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It is tough to have swagger as a member of the Buffalo Bills. It is tough to walk around with a sense of confidence when you have not made the playoffs since Bill Clinton was in office, and are coming off back-to-back-to-back 6 win seasons. Russ Brandon has said it himself, the Bills’ brand has been tarnished; but do not tell the Dougs that.
I am a believer that a team’s “culture” is tied around one thing and one thing only: winning. Winning is the one and only thing that matters in this business, proven evident by the fact you can videotape Super Bowl practices, get caught and stripped of a 1st round pick, have a murderer on your team, and still be the envy of the entire league for, “The Patriot Way.”
When Doug Marrone came in as head coach last year, he put a stamp on his team right away by hanging a banner in the field house that stated, “Don’t confuse effort with results.” The goal was for the team to see this every day when practicing, and live by it throughout the season. It showed right away that he was well aware of the one goal teams in the NFL had, and while last year did not go as planned, you could sense the anger in his voice after every post-game conference following a loss. I can certainly respect that, since I still have nightmares of Dick Jauron’s monotone, emotionless voice talking about how, “the effort was there,” after losses when he was head coach.
This weekend it was Doug Whaley’s turn to put his stamp on the current Bills culture, and boy did he swing for the fences. In his first draft as General Manager, he pulled off a trade that many thought was too pricey. Whaley gave up the 9th pick in this year’s draft (which Cleveland used to take Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert), and a 2015 1st round pick and 4th round pick, in order to move up 5 slots in the first round and take playmaking Clemson WR Sammy Watkins.
Watkins was the #1 player on the Bills board (along with many other teams’ boards), was a homerun prospect, and he was the best playmaking offensive weapon in the draft. With a quarterback going into his second year, still very much unproven, can you really put a price on giving him the best player available to help him succeed? For a second year offensive coordinator, again, very much unproven, can you put a price on grabbing the shiniest of new toys to plan an offense around? For me, the answer is no.
The trade meant two things: Whaley has guts, and the Bills are relevant again. Welcome back to the NFL, Buffalo. The trade itself spoke volumes of the Bills plan to win now, and showed some swagger that has been missing out of One Bills Drive for quite some time now. However, what Whaley said in his interview after the pick is what Bills fans should really be excited about.
When asked how expensive the trade was in terms of giving up next year’s first along with another mid round pick, Whaley replied:
“Well anything that’s worth having is worth working for and you’re going to have to give up something. Yes we gave up something, but we thought it was a calculated effort and that it was a win for us now and in the future. We’re building our roster now and granted you hate giving up number one picks, but we thought what he brings to us now is worth the low one that we’ll be giving up next year.”
When I heard this, my eyebrows immediately rose in astonishment and excitement. When the trade was first announced, I joked to a friend that it will not be a big deal when we win the Super Bowl this year and that pick we give up is 32nd overall. However, for Doug Whaley to say something similar to this? To say what Watkins brings to this team now is, “worth the low one that we’ll be giving up next year,” is absolutely oozing with confidence in his team, and it should fire up the Bills fan base. That is the swagger I want to see out of my GM.
From that point on, the Bills drafted needs that were helpful in putting some of the finishing touches on this team. They drafted a 1st round talent, albeit with health concerns, that fell to the second round in massive OT Cyrus Kouandjio (Does Thurman Thomas ring a bell?). I was very high on him coming in to the draft, as he seemed to me the perfect candidate for a steal in round two if he can stay healthy. During his interviews after he was drafted Kouandjio seemed calm, excited to be a Bill, but more than anything, he seemed genuinely angry that he fell to the second round. When asked if this would put a chip on his shoulder, he said the rest of the NFL should be put on notice. That is exactly the attitude I want on my offensive line.
After drafting MLB Preston Brown, a MLB that seems to be their heir apparent to current MLB Brandon Spikes, who is playing on a one-year deal, the Bills selected Duke CB Ross Cockrell in the fourth round. Cockrell is a smart guy, graduating with a degree in just 3.5 years, as well as very productive on the field. He was a four year starter and two-time captain for the Blue Devils, with 8 interceptions over the past two years. Cockrell also shined in the showcase games he played this spring, especially in the Chick-fil-A Bowl where he covered Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. Cockrell’s lanky and athletic build is just what this team was looking for in their defensive backfield.
Their next pick was an extreme value pick in Cyril Richardson, who was an All-American, a two-time Big XII offensive lineman of the year, and the Jim Parker award winner for nation’s top offensive lineman. The Baylor product was drafted in the fifth round, and the Bills believe they got a player that will provide much needed depth to the offensive line. I would also not be surprised if he was starting at the right guard spot before too long, as Bills Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos said, “We don’t draft players to be backups.”
