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Later-round picks seal a team’s fate

For what it’s worth, I was impressed with the kid. EJ Manuel came to Buffalo on Friday, a day after the Bills picked him in the first round of the draft.

He walked onto the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium. He posed for photos, shook some hands, and had a 20-minute interview session with the local media.

It’s true what they say about Manuel. He has a presence, a healthy mix of swagger and humility. He declared himself the best quarterback at the NFL combine. He cried on draft night when he saw his mother, Jackie, who is recovering from cancer. He referred to his new bosses as Mr. Nix and Mr. Whaley. He addressed reporters as “Sir.”

Critics can question Manuel’s pocket presence, but not his character. He was instilled with strong family and Christian values in Virginia Beach, Va. His father, Erik, is a civilian contractor for the U.S. Navy. Erik is a lifelong buddy of Bruce Smith, the Bills’ Hall of Fame defensive end.

Smith, in fact, is Manuel’s godfather. Now tell me, what are the odds that the Bills would make what some considered their most important pick since taking Smith first overall in 1985, and wind up drafting his godson?

Desperate Bills fans might see that as an omen, a thread of hope leading back to the Super Bowl years. After 13 years without playoffs, I’m sure fans will welcome any sign that the team’s fortunes could be about to turn.

But it takes more than omens to repair a decade of management dysfunction. It takes a succession of solid draft picks. Taking a stab at a franchise quarterback is only a start. First-round draft picks get most of the attention and money, but it’s the later picks that make you a real contender.

This will be remembered as the Manuel draft, the first time the Bills used their first pick on a quarterback in the NFL draft. As Buddy Nix said, hitting on the quarterback can help you get to the Super Bowl. If Manuel turns out to be great, it’ll make the rest of the project a lot easier.

But it’s the second- and third-round picks that fill out a roster, that provide the depth that separates the average to good NFL teams from the legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

You build a foundation with first-round picks. But you elevate the structure by nailing choices in the later rounds. Teams don’t make serious playoff runs without adding solid starters in the second and third rounds, and often later. In a salary cap league, those picks become what I call value players, allowing you to invest elsewhere in the roster.

In fact, a recent study by Worcester Polytechnic Institute said that second-round picks return more value than first-rounders. The study concluded that second-rounders are 70 percent as productive as first-rounders, at only 40 percent the salary.

Bills fans will no doubt be amused to know that the analysis was taken from the last NFL 13 seasons – coincidentally, the exact duration of Buffalo’s current playoff drought.

Look at the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Ravens had 10 starters who were drafted in the second or third rounds on their championship team.

Eventually, those sort of players command big salaries. Baltimore lost a few from the Super Bowl champs.

But Ozzie Newsome, as good a general manager as you’ll find in sports, just finds more bargains. The Niners, the Super Bowl runners-up, had 13 starters who were drafted after the first round or not at all. They had 13 picks in this year’s draft, which seems excessive for a team of their caliber.

The Patriots have made a science of trading back and collecting picks. From 2009-11, they had nine second-round picks. Bill Belichick doesn’t hit them all, but he improves his chances. This year, the Pats had only five picks. So they traded the 29th overall choice for a second, third, fourth and seventh.

The Bills simply haven’t kept up since Buddy Nix took over as GM. In his first draft, Nix took Torell Troup in the second round and Alex Carrington in the third. Neither has become a starter. Aaron Williams, the second-round pick in 2011, didn’t pan out at cornerback and has been moved to safety.

Nix made up ground with Cordy Glenn in the second round last year. But the jury is still out on the other guys he took in later rounds, most of them on defense. The Bills have been historically bad on defense in the Nix regime, so it’s high time his drafts paid off.

So it was vital for the Bills to catch up in this draft. Nix can talk all he likes about his underrated roster depth. They had holes all over the roster, at quarterback, tight end, cornerback, safety, linebacker, guard, tight end.

Did I miss any areas of need? You don’t make that up in one draft.

It’s great that the Bills are shooting high. They need to shoot straight more often. Manuel is a good idea. But Nix and Co. are scrambling to fill holes of their own making. Robert Woods is promising at No. 41 overall, a polished outside receiver who could step in and take pressure off Stevie Johnson.

Kiko Alonso could provide help for a thin linebacking corps. But Alonso has had off-field issues, including an alcohol-related burglary arrest, and seems like a reach with the 46th overall pick. Something tells me Mike Pettine, the new defensive coordinator, felt it was worth the risk.

Perhaps it’s a good sign that the Bills took players from big-time programs (Florida State, USC, Oregon) with their first three picks. Over the years, some of their worst reaches were on players from smaller schools.

But time will tell if this draft moves the rebuilding up a level. New coaches and new schemes create new hope. But it’s new players who make the difference. The Bills don’t have much room for error anymore.

It seems like I say this every year, but they’d better be right about these guys.