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Analysis: In the NFL, draft still reigns supreme in team-building

In a matter of hours --- or was it minutes? seconds? --- the future of several NBA teams completely changed. Some became playoff contenders. Some were forced to start over and embrace rebuilding. One might've become an instant dynasty for the ages.

This isn't the case in NFL free agency.

Money is tossed around, sure, but free agency is more about tweaking than wholesale change. While the Buffalo Bills were not shy in acquiring veterans last off-season, any return to relevancy must first come through the draft. Through a core of young players developing and thriving internally in a culture of winning. The magic wand approach doesn't work --- ask Vince Young about his "Dream Tream" in Philadelphia. And the structure of the NFL's salary cap doesn't allow teams to throw max contracts at good-not-elite talents such as Harrison Barnes and Chandler Parsons.

You can however nail draft picks, year in and year out, to build a perennial winner. You can land a franchise quarterback that makes everyone around him better.

So where to the Bills stand on this front? All over the map. Buddy Nix, Doug Whaley and the Bills' scouts either hit homers or are called out swinging.

In 2011, Marcell Dareus (third overall) and Aaron Williams (No. 34 overall) proved to be two mainstays on defense, though the team also just missed out on Cam Newton, passed on Andy Dalton (No. 35) and the seven others drafted in that class are long gone. Same for the 2012 draft where Stephon Gilmore (No. 10) and Cordy Glenn (No. 41) more than justified their selections but the other seven picks aren't on the team anymore. The team also passed on the likes of Russell Wilson, Brock Osweiler and Kirk Cousins that spring and all three are now filthy rich.

In 2013, the team of course took E.J. Manuel 16th overall. In one of the worst QB draft classes of the modern era, the Bills were dead-set on taking one and paid dearly. Robert Woods has stuck as a serviceable No. 2 receiver, Kiko Alonso was traded for LeSean McCoy and no other picks in that class have grown into starters.

The 2014 draft will forever be defined by the Sammy Watkins Gamble. Whaley unloaded first- and fourth-rounders to move up five slots and take the Clemson wide receiver. When healthy a year ago, he was dominant. Operative phrase: when healthy. He is now recovering from foot surgery and could miss a good chunk of training camp. Tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the second has been a major whiff. The 2015 group has promise with CB Ronald Darby, RG John Miller and RB Karlos Williams... yet Williams showed up to his second training camp 20-25 pounds overweight.

Hey, I liked the boldness in trading for a potential star in Watkins as much as anyone but it's also true the Bills could've landed three starters instead of one over these two drafts. The verdict is still out here.

And the 2016 draft? That of course was a referendum on Rex Ryan's defense with the head coach a likely driving force behind the picks of OLB Shaq Lawson, ILB Reggie Ragland and DE Adolphus Washington. All three players will be asked to bring violence back to the Bills defense and yet Lawson needed shoulder surgery right away. Who knows if he'll be able to give the Bills anything this season? Pegged as a savior of sorts, Lawson is sidelined for months.

Indeed, it's been boom or bust on draft day. Teams can use free agency to nudge their roster into contention but in a sport with 22 starters instead of five, in a sport with a much, much stricter salary cap, it'll always be about building through the draft first. Those are the players who'll need to ultimately turn Buffalo around.

 

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