Chicken Wings and General Managers, Buffalo is Divided
There are really two debates in Buffalo these days (one an ongoing that will never be settled) Duffs or Anchorbar, and is Doug Whaley a good general manager. I think the first answer is clear, Duffs, and can be convinced the second answer is murky, at best.
While Whaley came to the Bills in 2010 I believe it’s fair to start this judgement in 2013, when he officially took over as general manager. To further the fairness I believe we have to attach the 2013 draft to Whaley’s resume, even though he didn’t take over, officially, until May of that year. Who knows for sure just how much say Buddy Nix had in drafting the 2013 class, as he was out the door two months later but on the other hand it would be foolish to believe Whaley didn’t have at least a little say, if not most of the pull, that year.
In 2013 the Bills were coming off back to back 6-10 seasons and in the midst of yet another change as Chan Gailey was out and Doug Marrone was in. With Buddy Nix also leaving, and officially turning things over to Whaley, it would be fair to say this was the start of another rebuild in Buffalo.
Drafting for the Future
Many of the most accomplished teams in the NFL have built their success through the draft. Finding quality players that will develop to fit and succeed in your system is the daunting task every general manager in the league faces. The best ones do it year after year, Pittsburgh, New England, and Seattle to name a few. Whaley has at the very least built sustainability with his draft picks over the past four seasons as 21 of the 28 players taken by Whaley are still on the team in some capacity. To go even deeper of the 21, a third of them, 7, started in New England on Sunday. It would have been more, 11, if not for a suspension and injuries.
You often hear ‘the draft is a crap shoot” which is something I agree with to an extent. I believe, although many times NFL lineups are loaded with guys in these rounds, picks 96-224 are indeed a roll of the dice. With that said the first three rounds often are and should be mightily judged. Buffalo currently has six starters taken in the first three rounds over the past four drafts. If you break it down even further it is actually six starters over past three drafts as the injury bug has bitten Sammy Watkins and both 2016 first two round picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland.
You can’t put Whaley’s name in a sentence with “draft” and not talk about the two most criticized moves he has made since being general manager, taking EJ Manuel and trading up for Sammy Watkins. First on Manuel, whom many considered a reach at pick 16. This was the draft where the Bills, and presumably Whaley, decided to part ways with an over paid Ryan Fitzpatrick (a contract signed by Buddy Nix) so the Bills were in the market for a QB. While fans get and appreciate the attempt made, at the end of the day, because now it’s easy to look back, EJ was a mistake here. I know it, you know it, and I think Doug Whaley knows it. But if we are going to play Monday Morning Quarterback lets go all the way and look at who the Bills could have taken below:
There are about three guys on that list I believe many Bills would have been happy with. Still a majority agree the right move was another guy or at the very least a trade down.
Speaking of trading, is there any more of a debated Doug Whaley move than his trade of swapping 2014 first round picks and giving up 2015 first and fourth round picks for Sammy Watkins? There is no doubting Watkins talent or ability just a doubt of his stability. Over the course of 36 Bills games since he was drafted, Watkins has played in and started 31. His All Pro ability has flashed numerous times including a torrid last nine weeks of the season in 2015 when he racked up 900 yards and seven touchdowns. But he has been limited with an ankle injury and a foot injury that has lingered into this year. I can only have an opinion like everyone else on this trade since I believe it is still too early to tell how successful it was. I tend to lean toward the successful side as Watkins has proven to be a game changer, something the Bills haven’t had at wide receiver in a long time. I understand the “we could have had” argument you get daily on this debate when fans love to say Whaley could have gotten Odell Beckham Jr if he waited. And while that is true even the Giants believed coming out of college, Watkins, who was not injury prone, was better as Jerry Reese told WFAN “We did not have Odell Beckham Jr. ahead of Sammy Watkins.”
How do you rate a general manager? By wins and losses? He doesn’t coach but instead provides talent, or if you believe talentless players. I am going to judge him on continuity. When I look at Whaley’s body of work in the draft I see starters and potential All Pros all over the field from Watkins, to Preston Brown to Ronald Darby. But more importantly I look at the consistency of the roster with 11 of the last 13 drafted players on the roster including six of seven from this past March.
Should They Stay or Should They Go?
A strong draft means teams don’t have to rely on overpaying in competitive free agent markets, something Buffalo, and mainly Whaley, has avoided. But as good as he is at keeping talent he is just as good as recognizing when not to overpay for fading talent or talent that was inconsistent. Whaley has made some really gutsy decisions, many of which came against the wishes of the majority of the fan base (although we all know the saying ‘if you listen to the fans you’ll be out of a job’). The three gutsiest calls were with Jairus Byrd, Andy Levitre, and Fred Jackson.
A fan favorite, Byrd, was nothing short of spectacular for the Bills, with 22 interceptions, two touchdowns, two sacks, and three Pro Bowls in five seasons. When it came time to pay the man or let him walk, Whaley said good bye. Instead of tying up the Bills in a huge contract, Byrd walked and signed a $56 million contract with half guaranteed. Since then? Byrd has played in just 20 games over three seasons and has one interception. Meanwhile, Aaron Williams has cost half the money and has six interceptions since Byrd’s departure.
