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Second day often yields first-rate players for Bills

In the current era they are referred to as "second-day guys," as if they were second-class football players if not second-class citizens. A new group of Buffalo's version will be inducted today when the Bills make their selections between the fourth and seventh rounds of the NFL draft.

The fans may not pay much attention to the second day of the draft, but careful decisions can make the difference between a team contending for a playoff berth and succeeding in winning one.

The rubies in the rough plumbed in the first era of Marv Levy had a great deal to do with the Bills reaching four consecutive Super Bowls.

The first Levy draft in 1987 -- conducted by his protege, Bill Polian -- yielded three important second-day players: defensive end Leon Seals, who would start in two Super Bowls; tight end Keith McKeller, after whom the Bills' no-huddle offense, "the K Gun" was named; and tackle Howard Ballard, a small-college player who would develop into an integral part of the Super Bowl offensive lines.

The next draft, which consisted of 12 rounds, yielded nose tackle Jeff Wright in the eighth round and linebacker Carlton Bailey in the ninth, a combination that would make the play that put the Bills in Super Bowl XXVI. Buffalo met Denver on Jan. 12, 1992, in the AFC championship game, which turned into a defensive battle. In the third quarter, the Broncos' Hall of Fame quarterback, John Elway, backed up to unload a screen pass. Wright smelled out Elway's intent, stopped his rush toward the quarterback and batted the ball into the air. Bailey caught it, and returned it 11 yards for the team's only touchdown in a 10-7 victory.

Out of the 1990 draft came two UCLA Bruins, linebacker Marvcus Patton and defensive tackle Mike Lodish, who would play major roles in the team's future success, Patton as a starter and Lodish as a vital part of the tackle rotation. Lodish still holds the Super Bowl record for most appearances, six, four with Buffalo and two with Denver, for whom he did yeoman service.

In the 1992 draft, with the late John Butler doing the selecting, two second-day safeties distinguished themselves. Kurt Schulz became a starter and Matt Darby made one of the most satisfying interceptions in Bills' history. The interception came in Dallas, where the Bills met the Cowboys for the first time since they were humiliated, 52-17, in Super Bowl XXVII. With the Bills leading, 13-10, in the final minute, Dallas was driving for the winning touchdown when Darby intercepted Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman near the Bills' goal line. It not only saved the game but stopped Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones in mid-preen. Jones had come down from his private box and stood near the back of the end zone, ready to hog some of the spotlight when Darby rained on his parade.

After a few years of the Bills' drafting success, so much talent had been assembled on the roster that good second-day players whom Buffalo drafted ended up on other NFL rosters at cut-down time. Center Tom Nutten became a star on Denver's strong teams, Martin Mayhew a standout cornerback for the Redskins, linebacker Richard Harvey a starter for the Raiders, Corbin Lacina a starting guard, and Chris Walsh a special teams commando for the Vikings.

Brian Jordan not only became a Pro Bowl safety for Atlanta, playing with Deion Sanders, but eventually a slugging outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and other major-league baseball teams.

Then there are the "third-day" players, those who aren't even drafted but are quickly signed as free agents. There is a distinguished group of undrafted players in the Hall of Fame, from Night Train Lane to Marion Motley, whom some old-timers maintain was the greatest football player of all time.

In the case of the Bills, look no further than their experience with the Williamses: offensive tackle Mike of Texas, the fourth pick in the 2002 draft who became the franchise's all-time flop; and Pat of Texas A&M, a free agent signed in 1997, who became one of the team's all-time best defensive linemen.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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