), draw him up. He’s 227 pounds and can run. So there may be one on the roster (already), but I know there’s some in the draft. We’re talking about the wide receiver position being deep.”
What about safety?
Of course, while a trio at that position are projected to go in the first round, there’s the stigma of Whitner, taken at No. 8 in 2006, who, in 69 games over five seasons with Buffalo, had only five interceptions, three forced fumbles 1 1/2 sacks and a fumble recovery.
And while last year’s starter at strong safety, George Wilson, was waived, youngster DaNorriis Searcy becomes a first-teamer and disappointing Aaron Williams, a second round choice in 2011, has been switched from cornerback to safety.
Thus it’s unlikely that position would require a first-round pick.
Hence the question ... who do the Bills take?
Buffalo would clearly like to trade down and take the QB they like best.
But none of those four seems worthy of a No. 8 pick.
So if Buffalo stays there, my gut says they go for Smith’s favorite target at West Virginia, wideout Tavon Austin, and grab their QB at No. 41 in the second round ... or even trade up to get him.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)