There are a number of reasons the Buffalo Bills have been inept throughout the last decade, but failure in the draft stands out brighter than any other. These series of articles explore how the failures of the Buffalo Bills’ drafts from 2001 through 2010 have left a team bankrupt of talent, and one of the laughing stocks of the National Football league.
Part I can be found here.
As discussed previously, the 2001 draft would prove to be the last good draft by the Buffalo Bills over the next ten years-although you would never have known it by watching the 2001 season. The Buffalo Bills would post an abysmal 3-13 record-the worst record since the 1985 Bills posted their second 2-14 season in a row. The 1986 Bills wouldn’t fair much better- only posting four wins.
Why bring up these dreadful teams from the 1980’s? Because these awful teams would ultimately reap benefits from their ineptitude. From these poor teams, Buffalo would routinely pick high in the draft-and pick well. Bruce Smith, Frank Reich, Andre Reed, Ronnie Harmon, Will Wolford, Shane Conlan, Nate Odomes, Keith McKeller and Leon Seals (among others) were all drafted from 1985-87, and would join the ’83 draft class of Darryl Talley and (eventually) Jim Kelly to make the core of the team we all fell in love with. Suffering in the early eighties (and the ability to identify talent in the draft) lead to excellence in the late eighties, and dominance of the AFC through the early to mid nineties.
Other than the hope for similar draft success, the 2001 campaign offered very little for Bills fans. Only true football masochists can look upon the 2001 season with any sense of satisfaction. Some of the awfulness was attributable to regime change. Gregg Williams was the new head coach in Buffalo, and he was bringing a 4-3 defense with him. As fans of the current team know, the personnel for a 3-4 defense and a 4-3 defense are very different, and transition is a lot harder than just moving some guys around (no matter what a coach says in a press conference).
The defensive statistics bear out how difficult the transition was. The defense would finish 29th in points allowed, 21st in yards, 25th in First Downs given up, and 30th in turnovers. The pass defense appears to have been a little less awful than the rush defense, true-but when teams are in the lead (as opponents often were) they stop throwing the ball. So take that with a grain of salt.
Sadly, the team wasn’t very exciting on the other side of the ball either. The offense could move the ball, they just couldn’t score points. Buffalo’s offense finished thirteenth in yards, but 27th in scoring- making for frustrating drives that never finished. Alex Van Pelt took the quarterbacking job from Rob Johnson after an injury against New England, and did not provide the spark to turn around the Bills season.
In addition to the serious changes happening at One Bills Drive, there were other mitigating factors for the Bills poor record. One was that the AFC East was a particularly tough division that year. The Patriots and Dolphins would both finish 11-5, the Patriots getting the edge, and the Jets right behind at 10-6 (The Colts would post a 6-10 record). All three would make the playoffs. The Jets and Dolphins would lose in the first round. New England would fare better, winning their first Super Bowl by stopping the "Greatest Show on Turf," the Kurt Warner/Marshal Faulk St. Louis Rams. No one was quite sure how Belichick, in just his second season coming from Cleveland, managed to succeed where Bill Parcells had failed. His star quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down for the count, and that should have been it. Amazingly, a sixth round nobody from Michigan named Tom Brady, took over the 0-2 Patriots and marched his way to a Pro Bowl and a Super Bowl MVP.
I think he’s still in the league. Not sure though.
Still, despite the woe that was the 2001 season (I, frankly, barely remember watching any football that year), the rookie class was impressive. Travis Henry didn’t look completely awful behind an aging line, gaining 729 yards and 4 TDs on the ground. Aaron Schobel recorded 6.5 sacks in his rookie campaign, and Nate Clements had a sack to go with his three interceptions (one for a touchdown), three forced fumbles, and a punt return for a touchdown. Jonas Jennings and Brandon Spoon would also be working, though not excelling the way the first three picks were.
Thirteen losses was good enough to pick fourth in the 2002 NFL Draft (it would have been third if Houston hadn’t been granted a team). Buffalo was in prime position to improve the team dramatically. Much like the early eighties, Buffalo was hoping to follow one great rookie class with another-laying the foundation for another great team that could sustain success.
Unfortunately, their failure in this draft is the stuff of legend in Western New York.
The 2002 Buffalo Bills Draft
Round 1, Pick 4 OT Mike Williams: Let’s get this out in the open-Mike Williams wasn’t an insane pick, it was just a devastatingly unfortunate and wrong pick. Much like the great debate of Manning vs. Leaf a few years before, it seemed like no matter which way you went at tackle in the draft, you were going to do very, very well. You almost couldn’t go wrong.
