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Pitoniak: Whaley Comes Out Firing
By Scott Pitoniak
Doug Whaley wasted little time in establishing himself as a wheeler-and-dealer. In his first draft as an NFL general manager, Dealer Doug initiated three trades in an effort to shock to life a moribund Buffalo Bills team that hasn’t made the playoffs in 14 seasons. The biggest deal, of course, occurred shortly after the draft commenced Thursday night, when Whaley moved up five spots to nab Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. It was a huge gamble, one that will cost the Bills their first and fourth-round picks next year, but I believe it was a risk worth taking. I mean, what the heck, you haven’t made the playoffs since Bill Clinton was in the White House, so you need to do something dramatic in order to end the famine. Why not chuck it deep?
Watkins is a superb all-around receiver who can stretch the field or turn a short pass into a long gain. He has the ability to be open even when he’s covered, so to speak, by out-leaping defensive backs for the ball. He comes to camp as the No. 1 receiver and should give developing quarterback EJ Manuel the kind of playmaker to whom opposing teams have to pay extra attention.
Whaley’s second trade sent enigmatic wide receiver Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers for a conditional pick in 2015 that could be as high as a third rounder, depending on Stevie’s production this season. It was a good move. Johnson, a seventh-round pick in 2008, had a nice run in Buffalo, with three 1,000-yard receiving seasons, but he also had his issues, and with the addition of the dynamic and versatile Watkins, the Bills have a glut of talented, young receivers who need to be on the field. There are only so many footballs to go around, and this could have devolved into a toxic situation if Stevie saw his playing time reduced, which likely would have happened.
This deal could wind up being beneficial for both teams. Johnson should benefit from going to a contending team in need of receivers, and the Bills should benefit from the addition of running back Bryce Brown, whom they acquired Saturday from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for 2015 draft pick they acquired from San Fran in the Johnson trade. Brown overcame some fumble problems his rookie season and ran for 878 yards and six scores in his two years in Philly. He made six starts in relief and had touchdown runs of 65 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. Brown adds depth to a running back corps that features an aging Fred Jackson and a still evolving C.J. Spiller, each of whom is in the final year of his contract.
Whaley’s first draft also addressed coach Doug Marrone’s desire to get bigger along the offensive line. Second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio is a 6-foot-7, 322-pounder out of Alabama who could battle immediately for a starting job at right tackle. In later rounds, the Bills added two more humungous offensive linemen in Cyril Richardson (6-5, 329) from Baylor and Seantrel Henderson (6-7, 331) from Miami. Richardson could eventually contend for a starting job at guard. Henderson, who admitted to some marijuana suspension problems while with the Hurricanes, is more of a project.
Louisville’s Preston Brown was taken in the third round to add depth at linebacker. Duke’s Ross Cockrell, a fourth-round selection, will enhance an already pretty solid cornerback corps.
This was the 30th Bills draft I’ve covered and if the three decade long experience has taught me anything it’s this – it’s foolhardy to assign any grade but “incomplete” to a draft just consummated. But I will say this: I like the fact the Bills took some calculated risks.
The reality is that we still don’t know if Manuel is the real deal or not. This will be a make-or-break season for him. I believe Watkins has the skill set to come in and make an immediate impact. I also believe second-year receivers Robert Woods and Marquis Goodwin can make productive leaps in their sophomore seasons. The line figures to be better. And a team that finished second in the NFL in rushing last year could be even more efficient with the addition of Brown, who could wind up being a great acquisition.
So, Manuel will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. After an injury-truncated rookie season, he will need to show some durability and some consistency this fall, or the Bills may be shopping for a different answer at QB.
Like a gun-slinging quarterback, Dealer Doug went for broke in his first draft as a GM. We’ll see if his bold start results in a bold end to the Bills playoff famine.
Award-winning sports columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is in his 30th season of covering the Buffalo Bills and 41st year as a journalist.This is his fifth season as a correspondent for WROC-TV.