The first Buffalo Bills draft I covered back in 1985 was rather anticlimactic. The Bills already had signed Bruce Smith to a multiyear contract weeks before late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped to the podium to announce that Buffalo officially had used the first overall pick on the mountainous, lightning-quick defensive end from Virginia Tech. The selection of Smith didn’t do much to stoke fans who had grown apathetic after a league-worst 2-14 season. In fact, some were upset Buffalo hadn’t chosen Doug Flutie, the dynamic, pint-sized, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
Suspense had been sacked. And we didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the other Bills selections that April, though we should have, because in the fourth-round Buffalo chose an obscure player from tiny Kutztown (Pa.) State named Andre Reed. Over time, this diamond-in-the-rough would establish himself as the finest receiver in Bills annals, and eventually join classmate Smith in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
How rare a feat is that, to select two Hall of Famers in the same draft? So rare that it’s the only time it’s happened in the 58-year history of the franchise.
Fast-forward 33 years, and the Bills have another opportunity to make history, perhaps not to the extent of 1985 (which also produced trusty, backup quarterback Frank Reich). This draft will go a long way in determining the future of the franchise and the men most responsible for the selections: general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott.
The Bills enter this annual talent grab with an abundance of riches, including two selections in each of the first three rounds, a total of six among the first 96 picks. And, unlike April 1985, there will be plenty of intrigue. Will they bundle their No. 12 and No. 22 picks (and possibly more) to move up high enough to pluck one of the handful of quarterbacks who might be destined for stardom? Or will they sit tight, keep all their picks, and address the numerous holes throughout the roster?
Not to dump lake-effect snow on the Bills Mafia’s parade, but the Bills haven’t done well drafting quarterbacks and have had mixed results when making two first-round picks in a given year, which has happened eight times before.
Let’s be honest here, when it comes to quarterback lineage, Buffalo isn’t exactly the Green Bay Packers (Bart Starr, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers), Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts (Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck) or the San Francisco 49ers (Joe Montana, Steve Young). In fact, Jim Kelly is the only great QB in Bills history, with Jack Kemp and Joe Ferguson a distant second and third, and an enormous drop-off from there.
Of the 31 quarterback Buffalo has drafted, only three were taken in the first round – Kelly at 14th in 1983; EJ Manuel at 16th in 2013 and J.P. Losman at 22nd in 2004. Fergy was a third-round pick in 1973, and Kemp was claimed off waivers for $100 in 1962. Interestingly, Kelly was selected two picks after the Bills chose Tony Hunter, a tight end from Notre Dame who wound up being a monumental bust.
The first time Buffalo had two first-round picks was in 1973, and they got Hall-of-Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure with the 26th selection and tackle/tight end Paul Seymour with the seventh choice. Six years later, they used the No. 1 overall pick on Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau and the fifth overall pick on wide receiver Jerry Butler. Cousineau never played for the Bills, but they were able to deal him to the Cleveland Browns for the future pick that was used on Kelly.
In ’85, the Bills took Smith at one and cornerback Derrick Burroughs at 14. Burroughs had a few decent seasons before being forced to retire with a neck condition. In 1986, they drafted running back Ronnie Harmon at 16th and future Pro Bowl offensive tackle Will Wolford at 20th. The first round of 2004 saw them take wide receiver Lee Evans at 13th and Losman. Two years later, they struck out, selecting good-but-not-great defensive back Donte Whitner at eighth and mediocre defensive tackle John McCargo at 26th.
In 2009, then-coach Dick Jauron foolishly overruled his general manager and scouts to pick undersized linebacker Aaron Maybin 11th overall. Fortunately, he listened to them when it came time to choose center Eric Wood at 28th. In my mind, Maybin is the worst draft pick in Bills history. He was so bad, he was a healthy-scratch for most of his rookie season. He wasn’t even good enough to play special teams.
I know history can be bunk, but it is worth noting that just because you have a wealth of picks doesn’t mean you’re going to get rich.
I still think Buffalo is going to move up to choose a quarterback. But how high? And for how much? Cleveland probably doesn’t budge and selects USC’s Sam Darnold at No. 1. The New York Giants might be willing to move, but the price tag of three first-rounders (two this year, one next) is exorbitant. If they stay put, they could choose pass-rusher Bradley Chubb or running back Saquon Barkley. In the third spot, the New York Jets definitely will select a quarterback. Whether that’s Josh Rosen, Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield, we don’t know. With the fourth pick, the Browns could take Chubb or Barkley, or trade down, which they might do for Buffalo’s two first-rounders.
The “McBeane” team finds itself in an interesting spot. I’m hoping the Bills come away with a quarterback of the future, even if it’s someone they have to spend time developing, say Lamar Jackson or Mason Rudolph. The tricky part is pulling this off without paying a king’s ransom because there are many other holes to plug.
Unlike my first draft, this one is suspenseful. Can’t wait to see how it unfolds.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.