Doug Whaley, keeping with company policy, reminded everyone that these were Buffalo Bills picks, a collective effort, the product of hard work and research by everyone in the football department.
But if there was any doubt about whose vision is driving the operation at One Bills Drive, it was put to rest on the second night of the NFL draft Friday night. Rex Ryan is the head man, the face of the franchise and a man whose defensive chops took a serious hit in his first season in Buffalo.
Ryan is under pressure to win this season. So is Whaley, who realized that he needed to give his coach a significant infusion of defensive talent if the Bills expect to end their 16-year playoff drought in 2016.
After grabbing defensive end Shaq Lawson in the first round, the Bills resumed his makeover of Ryan’s defensive front seven on Day Two, moving up eight spots for Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland with the 41st pick and taking tackle Adolphus Washington of Ohio State at No. 80 in the third.
“Well, we had some holes,” Whaley said. “We had to make it over. If we didn’t, we’d be going into the season with nobody. We’re very excited with how filled those holes. We filled those holes better than we thought we would be able to, so we’re excited about it.”
The Bills filled three holes with defensive standouts from the last two NCAA title games. Washington played for OSU’s national champs in 2014. Ragland was on ‘Bama’s title team that beat Clemson and Lawson last season.
Ragland and Lawson will both be expected to step right in as rookies and help validate Ryan’s reputation as a defensive mastermind. Washington should be a vital part of the 3-4 tackle rotation with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
Whaley was understandably giddy about the picks. He said the Bills had strongly considered Ragland with the 19th overall pick the night before. Their singular objective from the moment the first round concluded late Thursday was finding a trade partner to move up for Ragland the next day.
He said Ryan was pleased with the result as well.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say a 10,” Whaley said. “But not just Rex, but our whole staff. Our scouting staff pegged these guys early on. It’s a Buffalo Bills pick. Everybody is excited and on board and ready to get this season started.”
Whaley uttered the GM’s stock expression after trading with the Bears to get Ragland. He said Ragland was the “best player on the board,” as Lawson had been the night before. And again, the words rang true. Ragland, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year last season was projected to go in the 23-24 range in mock drafts.
Ragland doesn’t have blazing speed, but he moves well laterally and is a sure tackler who can defend the edge. He has problems in pass coverage, but the Bills might be content to use him on the first two downs and remove him in passing situations – the way they did with Brandon Spikes in 2014.
Whatever the case, Ragland was a much better value in the second round than any available quarterback. Whaley has said he intends to grab a QB in this draft to provide insurance at the position in case Tyrod Taylor regresses or leaves as a free agent.
Presumably, that guy could one day be their franchise QB. But history says the chances of finding a long-term answer in the later rounds are remote at best. But once you get past the middle of the second round, it becomes a dicey proposition.
Over a 10-year period from 2004-13, these QBs were in the late second or third rounds: David Green, Charlie Frye, Brodie Croyle, Charlie Whitehurst, Tarvaris Jackson, Trent Edwards, Chad Henne, Keenan Lewis, Colt McCoy, Jimmy Clausen, Ryan Mallett, Nick Foles and Mike Glennon.
So the odds are against you, which made Friday an intriguing night at One Bills Drive. With so much defensive talent on the board, it seemed unlikely the Bills would take a stab at a quarterback who didn’t figure to make a big impact in a must-win year.
Rex and Whaley both need to win this season. In the end, the attrition on defense trumped any immediate needs they had at receiver or quarterback. It was hard to imagine Ryan being happy with a developmental QB with the 49th or 41st -- or even the 80th – pick in the draft.
Going all-in on defense with the first three picks was a nod to Ryan’s specialty. But it was also a vote of confidence for Whaley’s offense -- especially Taylor and No. 2 wide receiver Robert Woods.
“Our offense made a nice leap last year,” Whaley said. “Tyrod’s going to have a whole offseason now as the No. 1 guy, not splitting reps and taking a third of the reps. He’ll be with the ones for the whole offseason, the whole preseason. So we think they’re going to continue to get better.
“And obviously, our defense wasn’t up to snuff, so we made a concerted effort to improve the defense, as we did last year with the offense.”
Ryan must be thrilled to add two likely starters to his defensive front seven, NFL newcomers who can grow in a defensive system which ran afoul of Ryan’s veteran players last year.
“One thing about this guy, he’s a winner and he’s a leader,” Whaley said of Ragland. “And he’s going to come into that defense and bring something to this defense that we need, and that’s just that knowing how to win.
“These guys have won national championships or been in national championship games,” he said, “so we’re bringing in winners, fellas. Tough, physical, rough football guys that love to win.”
The Bills hope the new guys will make the playoffs in their first NFL campaign. You never can tell with rookies. The top two picks have medical issues that scared off some teams – Lawson a shoulder injury and Ragland an enlarged aorta.
Washington has an arrest for soliciting a prostitute on his record. And after years of bumbling, it’s wise to temper your expectations with this franchise.
But the Bills’ first two picks in this draft are reminiscent of what Seattle did four years ago. The Seahawks got defensive starters with their first two picks - linebackers Bruce Irvin (at 15 overall) and Bobby Wagner (at 47).
Seattle, which had been 7-9 in 2011, went 11-5 in 2012 and began a four-year playoff run that included a Super Bowl title. Oh, and in the third round of that draft, the Seahawks took Russell Wilson.
The Bills need to see more from Taylor, but they’d like to think of him as their version of Wilson. So Bills fans might as well dream. This is the time for it. They look better than they did three days ago.
“On paper, we think it’s improved tremendously,” Whaley said. “But paper doesn’t win you games. We’ve got to go out there on the field and show it.”