As Jim Kelly took the stage to announce the Bills’ first draft pick Friday night in Chicago, the crowd gave him a rousing round of applause and chanted his name as his wife, Jill, stood to the side of the stage recording the moment on her cellphone.
It was a fine Buffalo moment, and it would have been almost surreal if Kelly had told the world that his former team had taken a quarterback, maybe a sleeper who could be the team’s first genuine franchise QB since Kelly was leading them to Super Bowls.
But a quarterback never felt right in that spot. In the end, the Bills made a conservative, logical pick, one that played to the style and vision of the new head coach, Rex Ryan. They took a cornerback, Ronald Darby. They went to Ryan’s side of the ball, as I had expected.
Ryan is the Bills’ seventh head coach since Marv Levy retired after the 1997 season. All seven times, their first draft pick in the new regime has been on the new coach’s side of the football.
Surely, they weren’t going to break the string with a powerful personality like Ryan in command. Doug Whaley has made some very bold moves as general manager, but this pick was further evidence that Ryan’s coaching philosophy is driving the operation.
The Bills want to win now. They have spent nearly $100 million in guaranteed money on players since the start of free agency. They’re selling season tickets so quickly that they’re thinking of capping them. People aren’t interested in seeing a rookie QB struggle.
Ryan didn’t see this draft as a way to add quarterbacks, but to shut them down. He has two main objectives as a defensive mastermind: Sending pass rushers after opposing quarterbacks and having lock-down cornerbacks to hold the fort in the secondary.
Dick Jauron wasn’t much of a head coach. But he was right about one thing: You can never have enough quality defensive backs. In 2006, Jauron’s first year as Bills coach, in fact, three of the Bills’ first four picks were DBs.
The current Bills obviously concur. Whaley said he was going for the best player available, and Darby was the best player on the board. That’s what they always say. All things being equal, I suspect they were targeting corner all along with that pick.
“With the additions the other teams have made in this draft in our division, we need to keep up with the arms race,” Whaley said. “But most importantly, we think this guy is a heck of a football player.”
The arms race in the AFC East is bordering on nuclear nowadays. The Dolphins added wideout Kenny Still (63 catches for 931 yards for the Saints last year) and tight end Jordan Cameron (80 catches for the Browns in 2013) in the offseason. They drafted wideout DeVante Parker with the 14th pick of this draft, which some considered a steal.
The Jets traded for elite wideout Brandon Marshall in the offseason. On Friday, they drafted wide receiver Devin Smith of Ohio State in the second round. Ryan’s former team has radically improved its receiving targets for quarterbacks Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
So when you meet them twice a year, you need to react to your competitors in the division. Oh, and there’s that team in New England, the one that won the Super Bowl with Tom Brady throwing the ball all over the lot.
“Absolutely,” Whaley said, “and again, it’s corners. You can never have too much. Unfortunately, the last two years with our corners, we’ve had to deal with injury problems. Getting another guy in there makes you feel secure with what Rex likes to do on the defensive side of the ball.”
The Bills have one of the top pass rushes in the NFL. They set a franchise record for sacks two years ago and nearly equaled it a year ago. Evidently, Ryan felt he needed more depth at corner to make his version of this defense more consistently devastating.
The Bills have a solid starting corner in Stephon Gilmore, but he missed five games in 2013 and two last season. Leodis McKelvin had a good year in 2014, but he missed six games with a broken ankle and has been inconsistent.
McKelvin is hardly what you’d call a lock-down corner, and he’ll be 30 at the start of next season. He’ll also count $4.9 million against the salary cap the next two seasons. Corey Graham performed capably as a starter last season, but he’s also 30 and a career backup. Graham got burned on a crucial play in the Bills’ crushing loss at Oakland that knocked them out of playoff contention last December.
In Ryan’s defense, a cornerback is often left alone on an island. Remember Revis Island? That’s why it made so much sense for the Bills to take a cornerback with the 50th overall pick. Depth-wise, it was a vulnerable position on a very good defense.
You figured that the Bills would insist they had taken the player who was the apple of their eye all along, and that he was the top player on their draft board. So Darby was their guy. Now he has a chance to make an immediate impact on Ryan’s defense.
“We’ll see,” Whaley said. “Like I’ve always said, bring competition in and competition brings out the best in everybody. It will hopefully elevate their play, elevate his play. And then you look at the depth factor and again, injury-wise, you will always feel secure if you lose one of those guys.”
Darby said he’s “extremely ready” to come in and learn and compete. He said he’s not a big talker. “I don’t walk around like I’m the man,” he said.
No, it’s Ryan who is the man at One Bills Drive these days. His first draft pick as the head coach only confirmed it.