If you’re looking for reasons to explain the Buffalo Bills’ 16-year playoff drought – beyond not having a good enough quarterback to get them to the postseason, that is – check your history.
Specifically, your draft history.
You can do what the Washington Post recently did and thoroughly study the Bills’ drafting, along with that of the NFL’s 31 other teams, over the past 20 years. Not surprisingly, you’ll find that it hasn’t been good. In fact, the Post concluded that since 1996 the Bills have done the third-worst job of selecting players in the entire league. Only Oakland and Cleveland ranked lower.
NFL executives will tell you that that sample size, while interesting, doesn’t reflect the way in which teams evaluate their talent-evaluators. Most tend to look at drafting in three-year increments, because that’s roughly how much time general managers get these days to deliver results necessary to continue making the picks.
In a 20-year span, a team is likely to go through multiple GMs (Doug Whaley is the Bills’ sixth since ’96) and coaches (Rex Ryan is their eighth full-time since ’96), and many others on the player-personnel and coaching staffs lending a voice to player selections.
But the impatience of club owners, who seem quicker than ever to pull the trigger on firing GMs and coaches, shouldn’t serve as the standard for fairly judging the quality of a team’s draft. A more realistic timetable for draft assessment is five years, because it is by then that teams decide whether to make the far greater financial commitment to any of their choices in the form of a second contract.
In the case of the Bills, the grade for what they’ve done in the draft since 2011 is better than the 20-year snapshot … but not dramatically. Call it a C. The Bills’ 35-45 record through that stretch is below average, although there at least appears to be somewhat of a foundation, provided largely by the last five drafts, on which the team can build.
Consider that the Bills have already done substantial contract extensions for two players they’ve drafted since ’11 (Aaron Williams and Marcell Dareus) and are working to do the same before the start of the season with two others (Cordy Glenn and Stephon Gilmore).
“The new way I’m going to start looking at draft classes is not going to be anything other than how much does that draft class get paid in free agency,” former NFL general manager and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik said. “Meaning, after four years, was the first-round pick given the fifth-year extension (as was the case for Dareus and Gilmore)? Was the third-round pick given a big deal or a small deal? Because that’s how the league’s evaluating them – from a financial standpoint.”
The following is a breakdown of how the team has drafted in the past five years:
Of nine total picks, only one (Marcell Dareus, DT, first round) was an immediate starter. Second-rounder Aaron Williams had two inconsistent seasons at cornerback before moving to safety. Third-round LB Kelvin Sheppard was a bust, but the Bills were able to trade him to Indianapolis in 2013 for DE Jerry Hughes, who went from being a bust with the Colts to a star with the Bills. Fourth-round S Da’Norris Searcy became a regular starter in 2014, then signed with Tennessee in free agency after the season. None of the other five players (Chris Hairston, OT, fourth round; Johnny White, RB, fifth round; Chris White, LB, sixth round; Justin Rogers, DB, seventh round, and Michael Jasper, DT, seventh round) is on the roster.
Of nine total picks, three started as rookies (Gilmore, CB, first round; Glenn, OT, second round, and Nigel Bradham, LB, fourth round) and all but Bradham, who signed with Philadelphia in free agency after last season, remain as core players. None of the other six (T.J. Graham, WR, third round; Ron Brooks, CB, fourth round; Zebrie Sanders, OT, fifth round; Tank Carder, LB, fifth round; Mark Asper, OG, sixth round, and John Potter, K, seventh round) is on the roster.
Of eight total picks, one was a regular starter (EJ Manuel, QB, first round) as a rookie and is still on the roster as a backup. Second-round WR Robert Woods made nine starts as a rookie and remains on the roster. Second-round LB Kiko Alonso missed the 2014 season with a knee injury and was traded to Philadelphia last year for running back LeSean McCoy. Of the six other players selected, four are still on the team (WR Marquise Goodwin, third round; S Duke Williams, fourth round; DB Jonathan Meeks, fifth round, and TE Chris Gragg, seventh round).
Of seven total picks, three were immediate starters (Sammy Watkins, WR, first round; Preston Brown, LB, third round; Seantrel Henderson, OT, seventh round) and are still with the team. Watkins is the Bills’ biggest difference-maker, Brown is still trying to find comfort in Ryan’s defense and Henderson is battling health issues. Of the four other players (Cyrus Kouandjio, OL, second round; Ross Cockrell, DB, fourth round; Cyril Richardson, OG, fifth round, and Randell Johnson, LB, seventh round), Kouandjio, Richardson, and Johnson remain on the roster with Kouandjio having the best shot to stick as a backup or starter.
Of six total picks, two were immediate starters (Ronald Darby, CB, second round and John Miller, OG, third round) who are still with the team. Fifth-round RB Karlos Williams had a key role in helping the Bills lead the NFL in rushing, and will remain vital to their ground attack. Of the three remaining players (Tony Steward, LB, sixth round; Nick O’Leary, TE, sixth round; and Dezmin Lewis, WR, seventh round), O’Leary and Lewis remain on the roster.
2011: Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama, first round, third overall.
