There will be plenty of sitting and watching and waiting in the Buffalo Bills’ draft room Thursday night. A good deal of eating will be done, with General Manager Doug Whaley and others within the team’s football hierarchy alternately munching fistfuls of popcorn, peanut M&Ms, and kettle chips. There will be some talking, probably a little bit of staring at the clock … and more sitting … and watching … and waiting.
What there won’t be is any doing, as in the making of a pick.
Thursday night, when Commissioner Roger Goodell takes center stage in Chicago in front of television cameras from ESPN and NFL Network, is for the teams that own first-round selections. The Bills, thanks to last year’s trade that positioned them to get Sammy Watkins, aren’t one of them. That could change via another trade, of course, but no one is counting on it.
Thursday night in the Bills’ draft room pretty much figures to be an exercise in killing time.
“The only thing about the movie, ‘Draft Day,’ that was accurate was that people do eat a lot of junk food,” former Bills GM and ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian said with a laugh.
For the Bills, the draft won’t begin until Friday night, when they’re scheduled to make the 50th overall pick in the second round. Whaley insists that the absence of a first-round choice doesn’t make the event that he and other player-personnel directors around the league like to call their Super Bowl any less exciting.
In fact, he says the opposite is true because picking in the top 10 leaves little mystery. Anyone can watch TV or peruse the Internet and figure out the available players. There is a much greater challenge when scouts have to choose from names that aren’t as recognizable.
However, the yearlong anticipation of not drafting until the second round doesn’t mean the Bills have given no thought to the prospects they believe should be picked in the first. The scouting of college players last fall and the evaluation of them through the pre-draft process was the same as any other year because of the possibility of a trade back into the first round or the chance of a prospect widely thought to be a first-round talent falling all the way to the 50th spot.
Every player on a list of about 250 was graded, from the very top – where names such as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota can be found – to the very bottom of Saturday’s seventh and final round.
“One of our mantras here is, ‘Never say never,’ ” Whaley said. “We have to be prepared.”
Polian knows that as well as anyone who has ever been in charge of an NFL team’s draft.
When he was Buffalo’s GM, the Bills didn’t have a first-round pick in 1988, having traded it away the previous year as part of a deal to acquire linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Their first choice was 40th overall, and they made it count by landing a player whose talent said he should have been a first-round pick but whose surgically repaired knee caused him to slide down draft boards throughout the NFL.
His name was Thurman Thomas. His bronze bust resides in Canton, Ohio.
“As a general manager, you’ve got to create a sense of urgency among your scouts because there’s the human tendency to say, ‘Ah, we won’t get that guy and we won’t get that guy,’ ” Polian said. “You never know what’s going to happen, and you always want that information in the files anyway in case that guy should become free at another point. Then, the approach during Draft Day is to stay on top of things. You’ve got to make sure that no opportunity to move up or even move back is overlooked. You’ve got to make sure that you cover every base.
“And then the first day is kind of a dead day. You’re just a spectator, but you’ll be looking at things from what happened on the first day that will affect you on the second day. So you’ve got to pay attention to that. Not necessarily what’s being said on television, but what’s actually being done. Because if you spend your down time – and there’s a lot of it when you don’t have a first-round pick – chasing rumors, listening to bright ideas as people change their mind, coaches change their mind, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera – you’ll spend the day chasing ghosts. And you won’t be prepared to do something if an opportunity to move up presents itself.
“That involves lots of different scenarios, too, because let’s just say you’re sitting there at 50 and all of a sudden, some moves get made that no one anticipated and a guy falls that really is a star and you feel really good about. Well, you may want to try and move up. So you have to pay attention, you’ve got to think two or three moves ahead for every team.”
Another way to make all of that “down time” productive, Polian said, is to have members of the player-personnel staff begin recruiting players who are projected to be signed as free agents after the draft. Those signings, which sometimes can prove to be more valuable than a top overall pick, begin the very instant the draft ends and the process is highly competitive.
Often, the difference in getting or not getting a targeted player is the speed with which a contract is offered.
“You tell those players, ‘Hey, we’re sitting here in the first round, we don’t have a first-round pick, we’ve got an opening on our squad because of that, this is a good place to come. We hope you get drafted, but if you don’t, think about us,’ ” Polian said. “You use that time productively.”
When the first round ends, the Bills will re-set their board based on the selections made Thursday night and close up shop.
