Here are my three thoughts in the aftermath of the bubble-bursting news that poured out of One Bills Drive with a vengeance on Monday:
> The excitement that more than a few Bills fans were feeling about the team's draft took a significant hit after the announcement that Shaq Lawson would undergo shoulder surgery Tuesday. The primary piece in Rex Ryan's quick-fix plan for his defense could be missing well into the season.
But that's only part of the troubling story.
Naturally, questions are swirling about the competence (or lack thereof) of the Bills' medical staff for not only giving the thumbs up to making Lawson the 19th overall pick but also for believing his right shoulder, which he injured as a freshman at Clemson and which discouraged multiple other teams from wanting to draft him, was sound enough for the outside linebacker to take part in the three-day rookie minicamp. The pad-less, non-contact drills (at least the ones reporters were allowed to see on the first day) were fairly harmless looking. They're supposed to be this time of year, per the NFL's collective bargaining agreement with its players. Yet, Lawson apparently managed to extend his arm just enough during a pass-rush move to re-injure his shoulder to the point that it required surgical repair and months of recovery and rehabilitation.
The questions don't end with the medical staff, however. Scouting is as much about gathering information as it is about the ability to assess talent and project whether it belongs in the NFL. Millions of dollars are spent by each team, including the Bills, to go through this intensely detail-oriented process to find out, with as much certainty as humanly possible, what you're getting: especially with your first-round pick. That's because millions of more dollars will be spent on that player.
Scouts are like detectives. They don't operate in vacuums. They travel the country, poking and probing for answers, including ones that pertain to areas their team's medical staff address. Scouts know what others who do what they do for other teams know, and when a player is being crossed off of draft boards, as Lawson was, that isn't overlooked. Ever.
Unless, of course, you choose to overlook it. Unless you take the approach that the Bills seem to have clearly taken in this case of bypassing the details to get the guy you want. Unless you're so desperate for immediate success, you take a risk that others weren't willing to take, something the Bills have proven time and again they have zero problem doing.
General Manager Doug Whaley -- who chooses every word he speaks to the media as if it's a potential boomerang that will return to knock him in the back of the head -- seemed to be hinting as much in his draft-night attempt to dismiss ESPN's report that Lawson's shoulder would require surgery that would probably be put off until after the season. "Now, if something happens, it's going to happen, but it's nothing that we're real worried about or we wouldn't have taken him," Whaley said.
My translation: "We're hoping nothing happens this year, and then we'll deal with the shoulder right after the season."
> Two things about Sammy Watkins that are equally true: He's a great receiver and his body is fragile. Although he has missed only three games in his first two seasons, he has repeatedly dealt with injuries. Watkins' rookie year began with rib-cartilage damage and ended with a torn labrum in his hip that required surgery after the season. He played through those and other issues, and answered the bell for all 16 games.
Last season was a different story. He missed three games, and it's fair to say that they were extremely costly to a team that had built itself to make the playoffs and finished 8-8.
Watkins suffered a calf injury in a win against Miami and proceeded to miss a loss against the Giants and a game the Bills won against Tennessee with an offense that pretty much depended solely on Tyrod Taylor's running (which, by the way, led to Taylor suffering a knee injury that would knock him out for two games).
Then came the ankle injury that Watkins sustained while scoring a touchdown late in the first half of a loss against Cincinnati. How much of a difference Watkins could have made in helping EJ Manuel in his first start of the season is debatable, because the Bills' defense was so bad that day. But what about the following game at London? You think the Bills, and especially Manuel, could have used Watkins on the way to suffering their crushing defeat against lowly Jacksonville?
Now, months before the start of his third season, Watkins is recovering from surgery on a broken bone in his foot. What did he do to cause the injury? Was it simply the result of the running he was doing in the early stages of offseason workouts? Because, this just in: Watkins has a whole lot more running to do. And his running and catching are pretty much the extent of the most explosive element the Bills' offense has.
Regardless of any optimistic proclamations from Watkins or the Bills (and, let's face it, the team isn't having a very good stretch when it comes to discussing player health matters), it's reasonable to wonder whether his body will hold up during the season -- provided he is, in fact, answering the bell when the season begins.
> Without Shaq Lawson, the Bills figure to be turning to another Lawson, Manny, to hold things down at outside linebacker.
When Ryan moved Manny from defensive end, where he was a forgotten man in 2014, to OLB last season, he gave the veteran new football life. Manny was far from spectacular, but he was solid. And Ryan repeatedly went out of his way to praise Manny's intelligence, because he was one of the few players who quickly grasped the complexity of a scheme that had Preston Brown and others constantly scratching their heads. Ryan finally yanked the defensive signal-calling responsibility away from Brown and gave it to Manny.
But the Bills need a lot more than smarts and savvy to achieve the pass-rushing improvement they desperately want and need. They need a difference-making stud, which Shaq was supposed to provide "right off the bus," as Whaley is fond of saying. They need someone who is going to draw blocking attention away from the sack machine they had in 2013 and 2014: Jerry Hughes.
Manny Lawson isn't that guy.
So in the few or possibly many games that Shaq Lawson misses, Manny will either have to reach deep down to find something in his performance that makes an impact or Rex and Rob Ryan will have to reach deep down to find the right sort of strategy that helps create more pass-rushing impact from Hughes and others.