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A Glimpse of the Future from San Diego

I'll admit it. This draft got me pretty down, especially after the first night. After the second night though, sensibility overtook emotion. My disappointment with not drafting Tim Tebow also began to fade. So I started looking for trends or signs that could indicate the direction that Buddy Nix is taking the Bills. As the staff here at Buffalo Rumblings knows, I study a lot of history. Everything's cyclical. I started my search in Buddy Nix's past, looking specifically for clues that might shed some light on his plan.

Nix played linebacker and fullback at Livingston University, then went on to coach a high school team to a championship in 1966. He coached at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and then finally stepped into the professional arena with the Buffalo Bills as a southeastern regional scout from 1993 to 2000. Buffalo wasn't a rebuilding project then, mostly reloading through the draft. The most we gain here is Nix's affinity for small school players, the 3-4 defense, and the old school run/stop the run philosophy.

Nix went with John Butler and A.J. Smith to San Diego in 2001. He was the Director of Professional Player Personnel for a year until John Butler's passing. He then became the Assistant General Manager under Smith. After the jump, we'll start outlining Nix's possible plan for the Bills in his experience with the Chargers

The logical starting point is to outline what the Chargers had when Nix first got there, and then see who they added in the first year, and trends over the Chargers' ascent. 

2000 Chargers
Most notably, the Chargers were coming off a 1-15 season in 2000. As kaisertown wrote about last month, there wasn't much going for them on their offensive line, with Vaughn Parker their best lineman. The Ryan Leaf fiasco was in its death throws, and Jim Harbaugh was no longer with the team. Terrell Fletcher led the team with 384 yards rushing. Tight end Freddie Jones led the team with 71 receptions, and Curtis Conway added 53 catches. 

The defense played a 4-3 under head coach Mike Riley, with Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau getting little help outside DTs John Parrella and Jamal Williams, and FS Mike Dumas. Safe to say that the 2000 Chargers make the 2009 Bills look great in comparison.

2001 Additions
The 2000 off-season brought in some help via free agency. A group of Buffalo cast-offs were brought in to change the culture of losing and add talent: Doug Flutie, Marcellus Wiley, John Holecek, and Sam Rogers. Flutie started the entire season, going 5-11, and Wiley added 13 sacks. The team also added WR Tim Dwight, who caught 25 balls and returned a punt for a touchdown. San Diego also traded for OT Roman Oben.

The 2001 draft added LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, two linebackers, two offensive linemen and two defensive backs. Only Tomlinson and Brees played roles in the Chargers' future.

2002-2005 Drafts: The Rebuilding Period
Over the next four drafts, the most critical to the Chargers' success, San Diego focused on the defense. They added two first round and two second round defensive backs, two defensive ends and two outside linebackers early. Eli Manning, Vincent Jackson, Nick Hardwick, Tonoi Fonoti, Courtney Van Buren, and Nate Kaeding were also added inside the first three rounds. (Manning was also obviously traded for Philip Rivers.)

Some other notes: San Diego focused six later round picks on offensive linemen; they went after mostly taller receivers and tight ends that could also run well; tall 5-technique ends were a priority, as they drafted four in the time frame. And they added three running backs besides Tomlinson. No nose tackles were drafted. 

: I'm not a huge fan of the recent trend of rookie quarterbacks finding instant success. This story isn't about that, however; most quarterbacks seems to struggle early, or even sit the bench early on, then find success later. Historically, Terry Bradshaw, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, and Drew Brees have been less than stellar in the early years. I focused on Brees, and compared him directly to Trent Edwards.

Brees' first 28 games: 10-17 record (one game filling in for Flutie). 540 completions, 909 attempts, 59.4% completions, 5,613 yards, 29 touchdowns, 31 interceptions.

Edwards' first 32 games: 14-16 record (two games played but not responsible for loss). 506 completions, 826 attempts, 61.3% completions, 5,498 yards, 24 touchdowns, 25 interceptions.

Pretty similar. I believe that Brees' success after drafting Philip Rivers, and in New Orleans is something Nix is keeping in mind. Having Rivers on the Charger sidelines undoubtedly provided motivation for Brees' breakout season in 2004. Can an open competition do the same for Edwards as it did for Brees? Maybe. While Brian Brohm, Levi Brown and Ryan Fitzpatrick don't represent the future like Rivers did then, could this be what Nix is after by creating the quarterback competition? Again, maybe. The similarities are there.

