This is the beginning of a three-part series for Building the Herd, where we take a look back to evaluate all of the Buffalo Bills Draft History since the year 2000, the beginning of a debilitating 16-year marathon of playoff absences. We figure that one way to prepare ourselves for the future is to evaluate and learn from the past. Rob Quinn already started things off with an article discussing some draft day trends during this era, which you should read because he’s great at writing about the Bills. This three-part series will take a look at the selections made since they earned their last playoff berth and we’ll offer insight into the state of the franchise, the players selected and provide a grade for each individual draft.
On January 8th, 2000, the Buffalo Bills played their last playoff game. We don’t need to talk about that any further. You already know what happened that day.
That game followed up a decade of relative success for the Bills. Even after Buffalo made four straight Super Bowls, getting to the playoffs was considered more of an expectation, a formality, than a surprise. Following the Music City Miracle, Wade Phillips would stay on as Bills head coach for one more season, with 2000 also being the last season for general manager John Butler.
Buffalo Bills Draft History – 2000 NFL Draft
If you needed a dramatic way for the Buffalo Bills’ descent to begin, this is about as on the nose as it gets.
John Butler’s final first round pick as a general manager was about as ineffective as it gets. Though the 26th overall pick is not a guarantee in terms of receiving long-term production (you may forget that, as we rarely pick that late in the first round), getting two years and four sacks out of Erik Flowers makes him a Grade-A First-Round Bust. Travares Tillman was also out the door after two years, released halfway through Gregg Williams’ term as a struggling head coach. Corey Moore had just come off of winning the Bronko Nagurski Award, as college football’s best defensive player, but was an undersized defensive end who the Bills cut after one season. It was a draft that was supposed to replenish a mass exodus of talent on the defensive side, and they went 0-for-3 at the top of their draft.
Avion Black served as a part-time kick returner for two years and Drew Haddad was cut before the 2000 season started. Leif Larsen set the NFL Combine record for bench press reps at 45, but played just 16 games for the Bills.
It’s telling that the best two picks of this draft were RB Sammy Morris, who was dreadful for the Bills in the three years following his rookie campaign, and DaShon Polk, a special teams player who stuck with the team for four years.
Any which way you look at it, this draft was an F, a disaster, the start of an avalanche of sub-par seasons. It was a draft that produced just 35 starts from eight players, where the best pick was a seventh-rounder who covered kickoffs. This is how you start a drought.
2001 NFL Draft
John Butler’s final season as Bills general manager led to the hiring of Tom Donahoe, who was seen as a football guru of sorts, after spending nine years building the Steelers as director of football operations before having a falling out with Bill Cowher.
The 2000 Bills went 8-8, not a horrible season, but had some clear deficiencies they needed to address. Quarterback Rob Johnson went 4-7 as a starter, Shawn Bryson led the team in rushing with 591 yards, and defensive players from their playoff years were slowly beginning to exit.
In comparison to Disaster Draft 2000, Tom Donahoe’s first draft as Bills GM provided a great deal of promise for the team’s future. Clements and Schobel were longtime starters, performing close to a Pro Bowl-caliber for their entire Bills tenures. Following two home run picks to start the draft, Travis Henry had two excellent seasons for the Bills, and it’s hard to be disappointed with four starting seasons out of a second-round running back.
Jonas Jennings was a multi-year starter at offensive tackle who outplayed his draft position, despite the fact that he never quite stayed healthy. The 49ers signed him to a surprisingly large contract at the end of his rookie deal, setting an expectation that he didn’t quite live up to. Ron Edwards was a solid defensive line talent who arguably would end up having his best seasons post-Bills, but put together some good seasons in Buffalo, especially his last. Marques Sullivan started at guard for almost two seasons, although the line was considered an extreme weakness of those teams. Brandon Spoon had an unfortunate string of arm injuries through college and then again following his rookie season, which ended his promising career (14 starts at middle linebacker, two interceptions returned for touchdowns) after one season. With the amount of talent the Bills found in this draft, you can feel fine about ignoring that their five sixth and seventh round picks did not catch on.
By all means, if the Bills had a few more drafts like ‘01, I wouldn’t be writing this article right now. Two longtime starters who are fringe contenders to end up Wall of Fame someday (with the way that thing keeps expanding), with four more starters/contributors, makes the 2001 Draft one of the best the Bills have had in the last 16 years. Donahoe unearthed a gem of a draft class, but by time Bills fans truly knew how good it was, they had already found reason to turn on him.
2002 NFL Draft
Gregg Williams’ first season as coach was a disaster, but disaster in the NFL yields the ability to handpick better talent in the draft. The Bills didn’t leave fans much time to gloat about 2001’s productive draft class as the team bottomed out at 3-13, which somehow only got them the fourth overall pick. As a team that had not picked that high in quite a while, the fourth pick still provided a rare opportunity to grab a possible franchise-changing impact player. Well, they had the opportunity to…
So they took Mike Williams. He couldn’t move, and that really wasn’t anything different than what you saw on tape in college. Instead of rewarding Bryant McKinnie’s near-flawless career at Miami, they chose Mike Williams. Whoops. Josh Reed broke every SEC receiving record imaginable in just two seasons, but never really found that success in the NFL, despite staying on with the Bills for eight (eight!) seasons. Ryan Denney was also a Bill for a remarkable eight seasons as rotational defensive end.
