Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix is fond of saying he’d draft a quarterback every year if he could.
It hasn’t worked out that way, of course. The team has selected just one – Levi Brown in the seventh round in 2010 – during Nix’s three years running the draft.
That’s nothing new for the franchise. Instead, it’s the continuation of a troubling trend – one that dates to Jan. 31, 1997, A.K.
Since the greatest passer in franchise history retired on that date, there have been 191 quarterbacks drafted into the NFL. The Bills have taken just three of those. Only the Dallas Cowboys, who have taken two, have drafted fewer quarterbacks over that time.
Nix was asked at the NFL Scouting Combine in February if he regretted taking only one quarterback in the past three years.
“I think obviously you do that. I try not to look back,” he said. “I try to think about what’s ahead, but there’s a couple ways you can do it. If you’re really bad, then you want to try and fill in these spots if they’re available when your pick comes. That was the situation we were in.
“I mean, we were thin at a lot of places. Good players like C.J. [Spiller] and of course Marcell [Dareus], some of those guys, Stephon [Gilmore], when they’re there, it’s hard to pass them up. So we go by the board.”
Hindsight, of course, is 20-20 when it comes to the draft. Every team in the NFL passed on Tom Brady multiple times in the 2000 draft, after all.
But there are certain times where it’s easy to ask “what if?”
Way back in 2001, the Bills traded down with Tampa Bay and held the 21st pick in the first round. Only one quarterback [Michael Vick] had gone when the Bills’ turn came up. Buffalo opted for cornerback Nate Clements, who went on to have a good NFL career, and passed on Drew Brees, who lasted until the first pick of the second round.
At the time, the Bills had chosen Rob Johnson in the great debate over him and Doug Flutie. They were willing to give Johnson one more shot as the starter. Whoops, to put it kindly. Johnson and the Bills started the 2001 season 1-7 and the quarterback’s time here ended when he broke his collarbone in Week Nine. Buffalo plummeted to a 3-13 record that year.
In response, Buffalo traded for former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe at the 2002 draft – giving up their 2003 first-round pick.
From 1997 through 2003, the Bills did not pick a quarterback in any round.
In 2004, the Bills were determined to find a successor for Bledsoe. They wanted to move up from the 13th pick to take Miami (Ohio) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but couldn’t find a trading partner (Houston at the 10th pick was not eager to move down. The Texans were content to stay and take cornerback Dunta Robinson).
Roethlisberger ended up going 11th overall to Pittsburgh and has won two Super Bowls. The Bills ended up trading up to the No. 22 overall selection that year to take J.P. Losman.
Whoops again. Losman had a forgettable five-year career with the Bills, bounced to three more teams and is out of the NFL.
The Bills drafted his eventual replacement, Stanford’s Trent Edwards, in 2007, in the third round with the 92nd overall pick. Edwards was benched two games into the 2010 season in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick, and released shortly thereafter.
Fitzpatrick earned a big-money contract extension midway through the 2011 season, then his play proceeded to go in the tank. Whoops times three.
In the previous draft, the Bills passed over quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick based on the misguided belief Fitzpatrick could be the franchise quarterback. Dalton and Kaepernick were taken with the next two selections after Buffalo drafted cornerback Aaron Williams 34th overall in the second round in 2011.
In all, 10 quarterbacks have started for the Bills in the A.K. era. Three of them have been drafted by the team (Todd Collins, Edwards and Losman), two were acquired via trade (Bledsoe and Johnson), four signed as free agents (Fitzpatrick, Flutie, Alex Van Pelt and Kelly Holcomb) and another was plucked from the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad (Brian Brohm). Whoever is under center Sept. 8 when the Bills host the New England Patriots in the season opener will be No. 11.
“It’s different, there’s no question about that,” Nix said of drafting quarterbacks. “I think a lot of the time, you talk about all this research and everything you do, but it’s a lot of gut feeling, too. How you feel about the guy. At that position, it’s not like you say the guy’s a certain height, the guy can run a certain speed, he’s got good hands, he can catch it. The intangibles are huge at that position, and that’s what’s so hard to figure out.”
So what are the attributes that a quarterback needs? The Buffalo News asked five Bills scouts, and got very different responses.
Here they are:
• College scout Matt Hand: “The first thing I personally look for is ‘can they recognize what the defense is doing?’ If you don’t know what they’re doing, you’re going to have a real hard time. So I see how they operate their offense, if they’re making checks, changing it up. Then I look at arm strength. I think that’s a huge thing in Buffalo, for obvious reasons. If you don’t have a strong arm, and you’ve got some wobble in your ball, it’s very hard to play here.”
• College scout Theo Young: “You want to see what kind of leader he is. How does he manage the game? How does he do the last two or three minutes before the half and at the end of the game? How does he pick his teammates up? I try to look on the sideline, see what he’s doing. Does he listen to the coaches and then try to relay the information to his guys?
• College scout Tom Roth: “The first thing that jumps out is arm strength. Can he make all the throws? Arm strength, decision-making, and the big thing is turnovers. Does he fumble it? Does he take sacks?”
• College scout Brian Fisher: “I’d say accuracy first. A close second is the ability to quickly identify and read coverage. A lot of these college offenses, that initial look is available, but your primary read isn’t open as often in the NFL. You need a guy that can get to the second and third read and do it quickly. You need a very good decision maker and you need an accurate guy.”
• College scout Shawn Heinlen: “You’re looking for the physical attributes first. There’s always the guys who don’t fit the norm, the Russell Wilson or the Doug Flutie, those types of guys. You don’t necessarily say he can’t do it, but that’s the first thing you look for, is to see if you can find prototype size. Ideally, that’s what you’d want to have, all things being equal.”
No wonder finding a franchise quarterback can be one of the most difficult tasks in sports.
“There’s just so many little intricate parts to that position that make up the big picture,” Heinlen said. “You’re just trying to answer as many of those questions as possible.
“You’re never going to have the full answer on any of those things until they actually get here and do it because the NFL is a completely different beast from college. The defensive schemes are so different. You’re just trying to get as many answers as you can and be able to make the best decision as to who you think can project to that.”
The importance of the position can’t be understated. Get the right guy, and everyone in the organization feels better. Scouts look smarter. General managers are geniuses.
“I mean, when we’re doing one, it’s weighted. Because, if you don’t have one, you know, that’s it,” Roth said. “In our minds, and I think in every scout’s mind, it’s weighted. It’s got to be.
“I’ve been here 11 years. I’ve been through so many quarterbacks here. It sucks. You need one.”
The Bills get another chance to find one tonight, starting when their turn comes up eighth overall. Perhaps it will be the start of a new era, and a merciful end to the struggles of the A.K. years.
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.