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A look back at the best and the worst of Buffalo Bills drafts

We sports fans and writers love to rank things, then debate those rankings. We can’t help ourselves. It’s in our DNA. With the National Football League Draft less than two weeks away, I thought it would be fun to choose the best and worst picks and classes in Buffalo Bills history. Let the debating begin.

Best Draft Pick: Jim Kelly, first round, 1983. Yes, you could make steel-strong arguments that defensive end Bruce Smith (1985), O.J. Simpson (1969) and guard Joe DeLamielleure (1973) were all better at their respective positions than Kelly, but the swaggering quarterback’s impact went beyond statistics and awards. He was not merely a Pro Bowl signal-caller, but a football savior. Before Kelly’s arrival after the USFL folded in the summer of 1986, owner Ralph Wilson considered moving the team. The Bills were coming off consecutive 2-14 seasons and season-ticket sales had plummeted to 19,000. In the week after Kelly’s signing, the Bills sold an additional 10,000 season tickets. And he had a pied piper effect on free agents wanting to come to a franchise once considered football’s Siberia. Kelly not only led the Bills to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, but also helped them lead the NFL in attendance six consecutive seasons. No small feat for a team playing in the league’s second-smallest market.

Worst Pick: Aaron Maybin, first round, 2009. Sadly, there are so many flops from which to choose. The infamous list includes offensive tackle Mike Williams (2002), defensive end Walt Patulski (1972), wide receiver Perry Tuttle (1982), tight end Tony Hunter (1983), defensive end Erik Flowers (2000) and quarterback EJ Manuel (2013). I went with Maybin because it’s pretty sad when the 11th overall pick in the draft becomes a healthy scratch week after week after week. The undersized defensive end from Penn State couldn’t even get on the field as a special teams player. Unfortunately, Coach Dick Jauron, who made a career of going 7-9, saw something in Maybin that nobody else did.

Best Sleeper Pick: Andre Reed, fourth round, 1985. Chris Burkett, whom the Bills took in the second round, was supposed to be the receiver who made it big. Instead, it was Reed, hailing from tiny Kutztown State, who would run a pass pattern from Orchard Park to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Interestingly, a former Bills receiving great with the best nickname in franchise history was the man who lobbied hardest on behalf of Reed. Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion loved what he saw when he scrutinized film and put Reed through a pre-draft workout. All-time linebacker Mike Stratton (13th round, 1962), All-AFL defensive tackle Tom Sestak (17th round, 1962) and offensive tackle Howard “House” Ballard (11th round, 1987) were superb late-round finds.

Best Gamble Pick: Thurman Thomas, second round, 1988. Although he had been good enough to keep legendary running back Barry Sanders on the bench for two years at Oklahoma State, Thomas wasn’t chosen until the 40th pick because many teams were concerned about his durability after a knee injury truncated his junior season. The Bills checked him out thoroughly and wound up striking gold. Thomas won an NFL MVP award and became Buffalo’s all-time leading rusher. He also was a dangerous and prolific receiver and one of the league’s most dependable blitz blockers.

Best Draft Class: 1985. In Smith and Reed, General Manager Bill Polian landed two Hall-of-Famers. But he also discovered a starting cornerback (Derrick Burroughs) and four dependable backups, most notably, quarterback Frank Reich. The 1979 draft is a close second. It produced seven starters, led by five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas, linebacker Jim Haslett, who led the team in tackles five times, and Jerry Butler, who would have become the finest receiver in Bills history had his career not been cut short by knee injuries. The 1961 class also deserves mention with the selection of three of the best offensive linemen in team history: Hall of Fame guard Billy Shaw, five-time AFL All-star tackle Stew Barber and center Al Bemiller, who was named to Buffalo’s Silver Anniversary team.

Worst Draft Class: 1966. The first three picks were Mike Dennis, Jim Lindsey and Randy Jackson. Never heard of them? That’s understandable. None of them ever played for the Bills, ending up with other teams. The 1975 draft, in which 10th-rounder Roland Hooks was the only pick to distinguish himself, also ranks down there. The 1993 (defensive back Thomas Smith, first round) and 2000 (Flowers, first round) also produced more suspects than prospects.

Best No. 1 Overall Pick: Bruce Smith (1985). The Bills have had the first pick in the NFL draft four times, and it never worked out better for them than when they chose Smith, the former Virginia Tech All-America who became a two-time defensive player of the year and the league’s all-time sack leader with 200 quarterback takedowns. Interestingly, a majority of Bills fans wanted Buffalo to choose Doug Flutie, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Boston College. Fortunately, the Bills brain trust, led by Polian, didn’t listen. The Bills also made the most of the league’s top pick in 1969, selecting Simpson, who originally said he wouldn’t play if Buffalo drafted him.

Worst No. 1 Overall Pick: Tom Cousineau, 1979. The All-American linebacker from Ohio State snubbed the Bills for the Canadian Football League. Buffalo eventually traded his rights to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for a future draft pick, which the Bills used in 1983 to select Kelly. Cousineau wound up being a flop; Kelly, a Hall-of-Famer. Buffalo actually selected Hunter, a tight end from Notre Dame, with its first pick in ’83, and Hunter became a bust.

Award-winning Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak is in his 33rd year covering the Buffalo Bills and has written five books about the team.

4/14/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or e-mail madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

3 comments

  1. Scott,

    You might also want to give strong consideration to 1977 number one pick (#12 overall) Phil Dokes. This is what his brother James had to say about Phil:

    He had a choice between football and basketball, say brother James Dokes, and chose football for its long-range opportunities.
    “That may surprise some people,” said James Dokes, whose brother Phillip died of apparent heart failure on Dec. 7, 1989 “but he really didn’t like to play football. He wasn’t scared or anything like that, he just didn’t like it that much.”

    James goes on to say: “He played with the Bills in 1977-78, but then walked out of camp. “That’s the bottom line,” said his brother, James Dokes, a senior editor for a Little Rock, Ark., television station. “He didn’t get along with (Bill’s head coach) Chuck Knox..”And he was always concerned about his physical means, he didn’t want to be shot up (for pain) or anything like that. That was a big thing with him. He and Knox just didn’t get along.”

    In his two seasons with the Bills Dokes started 10 games all in his second season. Hardly an outstanding return on a first round investment. Unfortunately there are no statistics available for his on-field production to further evaluate his production.

    I guess the pre-draft process wasn’t as sophisticated back then so the Bills could have discovered that Dokes didn’t like playing football.

  2. Thanks, Ed. Yes, I should have included Phil on that list. It’s interesting because Mike Williams, the big offensive tackle Buffalo drafted near the top, also didn’t have his heart in the game. He didn’t really seem to like the physical nature of it, despite being an offensive lineman. Again, thanks for reminding me about Dokes – and the back story.

  3. I guess I can excuse the Bills for the Dokes choice as teams didn’t do their “homework” on the players as much as they do these days. Obviously they weren’t diligent enough in evaluating Mike Williams’ motivations and background. Hopefully the team crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s on this weekends selections. I think a tee shirt I saw last summer at SJF summed it up best: “This team makes me drink.”

    Regards,
    Ed

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