The Buffalo Bills have made 59 first round picks in the NFL Draft since their inception in 1960*. Some of those picks were home runs, while some were major busts. Most made their mark in the NFL with the Bills, but a few moved on to other teams while cementing their legacy.
What would a starting lineup made out of those players look like? I took a look back at fifty-plus years of Bills drafting history, and put together a lineup of 22 players that could compete with the best of them...no, really, it could.
Before I begin, I’ll note that I’m considering a player’s entire career, not just their time with Buffalo. Their Bills career will definitely take precedence in a tiebreaker, however.
*Six of those were in the AFL Draft prior to the start of the combined draft in 1967, but I’m not worried about semantics here.
Jim Kelly, 1983 (1-14)
The Bills have taken a quarterback in the first round of the draft three times, and even if the competition were a little better than J.P. Losman and E.J. Manuel, Kelly would be the top choice by a mile. He led the Bills to four consecutive AFC Championships, led the league in passer rating in 1991, and made it into Canton on his first try in 2002. When people think of great Bills players, Jimbo is usually the first or second that comes to mind.
O.J. Simpson, 1969 (1-1)
Marshawn Lynch, 2007 (1-12)
Thurman Thomas was a second rounder, so that leaves The Juice and Beast Mode to take the top two spots for this team. While it’s almost impossible to think about Simpson at this point without remembering everything that’s happened to him in the last 25 years, he’s really one of the most talented backs that’s ever played in the NFL. He ran for more than 100 yards per game three times, including a still-record 143.1 yards per game in his landmark 1973 season. He was the first Bill inducted into the Hall of Fame, in 1985.
Lynch may return to the NFL this season, if everything pans out with his potential move to the Raiders, but even without that he’s been one of the best running backs of the last ten years. After a decent start with the Bills, with whom he ran for 2,765 yards in two-plus seasons, Lynch put up four straight 1,000-yard seasons in Seattle and led the league in rushing touchdowns twice.
Eric Moulds, 1996 (1-24)
Lee Evans, 2004 (1-13)
There’s a tragic irony in the fact that Moulds finished his career with 9,995 receiving yards. His first year was Jim Kelly’s last, so he was forced to make do with the cavalcade of quarterbacks that followed number 12. He somehow managed to put together a Pro Bowl year in 2000 (94-1,326-5) with Rob Johnson at the helm for 11 games, and when he actually received some solid QB play from Drew Bledsoe in 2002 he put together the best receiving season in Bills history (100-1,292-10).
There are a few candidates for the second receiver spot, but I’ll give Evans the nod over Haven Moses and Jerry Butler. Evans caught 377 passes for the Bills, more than anybody except Moulds, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas. He managed to do that with some of the weakest quarterback play the team has seen, having caught passes from the likes of Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman, and Trent Edwards (whose inability to throw down the field made Evans’ speed a moot point).
Paul Seymour, 1973 (1-7)
The Bills have only picked a tight end in the first round three times. Tony Hunter, who was famously picked two spots ahead of Jim Kelly in 1983, suffered a career-ending leg injury in 1986 (he had moved on from the Bills at that point, anyway). That leaves Seymour and Reuben Gant, who was selected 18th in the very next draft. Seymour, who was a converted offensive tackle, played a part in helping O.J. Simpson become one of the top players in football during the mid-seventies, while Gant was a bit player in the receiving game, so Seymour gets the nod here.
OT Will Wolford, 1986 (1-20)
OT John Fina, 1992 (1-27)
G Joe DeLamielleure, 1973 (1-26)
G Ruben Brown, 1995 (1-14)
C Eric Wood, 2009 (1-28)
The Bills haven’t picked many tackles in the first round over the years, notably whiffing on Mike Williams at fourth overall in 2002. Wolford and Fina both started at left tackle on two Super Bowl teams, with Wolford starting out the era and Fina finishing once Wolford moved on to Indianapolis. Between the two, the Bills had the left tackle spot sewn up for fifteen years.
Jim Ritcher was another stalwart on those Super Bowl teams, but it’s hard to compete with a Hall of Famer in Joe D and the nine-time Pro Bowler Brown. DeLamielleure was the key cog in the Electric Company lines of the early 70’s, while Brown was the a key figure in the last stretch of Bills playoff appearances before finishing out his career with a solid stretch in Chicago.