Unfortunately, just like Manning vs. Leaf, you most definitely could go wrong-and the Bills did.
Taking a tackle, no doubt, was the right move. John Fina was wrapping up nearly a decade of play, and while opinion on him is mixed at best, there was no denying that he was out of his element by 2002.
Again, Mike Williams wasn’t an insane pick, either. Of the four teams taking tackles (and a few others that may have taken a tackle had Williams been there) there was no doubt that Williams was on the top of people’s boards. Even if he wasn’t, no one was going to feel sorry for themselves for having Mike Williams on their team. He was a consensus good pick.
It seems strange-Buffalo taking a tackle- and in the top five no less. In an age where Buffalo’s aversion to taking a tackle when they need one seems almost phobic, that zeal almost certainly stems back to this very moment in time.
Williams was, in a word, a bust. Absolutely the worst pick Buffalo could have made. How bad was it, you ask? Of the three other tackles taken in the first round, all three of them have started more games than Williams has played at any position on the line. Marc Colombo, basically missed most of his first three years of football and has managed to still start more than 60 games with the Bears and Cowboys. Levi Jones has been a serviceable enough tackle for 89 starts with the Bengals and Redskins. Both of them would have been considered terrible picks at 4th overall in their own right. Both, however, would have proved better than selecting Williams.
The real prize pig, of course, was Bryant McKinnie. Selected just three picks later, McKinnie has started 107 games, including 80 in a row, for the Vikings and only just made his first Pro-Bowl in 2009. That type of sustained presence, particularly on the offensive line at the second highest paid position on a football team, speaks to the type of quality player Buffalo was hoping to get in 2002-and demonstrates how little Williams measures up to that quality.
Given the Bills were missing a lot of pieces all over the board in ’02, it is equally upsetting to think what would have happened if they had pursued a different position in the first round. Roy Williams, Dwight Freeney, Albert Haynesworth, Ed Reed and Lito Sheppard are just some of the Pro Bowlers taken after Williams in the first round of 2002, let alone those players who are simply good at what they do and still play in the league.
Round 2, Pick 36 WR Josh Reed: Some might think that Reed was a serviceable third receiver in Buffalo, and shouldn’t be considered a bust. As a second round pick, Reed was taken to eventually be the number 1 or 2 receiver on the team, though. He was not expected to struggle to maintain his spot at number 3. He finished his career with 311 catches for 3,575 yards and 10 touchdowns with his career in Buffalo. This, despite dismal touchdown production, would have been decent numbers over 4 to five years. Sadly, those are numbers over eight years. His most productive year, by far, was his second year when he replaced Peerless Price (more on that in the next article) as the number 2 receiver-but even then, he only managed 58 catches for 588 yards and two touchdowns-unacceptable numbers for a number 2 guy.
Reed never had more than two touchdowns in a season, and in two seasons had zero. He never broke 600 yards receiving and only broke 50 catches three times. He was plagued with stone hands his first few years in the league, and an inability to get open in his last few years with Buffalo.
It probably didn’t help that most Bills fans were subconsciously (if not consciously) comparing him with another receiver they knew named Reed, but Josh did not help his cause any. He managed to stick around because he wasn’t a complete scrub, as compared to most other receivers Buffalo brought in over the next eight years. Not a complete waste at receiver, but not very good and certainly not what you are hoping for out of the 36th pick overall.
It also doesn’t help that Buffalo left much better players on the board. Good, if not great, receivers taken after Reed in the second round include Antwaan Randel El, Antonio Bryant and Deion Branch in the second round (passed on twice because they picked Denney-see below). Worse, a team in need of line help, Buffalo also passed on two Pro Bowl Centers (Andre Gurode and LeCharles Bentley).
Round 2, Pick 61 DE Ryan Denney: The Bills traded the 69th and 102nd pick from rounds three and four to move up eight spots. Apparently they just couldn’t wait to pick Ryan Denney. Worried that Denney was going to be gone by the time the 69th spot rolled around, the Bills effectively passed on Randle El, Bryant and Branch to pick up the Defensive End.
This, in a way, makes sense. Remember, the team is moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and complementary nose tackles and defensive ends are important for Buffalo to pick up.
Over his eight year career, Denney averaged a little over thirty three tackles a year, and just 21.5 sacks total-including one year with 6 (so just 15.5 over the other seven years). He made 31 starts for Buffalo, and played in 111. He also caught two touchdowns on fake field goal patterns thrown by Brian Moorman.
