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Grading the Buffalo Bills – 1998 Draft
Since it’s been a few weeks since I analyzed the Buffalo Bills’ 1997 NFL Draft, here’s a link to my original post, where I explain (in painstaking detail) the format of this project. However, the format is quite simple, so I don’t believe any prerequisite reading will be necessary to follow along. Today, I will be grading and analyzing one of the largest blunders in recent Bills history: the entire 1998 NFL Draft. But before I do my best Todd McShay impression, here’s what you need to know going into that draft…
The 1998 Offseason
The Buffalo Bills’ 1997 campaign was a season of transition and change. A ‘transition season’ can often signify different outcomes and expectations, but rarely is the outcome a winning season. This was no different. The Bills went 6-10 in 1997, finishing 28th in point differential while losing six of their final seven games. The talent needed to replace the production of fading or retired future (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith) and should-be-future (Andre Reed and Steve Tasker) Hall of Famers simply was not present on the 1997 iteration of the squad. No matter which way you sliced it, this was a team that seemed to be heading even further into the basement.
Todd Collins quickly made it apparent that he was not the team’s future at quarterback (12 TD, 13 INTs in 13 starts). Free agent quarterback Billy Joe Hobert also wasn’t in the team’s plans, too preoccupied with partying to read his playbook. Thomas’ and Reed’s production were falling precipitously, and it was unclear if Antowain Smith and Eric Moulds could fill the expanding voids at those positions.
So the Bills made several changes, the first of which was replacing Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy with then-current defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who had previous head coaching experience in Denver. General Manager John Butler also made perhaps his largest splash (I was going to say no pun intended, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a pun. Either way, Butler would make an enormous splash if he jumped into a pool. I can make this joke because of what I’m about to say) by trading 1998’s 1st and 4th-round picks to Jacksonville for backup quarterback Rob Johnson. And that is exactly where I’m going to start this grading process…
Round (Overall Pick)
Traded #9 to Jacksonville for Rob Johnson (picked Fred Taylor at #9)
I’m treating this like a pick because of the way that it affected the Bills franchise as a whole (I certainly won’t be grading all draft pick trades). After it became clear that Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf would not be available with the ninth pick, Buffalo went all-in on Rob Johnson, who was drafted by Jacksonville with the 99th pick in 1995 out of USC. Previous to the trade, Johnson had just one NFL start on his resume, a Week 1 win in 1997 over Baltimore. Johnson went 20 of 24 with 294 yards and two touchdowns, posting the highest completion percentage in NFL history for any quarterback in his debut game, a record that still stands. In the following week, Johnson left the game with a high ankle sprain and never regained the starting job from Mark Brunell. And folks, that was worth a 1st and 4th round pick. That was literally his resume. Johnson played four years for the Bills, and occasionally provided okay statistics, but more importantly, posted a 9-17 record as a starter, lost in the fateful Music City Miracle game, took an infuriating amount of sacks, and seemed to be injured just about every other play. Jacksonville took Fred Taylor with the first pick they traded him for. Fred Taylor rushed for 11695 yards and 66 touchdowns over his 13 year career.
Perfect Hindsight Use of Pick: Fred Taylor RB, Florida (#9); Tra Thomas OT, Florida St. (#11); Takeo Spikes LB Auburn (#13); Randy Moss WR, Marshall (#21);
2nd (39) Sam Cowart LB, Florida St. – If you would like to feel happy, cheery, perhaps bright, for the rest of your day, I wouldn’t read past this paragraph (although it is possible that I already ruined your day by spending three paragraphs on Rob Johnson). The only silver lining in this draft class was Sam Cowart, an inside linebacker from Florida State. And even that silver lining isn’t as bright as it should have been. Cowart had three excellent seasons for the Bills, anchoring the middle of what was a very stout defense under Wade Phillips. He led the team in tackles twice, and made the Pro Bowl in 2000. However in 2001, Cowart tore his Achilles tendon in the season opener, and was playing for the Jets the next season. Much like Marcellus Wiley, he had a short but very productive time as a Bill.
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Patrick Surtain CB, Southern Miss (five picks later); Samari Rolle CB, Florida St. (seven picks later);
At least we didn’t take: Jeremy Staat DT, Arizona St. (two picks later);
3rd (68) Robert Hicks T, Mississippi St. – Hicks was a 6’7, 340 lbs. tackle out of the SEC. He was almost exclusively drafted to play right tackle, and that’s what he did. Hicks started 23 games at right tackle over three seasons with the Bills on some terrible, terrible offensive lines. After he was let go by the team after the 2000 season, Hicks never caught on with another team.
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Jeremiah Trotter LB, Stephen F. Austin (four picks later);
5th (131) Jonathan Linton RB, North Carolina – Did you know we took Antowain Smith, Jonathan Linton, and Shawn Bryson in three consecutive drafts? While Smith did possess some traits to be desired in a starting running back, Linton was a big, slow, plodding 235 lbs. of three yard gains. Linton gained 695 yards in 1999, but only because he inexplicably carried the ball 200+ times. I hated watching Linton play. At no point did they decide they needed someone with any semblance of speed or big-play ability? Ugh, wait until I get to Shawn Bryson in 1999.
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Benji Olson OG, Washington (pick 139)
6th (160) Fred Coleman WR, Washington
7th (198) Victor Allotey OG, Indiana
7th (238) Kamil Loud WR, Cal-Poly
These three are getting grouped together for this one. Obviously, good late round picks are hard to come by, but you’d like to see one player stick out of these three. Coleman never made the team, Allotey made the practice squad and full roster several times but never saw game action, and Loud caught six passes as a Bill.
Grade: F (might be harsh, but there’s not much else you can give this group)
Perfect Hindsight Pick: Matt Birk C, Harvard (pick 173); Ephraim Salaam OT, San Diego St. (pick 199); Jeff Saturday and London Fletcher (both UDFAs);
Overall Grade: D-
In an offseason where the Bills needed a big draft in the worst way, Buffalo’s management came up with the exact opposite. Only Cowart proved to be of any worth out of this group, and even he was gone after 2001. Luckily for Buffalo, they were bailed out for a couple seasons by a little guy named Flutie. However, drafts like the one in 1998 proved costly for the future winning ways of the Buffalo Bills.