It was slightly over four years ago now that the Buffalo Bills were trading picks with the Chicago Bears in order to move back into the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft to pick DT John McCargo. Playing between future pros Mario Williams and Manny Lawson at North Carolina State, the 6'2", 307-pound McCargo was thought by many to be a prospect of near-equal value to his two college teammates.
Buffalo made the move, selecting McCargo at No. 26 overall. Another defensive tackle wouldn't be taken until 42 picks later, and no DT of impact was added until the fourth round (Cincinnati's Domata Peko). Considered a second- or third-round pick, Buffalo might have been reaching in taking McCargo, but considering his pre-draft buzz, the move wasn't terribly surprising to some. Coupled with fellow first-round pick S Donte Whitner, Buffalo had the two players around which it'd build its new Tampa 2 defense.
Those four years have since passed, and Buffalo is in the midst of a change to the 3-4 defense. The Bills spent their off-season re-tooling their defensive line, and while McCargo remains part of that rotation, it's only in name. One of the most disheartening stories of recent Bills history, McCargo has had a long, strange journey from college upstart to the fringe of the NFL.
Coming out of NC State, scouts were generally positive regarding the unheralded athlete that played between the highly-touted Williams (No. 1 overall, Houston) and the supremely athletic Lawson (No. 22 overall, San Francisco). Both Wolfpack pass rushers credited McCargo's ability to handle multiple blockers on the interior as one of the biggest reasons for their own individual successes, though McCargo's own contributions can be annotated with the same argument.
Scouts had always loved McCargo's athleticism. At his size, he was a productive defensive lineman, but more surprisingly, he was a productive fullback, where he rushed for 648 yards throughout his high school career. He was also a baseball, basketball and track star. That athleticism was on display at NC State, as well, where in three seasons McCargo accumulated 29 starts, 134 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for a loss. A short, stout, quick athlete capable of penetrating into the backfield, McCargo was viewed as an ideal fit for a one-gap scheme emphasizing quickness on the defensive line.
After a 2005 junior season that ended with foot surgery to fix a stress fracture, McCargo decided to enter the 2006 NFL Draft.
Durability concerns and flashes of potential
McCargo's ability to avoid injury was already in question coming out of college; as previously mentioned, his junior season in 2005 was cut short by a stress fracture injury to his foot that required surgery. After a rough start to his rookie season in which McCargo struggled in dealing with the rigors of his first NFL training camp, his first year in Buffalo came to a premature close with a broken foot suffered in a Week 5 loss to Chicago.
Despite the mounting durability concerns, McCargo responded well to the adversity in his second pro season. Fully healthy, McCargo appeared in all 16 games and performed better and better as the season wore on. In part-time duty, McCargo recorded 29 tackles, 2.5 sacks, forced and recovered a fumble, and finished third on the team with seven tackles for a loss. His play was inconsistent throughout the season, but he flashed the ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, and fans and experts alike were once again bullish on his pro prospects.
2008, however, was a monumental disappointment for McCargo. A Bills trade for former Jacksonville DT Marcus Stroud and the free agent signing of Minnesota's Spencer Johnson helped Buffalo's run defense slightly; it also slid McCargo further down the depth chart, particularly considering the emergence of Kyle Williams, a fifth-round pick the same year McCargo was drafted.
In October of 2008, McCargo was traded to the Indianapolis Colts in a move that ended, at least in theory, his disappointing tenure with the Bills. The trade, however, quickly fell through when a back issue prevented McCargo from passing Indy's team physical. Returned to the club he'd fallen out of favor with, McCargo was available to the Bills for six more weeks before that back injury landed him on injured reserve. Just a year removed from a promising 2007 season, McCargo did not record a single statistic in 2008.
Last season, McCargo dealt with more nagging injuries throughout the season (the most prominent being a calf injury), but did appear in 11 games, registering six tackles as a reserve rotational player.
3-4 leaving McCargo in the cold
Injuries, inconsistency and the general lack of what we might call a "top-notch motor" have inhibited McCargo's growth throughout his four NFL seasons. Now, with Buffalo switching to the 3-4 defense, there may not be a player more likely to be released outright on Buffalo's roster than the 2006 first-round pick.
Athletically, McCargo is not a good fit for a traditional two-gap 3-4 alignment. His best asset is quickness and penetrating ability, but 3-4 ends are asked to control two gaps, set the edge and generally be anonymous. At best, McCargo has the look of a situational player for Buffalo in the 3-4 - a player that would see limited playing time on those rare occasions that the Bills used four down linemen and needed an athletic penetrator. Even in those situations, Williams would get the nod before McCargo.
Then the Bills, under the direction of new GM Buddy Nix - a man with absolutely no connection to McCargo - signed Baltimore free agent DE Dwan Edwards. He made sure that it was widely known that the team loved Williams' motor and toughness, and though he, too, isn't a classic fit for the 3-4, there will a spot for him on the roster. Two more 3-4 linemen were added in the second and third rounds of the 2010 NFL Draft in the form of NT Torell Troup and DE Alex Carrington. The presence of Stroud and the two newcomer ends means that McCargo, at best, was in the conversation as a third-string defensive end.
McCargo is still on the roster. He'll get a look in training camp under new head coach Chan Gailey, but it's likely to be a perfunctory look. Buffalo's direction along the defensive line is clear, and McCargo isn't part of the picture. Younger reserve linemen with better motors, such as Marlon Favorite, Rashaad Duncan and Lonnie Harvey, arguably hold more value to this Bills team now. McCargo's training camp release is now virtually inevitable, and when it happens, it will bring an end to one of the most curious Bills draft bust stories in recent memory.