The risks seemed ludicrous. Unnecessary. What was Doug Whaley thinking?
At the absolute height of domestic-abuse awareness in the NFL, the Buffalo Bills general manager drafted two players with baggage — cornerback Ronald Darby in the second round and running back Karlos Williams in the fifth.
And not only did the picks seem tone-deaf ethically, but the Bills were loaded at both positions.
Three weeks in, the gambles are paying off. And it's clear now Buffalo will be counting on both rookies in Week 4 and beyond. Through Sunday’s 41-14 thrashing of the Miami Dolphins, Darby had an interception and Williams ran for 110 yards and a score. They’ve become core playmakers immediately.
When he’s reminded of the criticism Buffalo received for daring to draft him, Williams nods his head. Yes, he remembers. He also remembers no other team wanting him, at all. Buffalo wasn’t only Williams’ lone pre-draft visit — no other team even spoke to Williams formally at the NFL scouting combine.
He sifted through an informal session but no team bothered to hear his story face to face.
Then Williams was the 14th running back drafted.
“They made their decision and picked the backs they wanted to pick,” Williams said. “I’m happy I’m here. I’m in a room full of great guys and that’s all I can ask for.”
Hobbled by a hamstring injury he originally strained on Aug. 18, LeSean McCoy played on “one and a half legs” coach Rex Ryan said. The team’s expensive back averaged 1.5 yards per carry and could be rested this week against the New York Giants.
Williams, meanwhile, likely brought back memories of Jamal Lewis to Ryan.
On his first carry, the 230-pounder took a pitch to the short side, read his blocks and gained the corner for 18 yards. Another run, he blasted into linebacker Jelani Jenkins with such blunt force that Jenkins’ helmet popped off. And on his 41-yard touchdown, Williams anticipated a seam and hit it without hesitation.
He sure didn’t look like the 155th-best player in the NFL draft.
Elsewhere, Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon (36th overall) is averaging 3.2 yards per carry, Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah (54th overall) is at 3.9 and Cleveland’s Duke Johnson (77th overall) is at 3.0. For all NFL backs with at least 20 carries, Williams ranks No. 1 with 7.8 yards a clip.
Ryan can sympathize for McCoy all he wants — and the head coach has been gushing — but he’d be crazy not to increase Williams’ workload at this point.
This former college safety is already looking like a steal, the kind of smashmouth runner linemen love to block for.
“Generally a running back will slip through the cracks, will fall in the draft,” center Eric Wood said. “He has definitely impressed me so far.
“He hits the holes and he’s tough. He runs downhill. He’s a great back for us.”
At one point while watching the draft, Williams accepted the fact he wouldn’t get picked. He knew why teams didn’t bother to chat, too. In college, a pregnant ex-girlfriend accused him of domestic assault, later telling police she didn’t want to press charges. He's comfortable with the man he is today.
Said Williams, “Things happened in college that kind of put me down a couple rounds, I believe. But I think the good Lord put me in the right spot at the right time. And my family was happy that I ended up in Buffalo.”
Of course, Darby was no saint either.
The cornerback was a witness in the Jameis Winston rape investigation. Not charged, nor disciplined, questions lingered as to what he saw or did, if anything, to stop the encounter. And in a separate incident, Darby fled the scene of a hit-and-run with teammate P.J. Williams, the driver of the vehicle.
He heard criticism on draft day. Darby says “you can’t please everyone.”
“At the end of the day, I’m just going to continue to compete,” Darby said. “There’s going to be some ups and downs in life. Each week, I’m going to try to give my best.”
Starter Leodis McKelvin missed all of training camp. Darby was needed and, unlike Williams, he didn't look ready for prime time in August.
Burnt repeatedly by starters and scrubs alike in the exhibition games, Darby wasn’t harnessing all of his speed (4.38 seconds in the 40) and athleticism (41 ½-inch vertical) into Ryan's scheme. His technique was rough, his ball skills rougher. The real games began and he’s proven up to the challenge so far.
Whether it’s knowing if he has inside or outside leverage or his stance — one major adjustment from Florida State — he's gradually grasping it all. Buffalo hasn't been forced to baby the rookie with safety help all game, allowing Ryan to blitz freely up front in the two wins.
Defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson knows Darby heard the talking point that he’d be the weak link on a defense with Super Bowl aspirations. The noise motivated Darby between that nightmare performance against Pittsburgh and Week 1.
“When people doubt you," Henderson said, "some people fold and some people focus. For him, he’s the type of guy who focuses on what his job is and just wanted to play well.
“They don’t know what’s inside a guy’s heart.”
On Sunday, Darby faces his toughest test yet in the New York Giants' receiving corps.
Buffalo hasn’t had Stephon Gilmore trail a single receiver yet, though now Odell Beckham Jr. comes to town. One way or another — if it’s Beckham or Victor Cruz or Rueben Randle — Darby will be busy.
“There’s a lot I have to work on,” Darby said, “but I feel that I’m adjusting very well.”
Adds Henderson, “No. 1, you can’t coach speed. The other thing I really like about him is his attitude. He’s not the type of kid that gets upset or gets frustrated within himself. He’s mild-mannered and goes about his business.”
The business is only beginning for both rookies.
But sooner than anyone could’ve expected, they’re one reason playoff hopes are real in Western New York.