Andy Levitre was also lining up to get a huge payday after a successful rookie contract, but Whaley decided to let him play elsewhere, thinking he could replace him. Levitre is on his second team since 2013 after signing a $46 million contract with $10 million guaranteed. He still has yet to make a Pro Bowl. Whaley picked up and then resigned Richie Icognito who went to Hawaii last year.
When Fred Jackson left Buffalo fans felt as though their Mayor had just been let go. It was a tough, but positive and successful decision. Jackson was a great ambassador for the Buffalo area, he really could be Mayor any year he decides to run, however that does not win you games. Whaley recognized what a move to let him go would mean financially and for the team and it worked out well. The Bills were not going to the playoffs because of Fred Jackson so the tough decision was made and he was gone. Jackson’s replacement? LeSean McCoy (more on that below).
Let’s not forget the Mario Williams ordeal. I would think most agreed the Bills desperately needed a pass rusher when they signed him to a six year $100 million deal in 2012 especially since Williams was an elite level talent at the time and could have went anywhere he wanted. Although an easy decision in the eyes of fans given the fact Williams basically quit on his team, Whaley had to make a decision and he cut bait and let Williams go freeing up $13 million in cap space.
Comparatively, look at the litany of contributors on both sides of the ball, Whaley has signed as free agents, or resigned, since becoming general manager; Richie Incognito, Corey Graham, Aaron Williams, Charles Clay, Mike Gillislee, Zach Brown, Jerome Felton, and Marcell Dareus.
Of the 47 signings under Whaley 23 are on the current roster.
Doug Whaley has made two trades as general manager and to call them both lob sided would be an injustice to the trades. Whaley put Jerry Hughes and LeSean McCoy on the roster and removed Kiko Alonso, and Kelvin Sheppard. In 2013 Whaley sent a very underachieving, possibly draft day reach by Buddy Nix, Kelvin Sheppard to Indianapolis for Jerry Hughes. Since 2013 Sheppard has played for three teams and started 24 games, while Hughes has played in 52 games racking up 29 sacks.
If you told Bills fans in 2015 they could have LeSean McCoy 99% probably would have hugged you, until you said it was for Kiko Alonso. After a mammoth rookie season, where he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, Alonso tore his ACL, again. It was the second tear, the first was in college. That was enough for Whaley to ship him to Philadelphia for the All Pro, electric, game changing McCoy. Alonso is on his third team, McCoy is on a mission in 2016, easily the most dynamic player the Bills have suited up since Terrell Owens one year stint.
There is a difference between an elite quarterback and a franchise quarterback, you don’t have to be elite to be a franchise guy. It’s very true the Bills don’t have an elite guy and the book is still out on Tyrod Taylor being a franchise guy. However, he has proven, among other things, in just 18 games to be serviceable. He was a Pro Bowl alternative in 2015. I don’t recall Taylor losing too many games for the Bills and aside from the Tennessee game in 2015 he hasn’t put the team on his back and carried them either. But if Taylor isn’t the answer then who? I do believe the $92 million contract for Taylor, although very Bills friendly, may be a bit steep. But where else could Whaley turn? In 2015 we knew the Bills needed a quarterback but they were not getting Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, who went 1 and 2 that year. The other quarterbacks, as a reminder, taken that year were; Garrett Grayson, Sean Mannion, Brett Hundley, and Trevor Siemien. Bottom line is the book is still out on Taylor, but as of right now he is not costing the Bills games and if he turns out to be special he is already locked up.
Speaking of offense Whaley’s fingerprints were on 10 of the 11 starters who led the league in rushing in 2015 and finished 13th in the league in total offense. Nine of the eleven were Whaley picks or signings.
The Bills returned seven of the defensive starters from 2015, six of them Whaley’s guys either in the draft of resigned. All seven of them were a part of the 2014 team that ranked fourth in total defense. Whaley did his job to keep the unit together as reasonably possible while looking to upgrade where the team could. Ten of the defenders who started the Patriots game Sunday were a product of Whaley who drafted four of them and signed or resigned six others. Only Kyle Williams and Aaron Williams were on the roster before Whaley officially took over in 2013.
You’re not going to ever get 100% of Bills fans to agree or disagree Doug Whaley is good or bad. I get that. But if you look at the moves made I believe the positives outweigh the negative. Whaley’s contract was extended at the beginning of 2016, but many still believe he is on the hot seat if the Bills don’t make the playoffs. I don’t agree. A general manager can only give his coach the keys to the car, the coach must drive it. Bottom line, Doug Whaley has given Rex Ryan a tremendously talented roster, it is now his job to drive it to the playoffs. The only question I have about Whaley’s roster is just how many years has it been since the Bills have had one this talented, 5 years? 10 years? 16 years?