The Bills then had two picks in the 7th round to complete their draft, choosing OLB Randell Johnson from Florida Atlantic, and project OT Seantrel Henderson. Johnson seems to be a perfect fit for the special teams unit if he can make the team, and Henderson represents a perfect low-risk high-reward player to take a flier on in the 7th round. Henderson was touted as the next Jonathan Ogden coming out of high school, but after an underachieving career filled with drug suspensions as well as a pro day in which he walked off the field, many view him as a lost cause. He has all the tools, and if Marrone can work his magic he would be an absolute steal.
Whaley was not content with just the draft picks, as he shook the team up more on day two of the draft. In a not-so-surprising move following the selection of Watkins, Whaley traded his “#1” receiver, Stevie Johnson, to the San Francisco 49ers for a conditional 2015 4th round draft pick. When I first heard of the trade I was disappointed. Whaley said after the Watkins pick that Stevie Johnson was still on this team, and just another weapon in the arsenal. I loved the thought of an empty backfield, and the Bills having five receivers spread in an empty look, with five legit targets for Manuel to throw the ball to.
Then I thought back to this team’s “culture.” Was Stevie productive on the field in his time here? No question about it. His numbers are truly remarkable when you look back at who was throwing him the ball at times. He was the first receiver in Bills history to record back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, and he did it three years in a row. However, he also had his share of infamous moments. People will point out that in his four plus years as a Bill he never was close to the league lead in drops. However, his drops and mistakes came at such crucial times it was tough to see him as “clutch” player. His post touchdown celebrations, drops, and other miscues loom larger than other players since he was the only receiver in the past 5 years that struck fear in opposing defenses. Perhaps the expectations were unfair, but the top receiver on your team should always be helping you win ballgames, not making mistakes to cost you them.
Also, there is the question of if Johnson would accept a dip in production. With Watkins on this team, he should be the offensive focus every play. He, along with Mike Williams, will be on the outside with two very different roles. Williams is now the “go up and get it” possession receiver that will fight for jump balls, while Watkins can be used on shorter routes, screens, or any route that accentuates his speed. That leaves Robert Woods, who possesses a very similar skill set as Stevie, and speedster Marquis Goodwin in your slot positions. There simply may not be enough throws to go around and keep Johnson happy.
In my draft preview I was dead set on the Bills taking big target WR Mike Evans, but looking back, Watkins is the much better fit for this team. EJ Manuel struggled mightily in deep balls down the sideline, something Evans specialized in catching during his collegiate career. For this team, Watkins’ ability to create in open space will benefit them much more. Quick plays where Manuel can just get him the ball and let him go to work is something I’m sure the Bills had in mind when deciding who they would rather have.
Perhaps even more than that, however, was the fact that Johnson clashed with head coach Doug Marrone. In general, professional sports are a “player’s league.” That is why I actually have learned to like the move. Whaley and Marrone are building a culture here, and if you’re not totally on board, then get out. Johnson was seen sulking in frustration multiple times this past season, and while I understand his competitive spirit, he is supposed to be the leader of that receiving corps. Leaders do not pout. This goes with Jairus Byrd too. Many say that if the Bills are truly in win now mode, why let two great players leave the team? Well, if we placed the franchise tag on Byrd again, many believe he would have sat out into the regular season. Instead of dealing with that, Whaley said bye bye Byrdie, next man up.
Sure, talk is cheap. They have an unknown commodity at the most important position on the field. They will have one, possibly two rookies starting on the offensive line. They brought in a DC and certain players to help with their run defense, but will it actually improve? There is certainly a fair share of questions regarding this 2014-2015 Buffalo Bills team, but one thing is not up for debate: Doug Whaley believes this team will win now, and is making moves to give this fan base their first taste of playoff football in nearly 15 years. Now it’s time for his players to back him up.
Extra thoughts I have that didn’t make their way into the article:
- The Stevie Johnson trade really gives WR Mike Williams a great opportunity to make this team long term with a big year. Already in a make or break year, the subtraction of Johnson makes Williams’ role an important one.
- I absolutely love the trade for RB Bryce Brown. Sure, what we gave up is still a little blurry (you can check out the scenarios here, laid out by WGR’s Joe Buscaglia), but the fact we got a somewhat established NFL running back, that just happened to be in a crowded backfield, shows that Whaley is forward thinking. Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller are both entering the final year of their deals; most speculate Spiller is as good as gone, with Jackson most likely to return on continuous one-year pacts. Brown is also a powerful back that could help this year’s team in short yardage situations.
- I have to comment on the Michael Sam situation. It’s a great day for sports and society as a whole. I plan on writing an article on it shortly, but wow was that powerful. From the pick, to the raw emotions, to the standing ovation at Radio City Music Hall. Good for the St. Louis Rams and best of luck to Mike going forward.
- Lastly, I’m really hoping Duke product Ross Cockrell and S Duke Williams have big years so we can dub them the “Duke’s of Hazzard. I love nicknames.