On Friday, they should be ready for any possible scenario … including the one that happened to the Bills in 1988. That was when Thomas, a standout running back from Oklahoma State, was there for the taking even though he shouldn’t have been.
Polian used the story behind the selection as a cautionary tale for his scouting staffs through the rest of his time in Buffalo as well as during his GM stints with the Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts. His basic message: “Thurman Thomas was a first-round player, but if the scouts didn’t do their work in September, we wouldn’t have been prepared to pull the trigger when he fell. Things change.”
Dr. Richard Weiss, the Bills’ orthopedic surgeon at the time, had failed Thomas on his physical examination because the running back’s medial collateral ligament was frayed. Polian then informed Weiss that Thomas had undergone surgery before playing his final two seasons in college, and suggested that he review the videotape of the operation, which he did.
“Well, this could go either way,” Weiss told Polian. “He could come in and be fine or he could come in and blow it out, in which case I could reconstruct it. So he’s not a total washout.”
As long as there was no plan to trade into the first round for Thomas, Weiss was comfortable with changing his opinion and giving the knee a passing grade. Polian was thrilled with the news, because it would make it easier for him and coach Marv Levy to sell the selection of Thomas to team owner Ralph Wilson.
But the more he thought about all of Thomas’ impressive game film at Oklahoma State, the less encouraged he was about the Bills’ chances of actually landing him.
“In fact, I told Marv, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be there. He’s too good a player. Other people know what we know,’ ” Polian recalled.
As the second round unfolded, Polian, Levy, then-player personnel director John Butler, and others decided that if the Bills had any hope of getting Thomas, they would have to trade to a higher spot in the second round. But after several calls, there were no takers.
Meanwhile, Thomas continued to fall and now it was time to inform Wilson of the possibility that he could be there at the 40th pick.
“The tricky part of that for a pair of highly superstitious people like John and me is that it would cause us to violate a rule that we both held sacred: you never mention the name of the pick you’re hoping will fall to you out loud, because when you do, more often than not he’ll be chosen by someone in front of you,” Polian said. “And if you touch the card bearing his name on your draft board, it’s for certain that he goes before your pick. No one was allowed to touch the card until our pick was made.
“But we knew we didn’t have a choice. Mr. Wilson had to be briefed, which meant we were going to have to break our rule and mention Thurman’s name. No sooner did we walk in than Mr. Wilson asked us, ‘Who’s this guy Thurman?’ I gave him the thumbnail sketch of what Thurman had done, saying, ‘This guy’s a difference-maker. He was the MVP of the Senior Bowl. He can make people miss. He can run inside, he can block, he can catch the ball. He’s not quite as electric as Joe Cribbs,’ ” at that time the team’s most recent top running back, “ ‘but he’s better because he’s stouter.’ ”
Weiss then provided the rundown on Thomas’ knee. After someone raised a question about Thomas missing practice time because the knee would periodically swell, Levy instructed Polian to call Thomas’ college coach, Pat Jones, who alleviated those concerns by saying the running back was only rested on Thursdays so that he would be ready to play on Saturday.
“Look, this is a gamble,” Polian told Wilson. “It’s your money, you’ve got to make this decision. You’ve got to sign off on it.”
“Is this guy a good player?” Wilson asked.
“Yes, he’s absolutely a good player. He’s a first-round pick if he’s healthy. But I can’t sit here and tell you this is not a gamble. It is. If we win, we win big. If we lose, it could be that we’ve blown the pick.”
“Ah, everything in life’s a gamble. Go ahead!”
The Bills can only hope this year’s long wait will be half as worthwhile as that one was.
Second and third helpings
The Buffalo Bills’ first pick in drafts in which they did not have a first-round selection:
Year Rnd. Pick Player Pos. School
2005 2nd 55 Roscoe Parrish WR Miami (Fla.)
1998 2nd 39 Sam Cowart LB Florida St.
1989 3rd 82 Don Beebe WR Chadron St.
1988 2nd 40 Thurman Thomas RB Oklahoma St.
Note: 2005 first-round, 2004 second- and fifth-round picks traded to Dallas for drafting J.P. Losman in 2004 with the 22nd overall pick; 1998 first- and fourth-round pick traded to Jacksonville for QB Rob Johnson; 1988 first-round pick, 1989 first- and second-round picks traded to the Los Angeles Rams in a three-team trade for Cornelius Bennett.