The injury bug has infested the Buffalo Bills during training camp. Things have gotten so bad last week, we felt compelled to post some satire to provide levity during what was a distressing stretch for the even the casual Bills fan.
Because of the rash of injuries that’ve hit the Buffalo’s roster, an assortment of new players must step into more substantial roles, which is why I think now is the appropriate time to chronicle the pro-scouting prowess of General Manager Doug Whaley and explain the widespread positive impact its had on the Bills organization over the past few years.
Before landing in Western New York, Whaley spent 11 years as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Scouting Coordinator, a vital position in any football organization. In that role, Whaley’s main responsibility was to lead the “scouting” of other NFL teams for potential future acquisitions via the waiver wire, free agency or trade.
In 2010, when the Bills hired him, Whaley was named Assistant GM / Pro Personnel Director, a similar job to that of what he had with the Steelers.
As mentioned, having a GM with more than a decade of pro-scouting experience has paid significant dividends for the Bills in the last four years. Buffalo’s current roster provides plenty of evidence of Whaley’s acumen with evaluating players already in the NFL.
Here are notable players the Bills have added since Whaley took over as GM in 2013:
Tyrod Taylor (signed, 2015 free agency)
Sure, Rex Ryan was vocal about Taylor being “his” target, but Whaley obviously had to sign off on bringing in the career backup as someone who’d be given a legitimate chance to compete for the starting quarterback gig.
LeSean McCoy (acquired via trade, 2015)
Home-run trade for Whaley. Kiko Alonso was injured last season but was hardly a blip on the radar for the Eagles. Then again, McCoy also labored through injuries as well. The difference is... he was a special player when he was on the field and remains a foundational piece of the Bills offense.
Richie Incognito (signed, 2015 free agency)
Although he did meet with the Broncos the previous fall, at the time Whaley and Co. signed Incognito, he was undesired by the rest of the league and spent more than a year away from the game. He dominated for the overwhelming majority of 2015, was named a First-Team All-Pro by Pro Football Focus and was ultimately rewarded with a contract extension. This moved exemplified the phrase “finding a diamond in the rough.”
Jordan Mills (added from Lions practice squad, 2015)
Speaking of Pro Football Focus, Mills was one of the lowest-graded offensive tackles in his two years as a start with the Chicago Bears, which led to his release before the start of last season. He bounced around for a few months until Whaley made the bold move to sign him off the Lions practice squad in season —which, by rule, means he had to join the 53-man roster. Mills’ first start in Buffalo was against J.J. Watt, and although Greg Roman’s scheme and gameplan helped Mills in that frightening matchup, the former fifth-round pick held his own. Outside of the occasional hiccup, he was reliable down the stretch for the Bills last year. Reuniting with his former coach, Aaron Kromer, has apparently helped the maturation of the 6’5”, 315-pounder.
Mike Gillislee (signed in-season, 2015)
Like Mills, Whaley added Gillislee during the 2015 campaign. The signing came at a time when injuries had depleted the Bills’ running back group. When Buffalo added him, his career statline read “six carries for 21 yards” and those figures came in 2013. He ran 46 times in the final month of 2015, averaged 5.86 yards per carry, scored three touchdowns and had rushes of 15, 19, 30, 50, and 60 yards. He will start 2016 as Buffalo’s clear-cut No. 2 running back.
Jerry Hughes (acquired via trade, 2013)
Best trade in Bills history? I think so. Before you freak thinking I snubbed Cornelius Bennett, the Colts got Eric Dickerson in that (three-way) trade, and the Rams received runner Greg Bell, who went on to lead the league in touchdowns in consecutive seasons. Ironically, Jerry Hughes was a first-round pick by the same guy who orchestrated the Bennett trade — Bill Polian — but Ryan Grigson was -- and somehow, still is — the Colts GM who agreed to this lop-sided deal. Hughes hadn’t proven to be a Dwight Freeney replacement in Indianapolis, but the Bills only had to trade pedestrian linebacker Kelvin Sheppard to get him. He spent 2013 with the Colts, was with the Dolphins in 2014 and 2015 and is currently on the Giants roster. He’s proven to be replacement-level at best. Hughes has 25 sacks in his three years with the Bills, inked a shiny new deal after the 2014 season and has been the club’s best edge-rusher for a while.
Manny Lawson (signed, 2013 free agency)
Another former first-round pick, Manny Lawson was largely considered a bust with the 49ers. The Bengals held his rights for two years but decided against re-signing him going into the 2013 season despite Lawson playing considerable snaps as their strongside linebacker. Whaley signed him to a four-year, $12 million deal that March. He was roleplayer for Mike Pettine, seemed out of place when Jim Schwartz was in town but absolutely thrived in Rex Ryan’s defense a year ago. Really... he was tremendous in more ways than one last season. His “hybrid” label is ideal for the Bills defense.
Corey Graham (signed, 2014 free agency)
Ask any Ravens fan — they’ll tell you they wanted Graham, at the time the team’s steadiest corner, to be re-signed. Surprisingly, Ozzie Newsome let him walk in free agency, and Whaley scooped him up, which made for a perfect homecoming for the Buffalo native. Despite his lack of speed, Graham played the ball in the air as well as any cornerback in 2014 — he had 15 passes defended and two picks — yet transitioned wonderfully to safety a season ago. His athletic limitations explain why he routinely lines up in the box, but in run support, he’s as sound as they come at the strong-safety position.
Charles Clay (signed, 2015 free agency)
Most Bills fans probably wanted more receiving production from Clay in 2015 after the shocking and fascinating #CharlesClaySweepstakes, and the veteran tight end would probably agree that he could have been more impactful in his first year with the Bills. However, Clay is integral to Roman’s offense as a rare three-down tight end with dependable blocking ability and wiggle in the open field. In 2016, expect Clay to see more than the six targets per game he averaged last year.
Zach Brown (signed, 2016 free agency)
We don’t know how well Brown will play this season, however, based on his past production and athletic gifts, he should be capable of holding down the weakside linebacker spot next to Preston Brown with Reggie Ragland sidelined. The Bills agreed to a deal with the former second-round pick a few weeks into free agency and his one-year contract is worth just $1.25 million. Had Whaley not identified Brown as a target and got him signed, Buffalo would have a massive hole at inside linebacker right now.
Don’t forget, too... one of Greg Salas, Leonard Hankerson, Greg Little, Walt Powell or Jarrett Boykin will make the roster and contribute as the No. 3 or No. 4 receiver in 2015, and all but Boykin and Little were added in season last year.
Every team’s roster is sprinkled with free-agent acquisitions and waiver-wire claims, and Whaley will forever be tied to whiffed first-round pick EJ Manuel. But his shrewd decision-making on the “pro market” can go relatively unnoticed yet has become an integral building block of the Bills organization. There’s science behind adding experienced veterans to the roster who can still contribute but won’t be expensive. It’s even more difficult to locate serviceable practice squaders, street free agents and impact players who’d be available via trade.
Luckily for the Bills, Whaley has proven to be a master of player acquisitions of any kind.