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If there is anything I’ve learned from 30 years of covering NFL drafts, it’s not to rush to judgment, lest you be judged a fool yourself.
I know Bills fans and many members of the Western New York media are stoked about the bold draft day trade made by the team to select Clemson University wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but I also recall heightened excitement when Mike Williams, J.P. Losman, Aaron Maybin and Erik Flowers were selected by Buffalo during the first round in the not-so-distant past. And look how those picks panned out—total whiffs whose failures contributed mightily to the 14-year playoff famine the Bills find themselves mired in.
That’s why when people ask me what grade I’ve given the team, I tell them “incomplete.” History will judge. Time will tell.
That said, I applaud Bills rookie General Manager Doug Whaley and President Russ Brandon for making a cannonball splash. Yes, they paid a hefty price to move from No. 9 to No. 4 in the pecking order, but if Watkins becomes the dynamic playmaker he was in college, the cost of next year’s first- and fourth-round picks to Cleveland will be well worth it.
“We thought it was a calculated risk and a risk we were willing to take,” Whaley said minutes after consummating the deal. “The high costs of not making the playoffs is something we weighed, and we thought this guy was going to get us to the playoffs.”
Drafting wide receivers is a tricky proposition. Interestingly, this is the third wide receiver from Clemson the Bills have taken in the first round. The first one was Perry Tuttle in 1982. I still have the clever promotional record album cover Clemson sent out touting Tuttle as an All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate in his senior year. Breaking records was the theme. The 19th overall pick in ’82, Tuttle wound up being one of the biggest busts in Bills history, spending two uneventful seasons with the team before being jettisoned.
Jerry Butler was the other Tiger receiver drafted by the Bills. He was chosen No. 5 overall in 1979, and made an immediate impact with 48 receptions for 834 yards (a whopping 17.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns in his rookie season. During the next two seasons, Butler caught 112 passes for 1,674 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Blessed with an Olympic sprinter’s speed, glue fingers and the focus of a surgeon, Butler was the most electrifying receiver I’ve ever seen play for the Bills. He was a threat to go the distance each time he touched the football. He made some truly acrobatic catches. Sadly, two knee injuries short-circuited a career that seemed destined to earn him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hopefully, for Bills fans, Watkins will have the immediate impact of a Butler, who helped the Bills reach the playoffs in his second and third seasons. If Watkins lives up to the hype, he could help snap Buffalo’s ignominious postseason streak.
Amazingly, he grew up in Florida, rooting for Buffalo. I say “amazingly” because the Bills have been nationally irrelevant for so long that it’s unusual that a young person outside Western New York would develop an allegiance to the team. Heck, Watkins was just 6 years old the last time Buffalo was in the playoffs.
“That’s OK,” he said when reminded. “There are a lot of factors that weigh into that (drought). But now it’s time to worry about the future, and I’m a Buffalo Bill. I just can’t wait to get started and get things on the right path.”
Watkins is 6-foot-1 with blazing speed and astounding leaping ability. He established 23 school records at Clemson and put an exclamation mark on his collegiate career by catching 16 passes for 227 yards and two scores to be most valuable player in the Orange Bowl. He is the only player in the Tigers’ long, illustrious history to throw a touchdown pass and score touchdowns on receptions, runs and kickoff returns. He’s fast enough to outrun defensive backs and possesses an array of moves that enable him to turn short passes into long gains.
“My mentality is to score every play,’’ Watkins said. “That’s my mentality—to catch every ball that touches my hands and to score, to create a problem for the defense, to make the defensive coordinator think hard, to make them double-guard me. That’s my job.”
The Bills are banking on Watkins to be a dynamic playmaker who can help second-year player EJ Manuel blossom into the quarterback they envision him becoming. After a rookie season truncated by three knee injuries, the heat is on Manuel. In the NFL, which also stands for the Not For Long league, he will need to prove himself this season. Otherwise there will be immense pressure on the team’s cognoscenti to look to someone else to stop the game of quarterback roulette that Buffalo has played since the retirement of Jim Kelly nearly two decades ago.
This is indeed a fascinating, pivotal time in Bills history. The team could have a new owner before the season is over. Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the Bills’ long-term viability in Western New York is dependent on the construction of a new stadium, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expedited plans to identify sites for it. The coming season could be a make-or-break campaign, not only for Manuel but for Coach Doug Marrone and Whaley, perhaps even for Brandon.
Whaley clearly didn’t waste any time showing that he’s a wheeler and dealer, engineering three trades in the first two days alone. We’ll see if his gambling pays off.
In a recent email the team sent out to prospective ticket buyers, there was a picture of Manuel with the slogan: “Our time is now.” It had better be, for his sake and the sake of his coach and GM.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak was one of the co-authors of “The Hall: A Celebration of Baseball Greats.” The book was published last week to coincide with this year’s 75th anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown.
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