The draft was so dramatic, so full of twists and turns and trades, you almost forgot it was the first one the Bills ever conducted without Ralph Wilson. But Russ Brandon, the team’s president and CEO, made sure to keep the late owner’s memory alive. He mentioned Wilson every chance he got.
Early Saturday evening, when the team’s top brass met with the media near the close of the three-day event, Brandon called the team’s free-wheeling draft “quite a tribute to Mr. Wilson.”
At the end of the press conference, Brandon was asked if Wilson’s memory was constantly on his mind. He looked down, fumbled with a pen and struggled for words. “It’ll be on my ... ” Brandon stopped. When he looked up, his eyes were red with tears.
“It’ll be on my mind the rest of my life,” he said. “Every day. As you guys know, he loved the draft. I thought about him a lot as we led up to it. He would have loved the last three days. He loved to wheel and deal.”
Wilson would have been in his glory in the war room this year. Doug Whaley, in his first official year as the general manager, made five trades in three days. To borrow one of Wilson’s phrases, Whaley acted like a “general manager of football,” a man with a bold, calculating plan.
We talk about GMs as architects. But you need to see a design. You can see one after Whaley’s two years in charge. Even the most skeptical Bills fans can take comfort in the fact that Whaley isn’t playing it safe, that he’ll shoot for the moon to realize his football vision.
Even before the draft was over, the experts were weighing in with their evaluations. Grades are being posted, personnel guys lauded for their value picks, marginal teams identified as the ones most likely to make the jump to playoff contenders.
I’m not here to grade anyone. It takes years to make a judgment on a draft. Teams become contenders by stacking multiple drafts, by having a long-range plan and sticking with it, by hitting on enough high picks, sleepers and free agents to make a serious run when things come together.
But it’s fair to look at the two drafts since Whaley took over and look for signs of progress. Buddy Nix was the nominal GM last year. But it was already becoming Whaley’s operation. Last year’s draft was his, for better or worse.
During the last two drafts, Whaley and coach Doug Marrone have proceeded with a clear sense of what it takes to win in today’s NFL. They knew the offense was inferior. They knew the passing attack wasn’t good enough for today’s NFL, and they went hard after a solution.
In consecutive drafts, they took EJ Manuel, the top available quarterback in their minds, and then made a big gamble by trading up for Sammy Watkins, the best wide receiver and the most explosive offensive player in this year’s draft.
Whaley took some risks. Giving up next year’s first-rounder for Sammy Watkins will set the franchise back if Manuel fails. At least he’s taking the bold path. That’s become their motto under Brandon. Be bold. Take chances. Don’t settle for average and you might find your way to great.
“Going into this weekend, we said that we wanted to be aggressive,” Brandon said. “We wanted to be bold. We made five trades in the last three days to change the complexion of our organization and our roster moving forward.”
The maneuvering began last year, when they moved back eight spots to take Manuel and turned the extra pick into Kiko Alonso, who performed like a top 10 talent. Alonso seemed like a bonus pick, which might have emboldened Whaley to take his biggest gamble – trading next year’s No. 1 for Watkins.
Whaley also gave up a 2015 fourth-rounder for Watkins, then got it back as a conditional pick when he Stevie Johnson on Friday. He gave that pick to the Eagles and got running Bryce Brown, who was a spare part in Philly but has been very productive at times and is only 22.
For moving back just three spots, from the 41st to 44th overall pick, Whaley got an extra fifth-rounder that he used for Cyril Richardson, who was the Jim Parker Award winner as the country’s top offensive lineman.
Cyrus Kouandjio, the player he wanted at 41, was there at 44. Whaley traded his original fifth-round pick to Tampa for a seventh-rounder this year and next year’s fifth. Did you catch all that?
“From day one, we decided that we will investigate any measure that will help us get where we want to go,” Whaley said. “My philosophy is ‘Don’t be afraid to make a deal if it makes sense.’”
Whaley said it was a thrill to be in that room, making those swift judgments on trades, being in the middle of the action.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m a competitor, and I feel the rush. I’m not able to compete on the field anymore, so this is my arena. Any move we feel is going to bring a winner to this city and this region and the Bills fans, it’s exciting.”
Bills fans are likely to eat it up. Ticket sales are always a consideration, especially with the team up for sale. Fans react to offense and new playmakers (remember Terrell Owens?). And you need a good one to win. The Bills haven’t had a top NFL offense in over a decade.
Whaley acknowledged that he’s trying to surround Manuel with players to help him succeed as the franchise guy. Last year, he drafted wideouts Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin in the second and third rounds. This year he added Watkins and three mammoth offensive linemen.
It’s clear he wants Manuel to have quality players to throw the ball to, and plenty of blockers to keep him from being hit as often as he was as a rookie. Granted, the jury is still out on Manuel. If EJ falls flat, the plan goes to pieces. Whaley would be an architect with a big hole in the ground instead of a foundation. The skepticism about the Watkins move is largely about Manuel.
Whaley has placed a lot of faith in Manuel. He didn’t take a quarterback in this draft, as many fans had hoped, affirming that belief. He’s trying to give him the tools to succeed, though cynics would suggest they’re assuring that EJ doesn’t have any excuses if he fails.
“It’s all about winning,” Brandon said. “There’s nothing else, absolutely nothing else that matters. We’ve made changes and we’re not going to sit on our hands or let sand get under our shoes when trying to put a winning product on the field. That’s what we’re all about.”