After that, the draft did not return much of note. Coy Wire shifted back and forth from safety and linebacker, and you can now find him smiling brightly on HLN. Justin Bannan was a serviceable backup defensive lineman, but would have his best years in Baltimore after he left Buffalo. Mike Pucillo eventually took over Marques Sullivan’s job as the ‘wait we’re really starting this guy?’ guard.
Believe it or not, the Bills have had larger disasters at the draft (see 2000, above), but the Mike Williams selection certainly qualifies this draft under the category of ‘complete fiasco’.
2003 NFL Draft
Buffalo bounced back to 8-8 in 2002, after a promising start of the season led by quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who the Bills traded their 2003 first round pick (14th overall) for. They ended up getting first rounder back before the draft (23rd overall), when they traded Peerless Price to Atlanta while his value was at its apex.
If you have any idea how to grade this draft, let me know. Donahoe made a bold move in taking Willis McGahee, who would sit out his first season after the horrible injury he suffered in that year’s National Title Game. He also had a strange contract holdout that seemed to last forever, the argument mostly being over how incentive-laden his deal would be. He ended up having three pretty good seasons as the Bills running back, but ended up not seeing eye-to-eye with many of the fans in the city publicly and eventually left town.Now we really just don’t like the guy, except for our Rob Quinn, who refuses to listen to this. It was a case where front office probably got the talent evaluation part right, but the rest of it just didn’t fall into place. This is a reoccurring theme with Bills first round running backs, where they clearly picked a good player, but where three seasons of a good running back doesn’t justify the high pick.
Chris Kelsay was a longtime starter for the Bills, but was a constant source of Bills fan ire, whether that was fair or not, since he had several seasons where he was one of the league’s better run-stopping linemen. Angelo Crowell developed into a near-Pro Bowl talent, but had his Bills (and NFL) career ended abruptly by injuries. Luckily, the Bills nailed their fourth round pick in Terrence McGee, a longtime starting cornerback and probably the best kick returner in the club’s history. Mario Haggan was about as good of a seventh rounder as you could ask for, but still had his best seasons with the Broncos after leaving Buffalo. Sam Aiken played in Buffalo for five seasons; in four of those, Bills fans wondered if he could break through as a starting receiver. He didn’t.
2004 NFL Draft
The 2003 Bills went 6-10, and that was enough to nudge Gregg Williams out the door as head coach. In came Mike Mularkey, who became an NFL head coach for the first time. Tom Donahoe was still general manager, and time was running out for him to make an impact with the team. Donahoe saw that Bledsoe was fading, and decided to make another bold move, trading 2005’s first round pick for the pick that became JP Losman.
Lee Evans, by all measures, was a good pick. The small, speedy receiver was one of the league’s most fearsome deep threats during his time in Buffalo. However, much of the conversation surrounding him during his Buffalo tenure was ‘How good would this guy be with a real quarterback?’ I guess we’ll never know.
JP Losman started his Bills career on the bench, and made sure of it when he tried to take on cornerback Troy Vincent during a quarterback scramble in his first training camp. Losman injured his ankle on the play, and as 16-year-old Jason Shannon witnessed it while standing against the fence at St. John Fisher College, his stomach dropped through the concrete. Losman would finish with a 10-23 record as a Bills starter, and despite a promising 2006 season where he started all 16 games, his time as franchise quarterback was not to be fulfilled.
The remaining four picks in this draft amounted to very little, as Tim Anderson had four middling years at defensive tackle, and ‘Fast Freddy’ Smith was basically just fast.
2005 NFL Draft
The 2004 Bills somehow went 9-7, barely missing the playoffs when they lost to Pittsburgh’s third-string lineup and the breakout game of Willie Parker. The team was pretty decent at this point, with Eric Moulds, Lee Evans, and Willis McGahee leading the offense, and Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher, Nate Clements, and Aaron Schobel having some of their best seasons on defense. The arrow could have conceivably gone in either direction in Mike Mularkey’s second season as head coach. Without the first round pick traded away in the Losman deal, Tom Donahoe was starting the draft at a disadvantage, but one that plenty of general managers have overcome in the past.
Remember the 2000 Draft? Well Roscoe Parrish barely saves this draft from 2000’s fate as an all-time low. But this one was pretty bad. Parrish was a standout punt returner for several seasons, but never really settled into the slot receiver position, which they tried to teach him several times. Parrish never reached the Dante Hall or Devin Hester peak of punt returning, but he was very good there, which probably justifies a second round pick. However, a solid punt returner is not what most teams are aiming for in their first pick in a draft.
Kevin Everett’s career came to an unfortunate and scary end, but hadn’t really shown much on the field up to the point of his career-ending injury. Duke Preston made scattered starts at center in his four years with the Bills, but eventually forced them into taking a first round center in Eric Wood. Lionel Gates had an extremely promising first preseason, but some off-the-field issues ended his career before it began. The 2005 Bills went 5-11, and subsequently cleared house. Tom Donahoe made way for longtime Bills head coach Marv Levy in his first job as general manager. Mike Mularkey resigned as head coach with three years left on his deal, ushering in a befuddling and frustrating time for Bills fans, the Dick Jauron Era.
From 2000-to-2005, the Bills had one excellent draft (2001), one decent but entirely confusing to evaluate draft (2003), and the other four were catastrophes (I had to use a thesaurus to come up with another word for ‘disaster’, as I’ve already used it six times previously in this article).
This seems like a good place to break this article off until next time. In the next installment, we will be continuing our look at the Buffalo Bills Draft History with their selections in the 2006 through 2010 NFL Draft, which featured some improved draft selections, but netted the same results on the field.