Doug Whaley has said on more than one occasion that the NFL is a “results-driven business.” Well, the time has come for the Bills to produce some immediate results.
The Bills’ general manager put his reputation squarely on the line Thursday night, sending the ninth overall pick of this year’s draft, plus next year’s first- and fourth-round selections, to the Cleveland Browns for the right to draft Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick.
That’s an awfully steep price to pay, as Whaley conceded moments after making the first blockbuster deal of the three-day “selection meeting.” The Bills gave up a first and a fourth for the privilege of moving up just five spots in the draft.
“We’re building our roster now,” he said. “Granted, you hate giving up No. 1 picks. But we thought what he brings to us now is worth a low No. 1 that we’ll be giving up next year.”
A low No. 1 pick next year? That’s pretty bold talk for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs for 14 straight seasons. Playoff teams are the ones that pick low in the draft. That sounded like a playoff guarantee by the young GM.
“That’s not a guarantee,” Whaley said. “We expected it to be a low.”
This puts your job on the line, I told Whaley.
“I’m a competitor,” he said. “Call me crazy. I like those odds.”
I wouldn’t call him crazy, but I’m tempted. He needs to be right about Watkins. Before the draft, the Bills personnel men compared Watkins with A.J. Green and Julio Jones. Watkins has to be at least as good as those two to justify sending away next year’s first-round draft pick.
Skeptics – and I was among them – felt the Bills would be foolhardy to trade away next year’s No. 1. They still don’t know if EJ Manuel is going to pan out as a franchise quarterback. They could have saved a high pick to use on a QB in next year’s draft, which is expected to be strong at the position.
But clearly, Whaley believes in Manuel. While Buddy Nix was the nominal GM a year ago, Manuel was Whaley’s guy. The Bills have been consistent in professing their belief in Manuel. They weren’t concerned about replacing him a year or two down the line. They wanted to help him succeed and make the playoffs.
Whaley has a background with the Steelers, who are conservative in their drafts and reluctant to part with draft picks. With this move, he establishes a distinct identity as the architect of his own operation.
This was a rousing endorsement of Manuel, a pronouncement to the team, the fans and the league that the Bills believe he will be their franchise quarterback for years to come. Whaley is essentially doubling down on Manuel without seeing both his cards.
“I think it’s self-explanatory,” Whaley said. “I don’t mean to be flippant, but that’s it. We want to surround EJ Manuel with every possible weapon that we can.”
They’re certainly deep at receiver. They drafted two wideouts a year ago, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. They traded for troubled Mike Williams. They have Stevie Johnson, a No. 2 who is being paid like a No. 1. They also have T.J. Graham.
That’s a lot of weapons. You have to wonder what’s in store for Johnson, who hasn’t produced like a No. 1, failed to develop any chemistry with Manuel a year ago, and has a history of juvenile behavior. Watkins will play right away and be the focus of the passing attack. I can’t see Stevie graciously deferring to a rookie. The Bills should trade him or cut him.
“Stevie’s on our team,” Whaley said. “He’s under contract; that’s another weapon in our arsenal.”
That’s a fairly mild show of support for Johnson. He’s on the team. Watkins is The Man now. You don’t mortgage the next year’s draft unless you expect the guy to step right on the field and be a huge factor from the start.
“Yes, we do,” Whaley said, “and that’s why we made the commitment to him.”
Whaley and CEO Russ Brandon again insisted that the uncertain ownership situation has nothing to do with it. The top management guys can deny it all they like, but a clouded ownership creates a sense of urgency to win in the short term and make a good impression with the new bosses.
By moving up, the Bills made it clear that they’re in what people call the “win-now” mode. In today’s NFL, where team’s fortunes can shift radically in a single year and teams jump from last place to the playoffs on a regular basis, you could argue that it’s always a win-now situation.
It’s even more so with a team that has gone 14 straight years without a playoff berth and is in the process of being sold. It’s a huge gamble, one that could blow up in their faces, but at least they tried.
“This all goes back to Russ Brandon,” Whaley said. “He OK’d it and was willing to give up the resources and future picks to get us where we need to be.”
They’ve been stuck at 6-10 for three years running. I can see how Brandon, a fierce competitor, would be sick of the mediocrity and willing to endorse a bold and potentially disastrous deal.
There’s no reason to be patient with this team. This will be the third season since the Bills made Mario Williams the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history; the fourth year for Marcell Dareus, a No. 3 overall pick; the fifth for C.J. Spiller, who was supposed to be a difference-maker, not a question mark.
It’s only the second year for Whaley, Doug Marrone and Manuel, but the kid gloves are off. The Bills need to show progress and make a playoff run. The AFC was wide open a year ago and they didn’t take advantage.
Whaley and Marrone have both gushed about the depth of the roster, how it allowed them to be judicious in this draft and not reach.
Evidently, they felt it allowed them to gamble that adding an elite rookie wideout would push Manuel to the next level and make them a 10-win team or better.
They’re going for it now. It will play well with the fans, who are always looking for a reason to hope at the start of a new season. Watkins is a dynamic player, a new offensive toy to excite the masses. Maybe it’ll all work out.
If the defense continues to emerge and Watkins enables the Bills to be in the top half of the league in offense and scoring, we could look back on this as one of the most brilliant moves since Bill Polian was general manager.
The rookie had better be great. People will get fired if he’s not.