In one view he was a reliable sub to who stayed healthy (apart from a broken foot in 2007) and filled a role. In another view, he was a fill player on a very bad D-line. As a whole, the D-line hasn’t been stellar in Buffalo. Outside of Schobel, there hasn’t been consistent player on the line-and Denney was part of that problem. On the Bills he fit because the Bills weren’t a good team-and they weren’t getting players better than him. On a good team, he doesn’t have much to do.
Round 3, Pick 97 SS Coy Wire: Coy Wire was a compensatory pick that came in the late third round. Despite being picked as a strong safety, Wire found himself playing a lot of Linebacker for Buffalo, and now Atlanta. He started 21 games, played in 80. With Buffalo he had five sacks, 3 picks and 1 forced fumble to go with his 187 tackles.
In a recent interview, Wire insinuates that playing in Buffalo is something less than "really being in the NFL," and seems to indicate that he’s doing better now with Atlanta (racking up all of 34 tackles in the last three years). While that may (and may even be likely) true, it is more likely that Coy Wire isn’t a superstar because he’s mediocre player.
Some of this may rest on the fact that he switched positions from college to the pros. Learning a new position is hard, sure-and Buffalo seems to have a desire to do this. Over the next few installments there are a handful of players that Buffalo seemed to think could be "made" into a different type of player. One of the common criticisms of the team is that if they stopped shooting for these oddball type of draft choices, they’d do a lot better.
Round 5, Pick 139 DT Justin Bannan: Bannan was a DT picked at the beginning of 5th round. Bannan also played DE for the Bills in his four years with the team, but not very effectively. He recorded just 2.5 sacks and 49 tackles in 55 games with Buffalo. He left for Baltimore in 2006, a much better defense, and saw just time in 8 games and recorded 2.5 sacks over four years-speaking to the fact that it just wasn’t a poor Bills D holding Bannan back, but Bannan himself. He’s currently in Denver.
Round 6, Pick 176 CB Kevin Thomas: Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kevin Thomas is that his first name is actually Marvin. In three years with Buffalo (and in the league in total), Thomas played in 38 games, recording 10 pass defenses, 62 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 pick and 1 forced fumble. M. Kevin has been out of the league since 2005.
Round 7, Pick 215 C Mike Pucillo: Pucillo didn’t manage to get on the field in his first year with the team, but did play in 13 games in 2003. His reward was to play in just 2 in the following year, before leaving to play for the Browns and Redskins until 2007-two other teams that don’t have Offensive lines to be proud of. An apt description of Pucillo from Two Bills Drive is that he "Makes a good tackling sled for the defense when the practice."
Round 8, Pick 249 WR Rodney Wright: Wright was on the practice squad for most of his time with Buffalo, but did find success in the Arena Football League with the San Jose Sabercats. He’s since gone back to practice squad work with the Chiefs and 49ers. Not bad for a comp pick in the 8th round.
Round 8, Pick 260 LB Dominique Stevenson: The second to last pick in the draft, and Buffalo’s only Supplemental Comp pick. Far from Mr. Irrelevant, Stevenson made the team and played in 20 games over two years. He did manage 20 tackles, which while not good, is much more than you normally expect the 260th pick in the draft to do.
Before closing here, two things need to be mentioned here.
First, it probably goes without saying, but look at the drop off from Buffalo’s 2001 draft to the 2002 draft. The word staggering comes to mind. Three Pro-Bowl caliber, productive players (and two other guys who saw playing time) compared to a complete bust, an arguably okay player at best, and two scrubs is no contest.
There is no shame in missing once, even with such a big whiff as Mike Williams. That is going to happen, and every year it happens to more than one team. If you include the "expert opinions" of "draft experts" on major cable sports networks-the misses are enough to populate a sorority house. Just for fun take a look at Mel Kiper’s 2001 and 2002 post draft commentary, and see how wrong anyone can be.
The point is, it happens. People get things wrong here and there. It is going to happen. The way you make your money, however, is that you are right more than you are wrong-or that you are only so wrong. That even if Mike Williams isn’t the guy you thought he was, he’s still pretty good. That something comes out of your draft that you can use.
To not get a proper everyday starter out of the draft is pretty mind-blowing, -or at least it should be.
The second thing to mention is by way of prelude: Between the first and second day of the 2002 NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills addressed their other big glaring problem, quarterback, through free agency. The Bills picked up Drew Bledsoe, All-Pro QB from the rival New England Patriots for their first round pick in 2003. This series doesn’t address free agency other than in the scope of how it in turn affects the draft. I realize that the two are clearly intertwined, and an action in one should always inform the other, but in this case I simply mean when a person comes/goes at the expense of a draft pick.
Buffalo would head into the 2002 season with a New QB, new wide receiver, a new left tackle. Things were looking up in Western New York. A little too up.