Tonight, the Bills will make the most important draft pick in more than a quarter century, a choice that will shape the fortunes of this beleaguered NFL franchise for years to come. They'd better get it right this time.
The Bills haven't picked this high since taking Bruce Smith first overall in 1985. They have picked above eighth just once in that time, when Tom Donahoe made the regrettable call on Mike Williams in 2002. That was the first draft with Tom Modrak running the scouting operation. Modrak has found some hidden gems late in drafts. But the first round has been a disaster. They've reached for little guys, traded up for busts, panicked to get quarterbacks, passed on Pro Bowlers by the dozen.
That's why there are no real stars on the roster. No first-rounder in the Modrak era has been voted to a Pro Bowl as a position player. Heck, the Bills haven't drafted an impact player for their defensive front seven in the first round since Shane Conlan in 1987, or a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly in 1983. So yes, this is a huge draft, and Modrak knows it.
"Yeah, it obviously is extremely important," Modrak said. "Certainly where we're picking, we've got to hit it and hit it on the nose. There's no way around it. We've got to get it done. We've got to hit those picks hard."
Modrak takes a lot of heat, but this is Buddy Nix's show now. It's his football vision, along with coach Chan Gailey, that drives the operation. Nix's reputation is on the line, especially after last year's uninspired first draft as a GM, when none of his picks was a significant contributor to a 4-12 team.
Ultimately, Nix will be judged for a body of work. Last year's picks still have time to pan out. The Bills will have four picks in the top 100 of this draft, and another high pick next year in the likely event of another losing season.
But the No. 3 overall pick is monumental. Nix has a fundamental decision, whether to go with the safe selection or the one with the greatest potential benefit. Do they grab a quarterback with their first pick, or a defensive player with less perceived risk and a great chance of helping right away?
I can see both sides of the argument. The Bills had the NFL's worst run defense last season. Their pass rush was virtually non-existent. They desperately need to add depth and playmakers on that side of the ball. "We're thin on defense," Nix said.
Quarterback is the most vital position in the game. The NFL has become a passing league. In recent Super Bowls, the winning teams threw two-thirds of the time. Green Bay had a lot of injuries, but won the title because they had Aaron Rodgers.
It's a gamble to take a QB high. Whatever his limitations, Nix doesn't strike me as a guy who's afraid to take a chance. At the draft luncheon, Nix said he'd know who he was taking at No. 3 if he knew what was going to happen ahead of him.
So, I asked, if you knew that neither of the first two picks was a quarterback, would you know who your pick was going to be?
"Yes," Nix replied without hesitation.
Unless Nix was lying -- and prevarication is rampant this time of year -- there's only one way to interpret that: If Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert are on the board, the Bills take one of them. Presumably, Newton. Nix said it's an ideal time to draft a quarterback. He said 15 teams need help at the position. The Bills, who have a capable starter in Ryan Fitzpatrick, can afford to take a guy who needs grooming. Gailey is an offensive-minded coach with a gift for developing QBs. He and Fitz can impart their shared wisdom to the new guy. If not this year, when? You can't plan to be bad every year. There's no telling when the Bills will draft this high again. They're not going to contend next year, but they aren't likely to be bad enough to get Andrew Luck.
Of course, they might have one of the lesser-regarded quarterbacks in mind with their second pick at 34th overall. They're said to be high on Christian Ponder. But it's a risky proposition, waiting on a QB at the top of the second round in a year when many teams are desperate for quarterbacks.
Will Ponder, or some other targeted QB, be there at 34? Will the Bills take a chance that someone else gets their guy? It could be a record year for quarterbacks taken in the first round. Could they trade back into the first round? That has risks, too. Does the name J.P. Losman ring a bell?
If there's a true franchise QB on the board, he's likely to go high. Newton is expected to go No. 1 to Carolina, though it's not a lock by any means. There's more uncertainty about the top of this draft than any in recent memory. But if Newton is gone, the compelling question is whether the Bills go defense or quarterback at No. 3 (assuming they don't make one of their signature head-scratching moves). Do they play it safe with an impact defender like Von Miller or Marcell Dareus? Or do they take Gabbert, projecting him as a franchise guy?
The prevailing sentiment says defense. In the current draft parlance, Miller or Dareus would be the "cleaner" choice. But it wouldn't surprise me if they took Gabbert. If they think he's for real, if the decision is even close, they should go quarterback. Keep in mind, these are offensive-minded people running the show. Nix was the scouting director when the Chargers drafted Drew Brees. He was there when San Diego traded Eli Manning for Philip Rivers at the '04 draft. Nix drew parallels between the Chargers' quarterback situation then and where the Bills are now.
Rivers was the fourth overall pick. He got the big money. Still, he sat for two years behind Brees. So there's precedent. The Bills could take a QB with the third overall pick and wait for him to develop. Gailey has a knack for getting the best out of marginally talented quarterbacks. This could be his last chance to do it with an elite physical talent, a possible superstar.
"That's a good point," Nix said, "and it makes it easier on us to pick one, because I've got a lot of confidence in (Gailey) after he gets it. He's very involved with any pick, whether it's quarterback or anything else. We all are. We'll try to have a consensus. When you have confidence in the people around you, the pick's pretty easy."
Finding a franchise quarterback is seldom easy in the NFL. One way or another, the Bills seem ready to give it a shot. You can't blame them if they roll the dice. One of these days, they're bound to get it right.