Running back:  Spiller was a BPA pick, just like Tomlinson. The Spiller pick makes sense for a couple of reasons. Clemson didn’t have the greatest OL, but played some decent defensive fronts in the ACC. And Spiller still scored in every game. Granted, some of that was on special teams, but his speed is going to make the offense better. Blockers don’t have to hold their blocks as long, and Spiller doesn’t need a huge hole. Spiller’s speed changes the angles that defenders have to take. Tomlinson succeeded for a long time in San Diego without a great OL.

While I am personally against drafting a running back in the first round, Nix knows how Tomlinson was able to elevate the play of those around him. When Buffalo finally begins to contend in a few years, chances are that Spiller will be nearing the end of his time as a productive runner. That's what's happened in San Diego. However, Nix knows what a good, explosive runner can do for a team. In this light, the Spiller pick makes sense.

Also of note, Buffalo stacking up running backs is exactly what the Chargers did, having a depth chart at one point featuring Tomlinson, Michael Turner, and Darren Spoles. Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, and C.J. Spiller. Pretty similar there.

Offensive Line
The Charger lines were really devoid of high-round talent until Nick Hardwick was selected in 2004, and later Marcus McNeill (2006). San Diego chose to go with later-round rookies, undrafted free agents (Kris Dielman) and free agents/trades.

Buffalo is in much better shape. The Levitre-Hangartner-Wood trio represent better talent than San Diego has across its line until 2006. Nix knows this, and drafted accordingly. He knows that the Chargers ran well and protected Brees with the likes of Oben, Hardwick, Van Buren, Shane Olivea, Wesley Britt, Wes Sims, and Scott Mruczkowski for years. 

While the pundits are screaming for a left tackle, Bell, Levitre, Hangartner, Wood, Green, Meredith, Calloway, and Wang represent at least an equal and likely better group of linemen than what Brees had, even in his great years of 2004 and 2005. Is this the best group of linemen in the NFL? No. Also remember that Chan Gailey isn't likely to run a vertical offensive scheme like Turk Schonert tried to. Gailey is an Erhardt-Perkins based coach. He's not likely to put his line in positions where they have to block with little help while deep routes develop. In this light, can Nix afford to wait on the franchise left tackle while building his defense? Probably. And that's exactly what the Chargers did, adding McNeill after the defense was complete.

San Diego had two very good defensive tackles in place, including their future nose tackle. Seau and Harrison were the only other good players on the defense, leading the Chargers to draft heavily on defense. The Chargers initially chose to add front seven help via free agency (Holecek, Rogers, Wiley) and focus on the secondary. After that, however, San Diego drafted for 5-technique ends and outside linebackers early and often in the draft.

Buffalo's secondary is in great shape. George Edwards already had Marcus Stroud, Kyle Williams, Paul Posluszny, and Kawika Mitchell in his front seven the day he took the job. Add Dwan Edwards, Andra Davis, the potential in Maybin and Schobel's possible return, and this group is far stronger than the 2001 Charger defense. 

This also may explain some of the selections we saw during the past two days. The Chargers had Jamal Williams in place; Buffalo didn't have a true nose tackle. Was Troup a reach? Maybe. Was Terrence Cody available? Yes. But Cody wasn’t a good fit. In Baltimore, there’s an established locker room, and Cody will either assimilate or face Ray Lewis’ wrath. Troup is a good NT prospect, he has the right attitude for a forming team, and fills a position of need. Nix knows how valuable Williams was to the Charger defense, and he's hoping Troup brings similar value.

The Chargers drafted four defensive ends  from 2001-2005. Alex Carrington is a similar player to the Charger ends: tall, athletic, and strong. Carrington is the kind of guy that I can see as a cog to the defense, maybe not getting great stats, but someone that the offense has to account for, and a DE that frees up the LBs with his power game. The Carrington pick fits exactly in line with what the Chargers did.

Nix knows that it’s going to take a couple drafts, and this was a very good start. If Troup and Carrington develop, then Buffalo becomes a very tough defense to run against. Combined with Edwards and Davis, this is a good start to the rebuild.

I expect Nix to draft similarly to what we saw from San Diego: lots of late-round offensive linemen, more 5-technique defensive ends, more outside linebackers, more later round inside linebackers, and more tall downfield receiving threats.

Most thought Edwards' make-or-break season was last season. With a new, proven offensive mind in Gailey, an offense built to the personnel strength, and with Brees' progression in mind, 2010 is now Edwards' make-or-break season. We'll either see improvement, or Buffalo finishing badly enough to draft Edwards' replacement. All very similar to what occurred with the Chargers.

Most of all, there's hope. If the Charger rebuild is somewhat of a model for the Buffalo rebuild, we know a couple things. First, that a team much, much worse that Buffalo rebounded very effectively through the draft. And most importantly, that Nix knows how to rebuild a team, and has a blueprint or a concept in mind.