MOBILE, Ala. – Doug Whaley spent the past two days sitting next to Buddy Nix in the middle of the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, watching the practice sessions for the Senior Bowl.
Last year Whaley was in roughly the same spot, sitting next to the same guy, scouting for the Buffalo Bills. The big difference this year is Whaley is the general manager, not the assistant.
Whaley has held the general manager title since May, but this month marks the start of his first full offseason in charge of the Bills’ football operation. In March he will have the final say on which free agents the Bills pursue. In May he, not Nix, will pull the names off the Bills’ draft board when the team makes its selections.
Whaley, 40, says he doesn’t spend much time thinking about his added power.
“The major difference is I’m the final one with the say now,” Whaley said after watching the South team’s practice. “But for me there’s nothing that feels much different because I always walked through the door every day with the mindset that I was making the decisions.”
Whaley put his stamp on the Bills’ front office as soon as he was promoted. He brought in a new right-hand man, Jim Monos, from the New Orleans Saints. Monos oversees both pro and college scouting. Whaley brought in a new college scouting chief, Kelvin Fisher, from the Arizona Cardinals.
Whaley says the fact he has been with the Bills since 2010 has made his job a lot easier.
“It’s been a great transition,” he said. “Most people who step into a job like I have are coming to a new organization. So they’ve got to get to know the president. They’ve got to get to know the financial officer, the cap guy, your scouts, your team. You’ve got to get to know the city and the fans and the franchise. I was already here, so it was a smooth transition. And the thing that makes it the smoothest, we all have one singular goal to win.”
Nix, who ceded the GM title to Whaley, remains as “special assistant.” Nix spent most of his time last season at his home in Tennessee, reviewing all the Bills’ daily practice tape and loads of college game tape. Whaley said he seeks Nix’s opinion all the time.
“It’s great for me because of having that sounding board of Buddy around,” Whaley said. “It’s a great safety net for me. With his wealth of experience, and him bringing me in, I know how he thinks. He knows how I think. We’ve got the same philosophy of building a team and how to approach it.”
To paraphrase Nix’s philosophy, scouting college players is about “smelling their breath,” which is to say, hitting the road, watching them up close and getting to know them.
“Make no bones about it, this is the most subjective business in the world,” Whaley said. “You’re dealing with humans. I know a lot of people have brought up the analytics part of it. I think in football there are so many different variables in evaluating players. In my opinion, you can use analytics to help you make a decision, but you can’t base your decision on analytics. Because in football you can’t put a numerical value on a guy’s heart, a guy’s toughness. I don’t know how you would do that. So we use analytics as another layer.”
“But in the end, you’ve gotta go with your gut in making decisions on players,” Whaley said. “It’s unpredictable. You do the best you can. You get as much information as you can get, and you make as sound a judgment off the information as you can make.”
Whaley said the Bills had meetings last week to evaluate the free-agency season, which begins in March.
“Right before we left, we went over the free-agent possibilities out there,” he said. “We’ve narrowed it down to some key people we may be interested in. I’ll look at them, Monos will look at them. The pro department will look at them and cross-check along with the coaches.”
“We’re going to set the pros’ board exactly how we do the colleges,” Whaley said. “We’ll have free-agency meetings just like we have draft meetings, and stack a board.”
Whaley said the Bills should have enough salary cap space to do “what we need to do to get better.”
Whaley said he has a good grasp of the salary cap, which is managed by Jim Overdorf, Bills senior vice president of football operations. Overdorf handles contract negotiations, but Whaley said he has relationships with the agents with whom the Bills deal.
“I know what I need to know,” Whaley said regarding the cap, “and anything that’s really intricate, that’s when we lean on J.O. What we like to do is he gives us a spreadsheet of where we are cap-wise, what we can spend, what everybody’s cap number is, potential accelerations, potential escalators. So you’ve got to be cognizant of all that information, because you have to put value on our free agents and free agents we may be looking to sign.”
Some cap chiefs report to the GM. Overdorf reports to team president Russ Brandon. Whaley said he is completely comfortable with the chain of command because the three of them work so closely together.
“Absolutely, because we have one singular focus, to win,” Whaley said. “No one has a hidden agenda in that building.”
Whaley declined to prioritize the Bills’ needs. Most observers would list them as: elite receiving weapon, linebacker, guard and tackle, in one order or another.
“I think we’re closer today than we were last year,” he said.
Whaley thinks the Bills have the luxury of flexibility in the draft because of key pieces they’ve added in recent years. The Bills took the quarterback they believe is their answer last year. They have a quality left tackle in Cordy Glenn. They don’t have a big need at edge rusher. They took their lock-down cornerback two years ago. Those are cornerstone positions teams like to look to the top 10 of the draft to fill.
“What people build a team around, we think we have,” Whaley said. “So now we’ve just got to keep adding other pieces to it. That’s what makes this so exciting. We can go any way. We can truly follow our board and take the best player available, which is a great position to be in.”