Chances are, Bills fans are feeling disengaged from the opening night of the NFL Draft, perhaps the most analyzed and anticipated event in sports. After all, their team doesn’t have a first-round pick. Assuming they don’t trade up, they don’t go on the clock until Friday evening with the 50th overall choice.
But Doug Whaley, the general manager who put his fans in this situation, doesn’t believe that being without a pick on Thursday night drains the electricity out of the annual draft exercise.
“I disagree,” Whaley said at the recent draft luncheon. “For us as personnel people, it’s more exciting. When you’re picking in the top 10 – which we’ve done recently – it’s pretty easy because those type of players anybody could see.
“When you don’t have a top-10 pick and you’re picking late or in the second round,” he said, “it puts the onus on us as scouts to prove our wares. So our scouting staff has been really excited since the start of the fall scouting process.”
The GM has a good point. Sure, Bills’ fans would prefer to have the 19th overall pick, which Whaley shipped to the Browns (along with a fourth-rounder) for Sammy Watkins at last year’s draft.
But when it comes to the NFL Draft, history shows that life truly can begin at 50.
Just look back a few months to this year’s Super Bowl. In case you’ve forgotten, the Patriots came back to beat the Seahawks, 28-24. Tom Brady, the MVP, was the 199th pick of the 2000 draft. The losing quarterback, Russell Wilson, went 75th in the 2012 “selection meeting.”
Six players caught a touchdown pass in the Bowl. None was a first-round draft pick. Only one, Rob Gronkowski, was picked higher than 50th overall. The pride of Amherst was the 42nd selection, one spot after the Bills grabbed the forgettable Torell Troup.
Brandon LaFell was the 78th overall pick. Julian Edelman, who caught the winning TD pass from Brady, was the 232nd pick of the 2009 draft – from Kent State, one of UB’s rivals in the Mid-American Conference.
Three of the TD passes went to players who weren’t even drafted (Chris Mathews, Doug Baldwin and Danny Amendola), which reminds us that the process continues after the three-day draft concludes on Saturday.
Pats rookie Malcolm Butler, who made that remarkable, game-saving interception at the goal line, was undrafted. So was Ricardo Lockette, the man for whom Wilson’s fateful pass was intended. Jermaine Kearse, whose juggling catch set up that dramatic ending, was undrafted.
Seattle’s secondary, generally regarded as the best in the league, was led by Richard Sherman, the 154th overall pick in 2011, and Kam Chancellor, who went 133rd one year earlier.
LeGarrette Blount, the Pats’ leading rusher, was undrafted. Linebacker Jamie Collins, the Pats’ best defender, was the 52nd pick in 2013. Michael Bennett, Seattle’s sack leader? Yep, undrafted.
You get the point. Anyone can make a first-round pick. That’s why mock drafts are so popular. But the best NFL personnel men are the ones who nail the most picks beyond the first round. In a salary cap era, it’s crucial to get starters in later rounds – or even off the street.
“I don’t look at second- and third- round guys as backup players,” said Kelvin Fisher, the Bills’ director of college scouting. “The history that I’ve been in this business, they all end up playing, and some of them end up being great starters.
“I mean, you look at our third-rounder last year,” Fisher said. “I believe he started 16 games?”
He meant linebacker Preston Brown, who actually started 14 games, was the 73rd pick in last year’s draft and led the Bills in tackles. Brown provided a seamless transition after an injury to Kiko Alonso. He also made it easier for the Bills to deal Alonso (46th overall in 2013) for LeSean McCoy.
The NFL is filled with Pro Bowl players who were drafted in the third round or later, including Marshal Yanda, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Brown, Geno Atkins, NaVorro Bowman, Sherman and the Bills’ Kyle Williams.
Heck, there are dozens of Pro Football Hall of Famers who were taken 50th or later in the draft. You could argue that the best three quarterbacks of all time were taken late: Johnny Unitas (102nd), Joe Montana (82nd) and Brady, a lock to get into the Hall.
The Bills had six Hall of Famers on their Super Bowl teams. But there were a dozen Bills starters in Super Bowl XXV who were drafted 50th or later, some by other teams. It’s 13 if you include special teams ace Steve Tasker, who was drafted 226th by the Oilers in ’85.
Bill Polian had a genius for finding players late in the draft. Four players taken in the third round or later in 1987 started in that first Super Bowl: Jamie Mueller, Keith McKeller, Leon Seals and Howard Ballard.
You could put together a pretty nice team of Bills who were taken 50th or later in the draft, or not at all. Joe Ferguson could hand off to Travis Henry or throw to Andre Reed and Bobby Chandler. Kyle Williams and Tom Sestak could anchor the defense, with Booker Edgerson and Charles Romes at the corners.
So have faith, Buffalo fans. The Bills could come away with an all-time gem this weekend. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be without a pick in the first round – although I still think trading that pick for Watkins was a mistake.