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On Sports

Bills would love to find second-to-none talent in the draft

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Rochester Business Journal
April 24, 2015

Tick, tick, tick, tick. The clock was winding down. The tension was mounting. Only minutes remained before general manager Bill Polian had to notify National Football League officials who the Buffalo Bills would select in the second round of the 1988 draft.

Surprisingly, Thurman Thomas, a promising running back from Oklahoma State University, was still on the board when it came time for the Bills to make the 40th pick overall. Thomas had rushed for nearly 5,000 yards during his illustrious college career and had been good enough to keep teammate and future Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders in a reserve role. As a result, Thomas had been projected to go in the first round, but he wound up sliding down the charts because of lingering concerns about a knee injury he had suffered two years earlier, during his junior season.

The Bills’ medical staff had thoroughly examined Thomas’ knee and said it was structurally sound. But Polian wanted to be extra sure before making a pick that would determine his fate and the fate of the franchise, so he asked coach Marv Levy to make one more phone call that evening from the “war room” at One Bills Drive.

“Marv’s got Thurman’s college coach on the speaker phone and he assured us that Thurman was completely recovered and had been a workhorse his senior year,” recalled Polian, now a football analyst for ESPN. “After we hung up, we went over the pros and cons with (Bills owner Ralph Wilson). I told Mr. Wilson: ‘Ultimately, this is your call. You are going to pay a lot of money to this guy. It’s conceivable he could get injured again, and you don’t know what’s going to happen after that.’ Mr. Wilson said: ‘Ah, everything in life’s a gamble. Go ahead and draft him.’”

It didn’t take long for Thomas to silence his doubters. Playing with a chip the size of Ralph Wilson Stadium on his shoulder pads, the “Thurmanator” helped the Bills make their unprecedented run to four consecutive Super Bowls. Thomas completed his 13-year, Hall of Fame career with more rushing and receiving yards (16,532) and touchdowns (88) than the seven running backs chosen ahead of him combined.

The Thomas story bears repeating because this April, like 27 Aprils ago, the Bills enter the draft without a first-round pick. And this April, like that one nearly three decades ago, Buffalo boasts a roster abundant in talent that is one or two players away from ending a long playoff drought. Finding a Thomas or another Hall of Famer, as they did in 1961 with the drafting of guard Billy Shaw in the second round, is a long shot. So, too, would be the discovery of a second-rounder like linebacker Darryl Talley, nose tackle Fred Smerlas or defensive end Phil Hansen—each of whom is enshrined on the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame. The Bills gladly would make do with a lesser but still competent number two, such as linebacker Jim Haslett, guard Reggie McKenzie, offensive tackle Joe Devlin, running back Joe Cribbs, defensive end Aaron Schobel, defensive lineman Jim Dunaway, cornerback Nate Odomes, linebacker Kiko Alonso or guard Andy Levitre.

A study of the 63 second-round picks in franchise history reveals there are more terrible twos than terrific twos. For every Thomas, Shaw, Talley and Smerlas, there have been many more players like Terrell Troup and Glenn Glass, second-rounders who were busts.

The Bills have fared fairly well in their five previous drafts without a first-round selection, starting with the Thomas pick. In 1989, they didn’t have a first- or second-round choice, but Polian did all right, choosing Don Beebe out of Division II Chadron State. The speedy wide receiver had a solid career with the Bills, catching 164 passes for 2,537 yards and 18 touchdowns and stretching the field so fellow wideouts Andre Reed and James Lofton would have more room to operate.

Without a first-round pick in 1998, Buffalo tabbed linebacker Sam Cowart, who had an immediate impact but whose career was cut short by injuries in his third season. Hamstrung again without a first-rounder in 2005, the Bills tabbed Roscoe Parrish in the second round. Although he didn’t make a significant contribution as a wide receiver, he did as a punt returner, establishing team records for return yardage and touchdowns in a season and a career.

There has been speculation the Bills might use this year’s second-round pick on a quarterback of the future. Attempts to find a signal caller in that round haven’t panned out. Todd Collins, selected out of Michigan in 1995, was supposed to be Jim Kelly’s successor. But the heir apparent became an err apparent. Dennis Shaw, chosen in the second round in 1970 to take over for Jack Kemp, won offensive rookie of the year honors but wound up being traded three seasons later for wide receiver Ahmad Rashad.

Last year, the Bills looked to beef up their offensive line by drafting tackle Cyrus Kouandijo from Alabama in the second round. High draft picks are expected to be immediate contributors, but the 6-foot-7, 322-pound Kouandijo failed to seize his opportunities. New head coach Rex Ryan and his assistants are hoping the light bulb switches on for their young lineman, because it’s a unit that must improve if Buffalo is to end its 16-year playoff famine. Don’t be surprised if current general manager Doug Whaley uses a second-rounder, as well as later picks, to address the line’s woes. He doesn’t necessarily need to find a future Hall of Famer like Shaw, but if he were to discover, say, a dependable, immediate starter, like previous second-round picks Cordy Glenn and Levitre, he might punch Buffalo’s ticket to the post-season this season.

Scott Pitoniak is a best-selling author, nationally honored columnist, television correspondent and radio talk show host in his 42nd year in journalism. You can listen to him Monday-Friday from 3-7 p.m. on 95.7 FM, AM 950 or online at espnrochester.com.

4/24/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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