Wood is one of only two first round centers for the Bills, and the other (Dave Behrman in 1963) never started a game. Still, Wood deserves plenty of praise as one of the better centers of the decade and as a highly visible team leader during the latter part of the playoff drought.
DE Bruce Smith, 1985 (1-1)
DE Carl Eller, 1964 (1-5)
DT Marcell Dareus, 2011 (1-3)
Smith is widely considered the best player in franchise history and one of the top three defensive ends (if not the top overall) in NFL history. The Virginia Tech product made 11 Pro Bowls and six All Pro teams (five of which came after he turned 30). He was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year twice, and finished his Hall of Fame career with an NFL-record 200 sacks. I don’t think I need to say much else.
Aside from Bruce, however, the Bills have struggled when it comes to picking defensive ends high. Last year’s top pick, Shaq Lawson, holds some promise, but at this point the second spot goes to a guy who never actually played for the Bills. Eller was a top pick in both the AFL Draft and the NFL Draft, where the Minnesota Vikings selected him sixth overall. Eller spent 15 seasons in Minnesota, missing only two games over the first 14 of those. He made six Pro Bowls and five All Pro teams between 1968 and 1974. He retired after a season with Seattle in 1979, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 2004.
Dareus has been disappointing over the last couple seasons, but he’s still a two-time Pro Bowler who recorded 10 sacks from the interior in 2014. The hope is that he’s moved past the drug use and injuries that limited him to seven games last season, because the 27-year-old is a major force when he’s on the field.
Shane Conlan, 1987 (1-8)
Tom Ruud, 1975 (1-19)
Tom Cousineau, 1979 (1-1)
Despite having taken a linebacker in the last 11 drafts, the Bills haven’t taken one in the first round since Conlan in 1987, and these three are the only first-round linebackers the team has ever taken. Of the three, Conlan was the clear superior as a three-time Pro Bowler and the Defensive Rookie of the Year in ‘87 (over future Hall of Famer Rod Woodson).
Ruud, who had two sons that went on to play in the NFL, started three games in his three seasons with the Bills before finishing his career in Cincinnati. Cousineau famously spurned the Bills for the Canadian Football League before the team traded him to the Browns for a slate of picks, including the one they used on Jim Kelly. Cousineau started for the Browns for three-plus seasons and was a solid-but-unspectacular player who never made a Pro Bowl before finishing his career with the 49ers.
CB Antoine Winfield, 1999 (1-23)
CB Nate Clements, 2001 (1-21)
CB Mario Clark, 1976 (1-18)
S Henry Jones, 1991 (1-26)
S Donte Whitner, 2006 (1-8)
Winfield and Clements will always be linked at the hip as symbols of the Bills’ downfall from contender to pretender. Both were standout corners with the team, including a three-year stretch as teammates from 2001-03, but the Bills’ refusal to pay either player led them both to move on in free agency while the Bills struggled to replace them. Winfield went on to a long career with the Vikings, where he made three Pro Bowls in nine seasons before retiring in 2012. Clements also finished his career that year, although he failed to make any Pro Bowls after leaving the Bills in 2007 for the largest contract a defensive back had ever signed up to that point.
Clark earns the nickel corner spot on the roster over such players as Jeff Burris (who had a decent career with several teams) and Leodis McKelvin (who never quite managed to become the team’s top corner before leaving in free agency). Clark never made a Pro Bowl, but he was the top corner on the team for eight seasons. He recorded at least five interceptions in four of those (including seven in 1977).
Jones never quite kept up the momentum of his monster 1992 campaign, when he was named to the All Pro team after leading the NFL with eight interceptions, but he remained a starter through the end of the decade and was known as one of the better all-around safeties in the league. Whitner, on the other hand, has more or less been a one-dimensional run stuffer, albeit a very good one for a time. After his acrimonious divorce from the Bills in 2011, he made three Pro Bowls with the 49ers and Browns despite never logging more than two interceptions in a season. He started nine games for Washington last year as a mid-season pickup.