One of these years (decades?), the Buffalo Bills will learn how to hit rock bottom. They’ll take the cue from their friends at the foot of Washington Street.
Through 16 playoff-less seasons, the Bills have mastered the art of mediocrity. One coach to the next, one quarterback to the next, they hover aimlessly around .500.
Not good enough to make the postseason, not bad enough to land a franchise savior. That’s the story for an entire generation of fans. Heck, the year they started 0-8 — and were in love with Cam Newton — they finished a noble 4-4.
The year they wanted Ben Roethlisberger at No. 13 overall, he went No. 11 to Pittsburgh.
So excuse the tint of exasperation across Doug Whaley’s face. Last August, the general manager called this predicament “quarterback purgatory.” This month, when told that mid-round quarterbacks rarely become starters — a projected 27 of 32 starters this year are first- or second-rounders — he tried to stay upbeat.
“Will we find the next Tom Brady? We hope so,” Whaley said. “Can we find the next Andy Dalton? We hope so. So that’s where we come in. It might be a first-round pick, you never know, but we’ll be prepared for any scenario and how the draft comes to us and make the best decision on the player we think is the best value and right fit for us at the same time.”
The good news: Tyrod Taylor exceeded expectations in 2015. He’s the clear-cut starter this season. The bad news: Tyrod Taylor is a free agent after next season and the team isn’t sold on him yet, for good reason, as the long-term answer.
Which all makes this weekend critical. Whaley and Co. must draft the right quarterback to mold. And beyond the near-unanimous top three options — Cal’s Jared Goff, North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz and Memphis’ Paxton Lynch — is a hodgepodge bin of unknowns.
Cardale Jones is a 6-foot-5, 253-pound beast who can chuck it 60 yards downfield through the air and ram over linebackers on the ground … but he was benched on his own college team, Ohio State.
Connor Cook started four years at Michigan State, shattered records, is no stranger to pressure … but wasn’t voted a captain by his peers.
Christian Hackenberg followed a banner freshman year at Penn State by gradually, painfully regressing.
Stanford’s Kevin Hogan is an old-school quarterback maven … but did he permanently rewire his baseball pitcher-like delivery?
Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State? Huge arm, still raw. Jeff Driskel? He’s 6-4, 235 with 4.4 speed, but his name is considered a curse word in Gainesville, Fla. Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott? He hasn’t taken snaps under center in college or high school.
This is the QB conundrum all NFL scouts not in Philadelphia or Los Angeles face this spring.
The traits Whaley said he’s looking for are accuracy, decision-making and an ability to lead and command an offense. While the GM has lamented in the past that spread offenses have led to a quarterback crisis in the pro game, Buffalo’s Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos said last week that he doesn’t have concerns with this group.
“They’re really sharp,” Monos said. “They know their offense, but they’re capable of learning the offense. These guys, they’re pretty coached up well.”
Three years after praising the hand size of 16th overall pick EJ Manuel, the Bills’ tune has changed a bit on one trait. Asked about hand size, Whaley said the team values arm strength more, citing the harsh Western New York winters.
As one personnel director said last summer, Manuel has a “weird” dart-throwing motion and “for a big, strong-looking guy, he doesn’t throw the ball like one.”
So the Bills do like Lynch, a tantalizing 6-foot-7, 244-pound prospect with a big arm.
One source indicated that Buffalo’s senior offensive assistant, Chris Palmer, “loves him.” Buffalo dined with the quarterback the night before his pro day in Memphis. A dual-threat, Lynch threw for 3,776 yards and 28 touchdowns with only four interceptions last fall. But he also could be in high demand with the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles both mortgaging their futures for Goff and Wentz.
Former NFL General Manager Phil Savage saw the second tier of quarterbacks behind these three up close as the director of the Senior Bowl.
Three players stood out to him: Brissett, Driskel and Arkansas’ Brandon Allen. Allen is the most pro ready of the three, he says. But with 12-18 months of “incubation time,” Savage sees a long-term payoff in Brissett or Driskel.
Driskel has a “big arm” and “really positive physical traits,” Savage said, while Brissett has a short, compact flick-of-the-wrist release. During the practice week in Mobile, Ala., Brissett completed 22 of 26 passes. On game day, he went 5 of 6.
“Oftentimes you’re working with players and receivers you’ve never been with before,” Savage said. “It’s a little bit shaky. I thought he impressed in that regard. I like his personality. If he gets thrown in there next year, no. But to work with him for a year behind the scenes, I think he’s got some real potential.”
The cruel mid-round math is rattled off to Driskel. He’s not sure why third- and fourth- and fifth-round quarterbacks rarely ever become starters.
But he points to his miserable experience at Florida — getting benched, transferring — as benefiting him. He could never replace Tim Tebow, a demigod on campus, but he did throw for 4,033 yards and 27 touchdowns his lone year at Louisiana Tech.
So the Bills can basically take one of two paths. First, they could swing for the fences on a physical talent like Driskel, like Jones, like Prescott, and count on their coaching staff working its magic.
“I think I have things that you can’t teach,” Driskel said. “When you look at my size, 6-4, 235, that’s important in the NFL. … My arm, my ability to be accurate down the field and my ability to make plays outside the pocket and ability to run away from people, I put up the fastest 40 by a lot at the Combine.
“That’s not always the biggest factor but shows on any given play I can run by the defense and hit you with the big play.”
He puts himself in the Goff-Wentz-Lynch stratosphere, too.
Said Driskel, “I think I’m a talent that doesn’t come around often.”
Secondly, the Bills could choose a more cerebral, accomplished quarterback like Hogan, who was required to dissect defenses with his brain, who played in an offense eerily similar to the one Greg Roman uses.
Either way, the quarterback Buffalo drafts will be able to wait a year, maybe two, before starting.
That’s exactly what Hogan wants, too. He points to Tom Brady (one), Aaron Rodgers (three), Kirk Cousins (three), Tony Romo (four) and Philip Rivers (two), quarterbacks who waited a combined 13 years before being named Week One starters. That’d give him time to hone his mechanics.
“If you allow yourself to develop a little bit and adjust to what it takes to be an NFL quarterback,” Hogan said, “it can take you a long way. So if I was being selfish, I would hope for that opportunity.”
In the meantime, Taylor is the unquestioned starter. No need for Rams-like desperation yet.
If Taylor elevates from good to great this season, it’ll render everything moot. He’ll be handed a blank check, step up to a microphone and discuss winning Super Bowls long term in Buffalo.
Until then, the hunt is on in Buffalo.