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Grading the Buffalo Bills – 1997 Draft
Over the next couple summer months, this guy (I/me/BroJ) will be examining the recent Buffalo Bills’ rookie drafts under a microscope. I will be grading every pick and every Bills draft class of the last 15 years. Why 15 years, you ask? Well, in all honesty, that’s pretty much all I can remember. Although my knowledge of Bills history is slightly handicapped by age (full disclosure: I’m 24), I have fairly distinct memories of how I felt during moments of every draft since 1997 (although I do remember wishing the Bills would take Leeland McElroy instead of Eric Moulds in ’96… my bad, I’m playing analyst here, not GM). There have been some great picks, some middling picks, and some that have been clown shoes comical. I have a feeling that after I get through grading all 15 years, it’ll be somewhat clear (as if it’s not already) why the Bills have not experienced the same success as it did in the several years preceding 1997.
My format for this project is fairly simple. Each player will have a general summary about their career as a Bill, other relevant information that pertains to the pick, and a grade. I will also list my ‘Perfect Hindsight Pick’, which is a player that went after the pick (in its general vicinity) who would have been a better pick/fit for the team. This isn’t for me to say “look who they should have taken, shame on them” (I’d have to be delusional to think that a team could pick the best possible player at every selection); it’s just a fun way of displaying the talent that was still acquirable on the board. Also, I’m including an ‘At least we didn’t take them’ section for the first few rounds, which are players taken soon after the pick that frankly, Bills fans should be relieved that we didn’t take. It’s a confident booster that I figured Bills fans could appreciate.
I hope you’re still with me.
1997 NFL Draft
Other than my formative years of memory, there’s another good reason why 1997 is an apt place to start this process. It was ostensibly the end of an era (although it was smack dab in the middle of what I know as the ‘Lonnie Johnson Era’, the awkward years that filled the time between the Super Bowls and Doug Flutie). The team went 10-6 in the previous year, but certainly fortunes didn’t look like they were about to rise for the Bills. They lost in the first round of the playoffs to the second-year Jaguars in the agonizing ‘Natrone Means Game’. Jim Kelly seemed to be hurt in half of the games during the season, and posted a woeful 14 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Backup quarterback Todd Collins started to gain support from fans because of this, although he hadn’t accomplished much yet in his time on the field. In fact, I remember voting in a Rochester D&C phone poll (yes, you had to call in to cast your vote. And now I feel old.) that asked which QB you’d like to start during the rest of the season. Yes, a Kelly-Collins debate.
And then Kelly retired after the 1996 season. Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed were starting to show signs of slowing down in their playmaking abilities. The defense was still playing well (13.5 sacks for Bruce, 4 interceptions by safety Kurt Schulz, 111 tackles by inside linebacker Chris Spielman), but other than Eric Moulds, there were few signs of offensive playmaking waiting in the wings to pick up the slack when the old guard exited. The next few drafts could have gone a long way in retooling the team for the future.
Round (Overall Pick)
1st (23) – Antowain Smith RB, Houston – Smith was the first selection of the post-Kelly era, and was seen as the future replacement for future hall of famer Thurman Thomas. A franchise running back, he was not, although he did have a few solid seasons for the Bills to begin his career. Smith led the Bills in rushing in his rookie season with 840 yards and 8 touchdowns, and followed that up with 1124 yards and 8 touchdowns in his second season. However, his stats dwindled over the next two seasons, and ended up having some of his best seasons for the New England Patriots, helping them win two Super Bowls. As you’ll see in the ‘at least we didn’t take’ section, we could have ended up with Jim Druckenmiller or an accomplice to murder, so not all is lost.
Grade: C+ (Would have been an excellent 3rd round choice, not so much for a player expected to be the future at running back)
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Tiki Barber RB, Virginia (pick #36);
At least we didn’t take: Jon Harris DE, Virginia (two picks after Smith); Jim Druckenmiller QB, Virginia Tech (three picks after); Rae Carruth WR, Colorado (four picks after);
2nd (52) Marcellus Wiley DE, Colombia – Wiley is a prime example of a player who displayed his talents at the worst time: right at the end of his rookie contract. Bills fans may remember him for his one double-digit sack season, because that’s sadly where his career with the Bills ended. After three seasons as a backup defensive end where he accumulated 8.5 sacks, Wiley broke out in the 2000 season with 10.5 sacks. After that, he swiftly bolted and signed a large contract with San Diego, where he had one more double-digit sack season before slowly fading away (and later becoming part-time host of SportsNation and NFL Live).
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Darren Sharper DB, William & Mary (pick #60)
At Least we didn’t take: Will Blackwell WR, San Diego St. (one pick later);
4th (120) Jamie Nails G, Florida A&M – Nails started 22 total games for the Bills over four seasons, including every game of the 2000 season. However, he was generally seen as a weak link on the line, during a stretch where the team could not figure out the right side of its line (see Marcus Spriggs in the 6th round) or how much to pay them (google John Fina and/or Jerry Ostroski).
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Jeff Mitchell C, Florida (pick #134)
5th (153) Sean Woodson DB, Jackson St. – I’ll tell you what, it’s tough to find information about draft picks from 1997. So far I’ve found that Woodson had 7 interceptions for Jackson St. in his final year before entering the draft. Several “scouts” had him as a top 5 safety in the draft. However, Woodson appeared in just one game as a pro (according to sketchy sources), making him a non-factor.
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Al Harris CB, Texas A&M-Kingsville (pick #169)
6th (185) Marcus Spriggs G, Houston – Spriggs and Nails must have been a package deal. They both spent three years as a backup, both started on the right side of the Bills’ line in 2000, both immediately went to the Dolphins in 2001 where they were both non-factors. Both of their last names are pluralized. Okay, that’s enough. No need to go any further on Marcus Spriggs.
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Grady Jackson DT, Knoxville (pick #193)
7th (226) Pat Fitzgerald TE, Texas – A two-time All-American at Texas, Fitzgerald was unable to parlay that success into an NFL future, spending a season on injury reserve for the Bills before getting cut.
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Kris Mangum TE, Mississippi (two picks later)
Undrafted – Pat Williams DT, Texas A&M – It’s also worth noting that the Bills acquired Pat Williams as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M. Williams spent the next eight seasons developing into one of the league’s premier defensive tackles.
Overall Grade – C
The 1997 NFL Draft was a decent haul for the Buffalo Bills in the short-term, acquiring four players who were starters for the team at some point. Unfortunately, Smith and Wiley departed in just four short years, and Nails and Spriggs were mainly space fillers on a porous offensive line. I’m going to include Pat Williams on this grade, since I’m making the rules here and all.
Stay alert for my 1998 draft grades, and like Buddy Nixon on Facebook to get immediate alerts for new and exciting posts from our half-esteemed writing staff!