I’ve seen a lot during a quarter-century of writing about the Bills. After awhile, things have a tendency to repeat themselves (columnists too!). So every year at this time, it’s amazing to be reminded of this simple fact:
The Bills have never used their first pick in the NFL Draft on a quarterback.
Jim Kelly, who was reluctant to come to Buffalo, went 14th overall in 1983, two picks after Tony Hunter. They traded up to draft J.P. Losman with the 22nd overall pick in 2004, after grabbing Lee Evans at 13.
Dennis Shaw was a second-round pick, Joe Ferguson a third-rounder. Richie Lucas, a quarterback from Penn State, was the Bills’ first-ever AFL draft pick in 1960. But he was a territorial pick, so Lucas comes with an asterisk.
The Bills always had a better idea. They’d over-think and spend their first choice on a defensive back, wide receiver, offensive tackle or running back. Their prolonged run of dysfunction and playoff failure can be directly tied to their inability to identify Kelly’s successor.
It has been a combination of luck, circumstance and general incompetence. Most years, they weren’t quite bad enough to pick at the very top of the draft. A couple of times, they panicked by trading away a No. 1 pick for a quarterback (Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman) who proved sadly unequal to the task.
The pick they trade for Losman (20th overall) could have been used on Aaron Rodgers in 2005. In ’08, they drafted Leodis McKelvin when Joe Flacco was still on the board. Two years ago, they passed on Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton in the second round. A year ago, they let Russell Wilson pass by three times.
So after 53 years, I’d say it’s about time, wouldn’t you?
You can never be sure with this bunch. Buddy Nix might surprise us and use the eighth overall pick on a running back with that rare bonus quality as a kick returner. But something tells me this is it. In tonight’s NFL draft, I expect the Bills to use their first selection on a quarterback.
I’m not sure who they like. Something tells me it’s Ryan Nassib, who played for Doug Marrone and Nate Hackett at Syracuse. The idea of a Syracuse trinity is almost too good to be true. But Jon Gruden, the guru of quarterback prospects, considers Nassib the best QB in this draft. Gruden’s stamp of approval means a lot.
But if they identify someone else as their franchise QB, so be it. It’s their job to find the right guy. Just do it. It’s not the end of the world if he turns out not to be great. The worst thing is not taking a shot at all.
The draft gurus have been telling us for months that this is a bad quarterback class. These are some of the same geniuses who said Matt Barkley would have been the No. 1 overall pick last year, the experts who felt Wilson lacked the offensive tools to be an NFL starter.
Nix feels the class has been undersold, too. The Bills’ general manager said there are at least two or three franchise QBs in this draft. Of course, Nix is the same man who failed to upgrade the position in his first three drafts, so he’s not an impeccable source on the subject. But I agree with him.
Draft experts dwell too much on a quarterback’s weaknesses, instead of highlighting his assets. Unless it’s Cam Newton, Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, they obsess about arm strength or foot speed or pocket presence and decide that some offensive tackle is a better NFL prospect.
Yes, it’s hard to project quarterbacks, and many of them are busts. But it’s well worth the risk. The payoff for hitting on a quarterback is much greater than any other position. A franchise QB is like a winning $100 million lottery ticket. You don’t get that kind of payoff for being right about a guard.
Jim Harbaugh put it well when someone asked him about the harsh evaluations of Barkley, who played against him when Harbaugh was at Stanford: “’Tis the season for ripping apart someone’s game,” the Niners coach said.
Maybe this isn’t the best QB class. It probably doesn’t have a Cam Newton, Luck or Griffin. But you can’t tell me several of them aren’t worthy of going in the first round in a league where the QB position is more vital than ever.
Really, are Barkley, Nassib, E.J. Manuel and Tyler Wilson so clearly inferior to quarterbacks who went in the first round in recent drafts? Who saw the run on QBs coming two years ago, when Jake Locker (8), Blaine Gabbert (10) and Christian Ponder (12) went flying off the board?
I suspect there are some surprises in store. Some of the more circumspect general managers aren’t tipping their hands. By late tonight, we’ll realize that this wasn’t as weak a quarterback class as we’d been led to believe.
The Bills seem to have their eye on a quarterback or two. Maybe they’ll shock us and go for one of the lesser-regarded names, someone who is likely to be there at 41st overall. But if they’re expecting Barkley or Nassib to fall to them at 41, they’re taking a huge gamble.
Taking another position with the eighth overall pick and moving up from the 41st slot to take the quarterback could be a bigger risk. They gave up a first for Losman and lived to regret it. The Bills could be bad enough to pick in the top 10 again next year. They’d be fools to trade that pick away now.
This assumes that the Bills’ guy is there at No. 8 overall. If teams are sleeping on quarterbacks, things could get interesting near the top of the draft. Maybe Geno Smith has more suitors than people imagined, scrambling the board. The Jets pick ninth. What if they decide to move past the Bills to take a quarterback?
In an ideal world, the Bills would trade back in the draft, confident that their quarterback will be there in the latter part of the first round. They could get their franchise QB and collect an extra pick or two in the process, like a personnel department that actually knows what it’s doing.
Trading back comes with risks, too. The main objective is to get your quarterback. No one will expect him to be a star overnight. The Dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill eighth overall last year and he’s a work in progress. But at least Miami has their franchise guy in place.
The time comes when you have to go for it. The only guaranteed failure, as the Bills have discovered, is not taking a shot. And if they’re not sold after one year, they can always take another quarterback with their first pick next year.
Continue to follow our intensive NFL draft coverage tonight, beginning with a live video show co-hosted by Tim Graham and Jay Skurski at 7:30 on BuffaloNews.com. We will have reports from Mark Gaughan and Jerry Sullivan at One Bills Drive, as well as an ongoing live chat.