Stats: Highest draft pick by Bills since they made future Hall-of-Fame defensive end Bruce Smith the top overall choice in 1985. … As a rookie, Dareus made 15 starts, was credited with 51 tackles, two sacks, five tackles for a loss and five quarterback hits. … Had a career-high 71 tackles in 2013, when he made the Pro Bowl as an alternate. … Had career highs for sacks (10, the most of any defensive tackle in the league) and tackles for loss (11) in 2014, when he was an outright Pro Bowl choice. … Fifty-one tackles in 2015 were the second-most in his career, although his sacks plummeted to two.
Comments: Last September, thanks in no small part to his dominant season in ’14, Dareus received a six-year, $97-million contract. … He has had off-field issues that raised questions about his maturity and wasn’t a fan of Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme last season, calling it out publicly for not allowing him to be nearly as aggressive rushing the quarterback as he was the year before. … During the 2015 training camp, he publicly complained that he and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar weren’t on the same page. Last month, the Bills fired Dunbar and replaced him with John Blake.
2014: Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson, first round, fourth overall.
Stats: Set a franchise record for most receptions (125) and receiving yards (2,029) in his first two seasons. … Started 16 games as a rookie and was tied for second on the team in receptions with 65 for 982 yards, both franchise rookie records, and a team-high six touchdowns. … Started 13 games last season (he missed three and was limited in others with calf and ankle injuries) and led the team with 60 catches for 1,047 yards and a nine TDs.
Comments: After the first-round pick of Manuel, the trade with Cleveland to move from eighth to fourth to select Watkins has been one of the most second-guessed decisions in recent franchise history. The deal cost the Bills first- and fourth-round choices in 2015 and the chance to get another outstanding receiver in Odell Beckham Jr., had they stayed put. But Watkins has so far lived up to his pre-draft billing as a difference-maker. … Battled through a variety of injuries as a rookie, including a torn labrum in his hip that required postseason surgery. … Established himself as a vocal presence when he publicly demanded more targets after being largely ignored in the offense early in the season.
2012: Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina, first round, 10th overall.
Stats: In 16 starts as a rookie, he led the Bills with 16 passes defensed, was credited with 61 tackles and had an interception. … Started nine games in 2013 after missing the first five with a wrist injury. Finished with 10 passes defensed, 35 tackles, and two interceptions. … In 14 starts in 2014, he had a career-high three interceptions, six passes defensed, 47 tackles (including three for loss) and a forced fumble. … In 12 starts last season (he missed the final four after suffering a torn labrum in his left shoulder), he also had three interceptions and a career-high 18 passes defensed.
Comments: Gilmore and Darby formed one of the top cornerback duos in the NFL last season. … With Gilmore entering the final year of his contract, the Bills are looking to sign him to a long-term extension. He’s on record as saying he wants to be paid as an “elite corner,” the market for which has been impacted by the five-year, $75-million contract Josh Norman signed with Washington that includes $36.5 million guaranteed in the first two years. … Has proven injury prone, and Bills will be conscious of how much they pay him knowing they eventually will be doing a new deal with Darby.
2012: Cordy Glenn, OT, Georgia, second round, 41st overall.
Stats: Started 13 games as a rookie and was part of a unit that limited opponents to 30 sacks while helping the Bills’ rushing attack average 138.6 yards per game, second-best in the AFC. … In 16 starts in 2013, contributed to the Bills having only the second running back duo in franchise history to surpass 800 rushing yards apiece: C.J. Spiller (933) and Fred Jackson (890). … Started 16 games in 2015, and helped the Bills lead the NFL in rushing.
Comments: Received a franchise tag from the Bills last month that assures him of a guaranteed one-year contract worth $13.7 million. Bills have made it a top priority to sign him to a long-term, salary cap-friendlier deal before the season.
2013: EJ Manuel, QB, Florida State, first round, 16th overall.
Stats: Only the third quarterback selected by the Bills in the first round, the others being future Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly (1983) and J.P. Losman (2004). … Injuries limited Manuel to 10 starts as a rookie, during which he completed 180 of 306 passes for 1,972 yards and 11 touchdowns with nine interceptions. … Set Bills rookie records for most passing TDs and completions in a season. … Started the first four games of the ’14 season before then-coach Doug Marrone benched him in favor of journeyman Kyle Orton, who retired at the end of the season. … For his career, he has played in 22 games, with 16 starts. He has completed 284 of 479 passes for 3,073 yards and 17 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions. His passer rating is 78.7.
Comments: The league-wide view was that the Bills reached badly with their selection of Manuel with the 16th overall pick. So far, that has proven true. … Two coaching staffs have chosen to relegate him to backup duty, which seemingly settles any question as to whether Manuel should ever merit another opportunity to start. … Showed in two starts he made in place of an injured Tyrod Taylor last season, losses against Cincinnati and Jacksonville, that he remains plagued by the major flaws in his game: decision-making and pocket awareness. … Bills might very well replace him with a quarterback they pick in this draft.
2014: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, second round, 44th overall
Stats: Appeared in only one game as a rookie, and it was on special teams. … Appeared in 12 games and made the only two starts of his career last season. He started at right tackle in the Bills’ loss against Jacksonville at London and started at tight end against Dallas.
Comments: A second-rounder on a team that desperately needed offensive line help in ’14 should have been able to do more than play in one game on special teams. And he should have been a strong enough presence that the Bills didn’t have to find outside help in Jordan Mills, who would appear to have a better shot than Kouandjio at unseating Seantrel Henderson – who is trying to overcome Crohn’s Disease to retain his starting job at right tackle.