Doug Whaley lived up to his word over the weekend in his first draft as the Buffalo Bills’ general manager.
Priority No. 1 this offseason for Whaley and Co. has been to surround quarterback EJ Manuel with as many weapons as possible, in order to give the second-year pro his greatest chance of success.
After using four of their seven draft picks on offense – including the first two – and trading for a running back, Whaley’s plan is coming together.
“We are committed. I want you to believe me when I say that,” Whaley said of building around Manuel. “I always tell you guys that I’ll never say never because I don’t want to paint myself in a corner, but when I do say something, I do it and I mean it and I try to fulfill it.”
The bold move up the draft board — at the expense of next year’s first-round draft pick — to select Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins in the first round is Exhibit A.
“We believe the addition of Sammy is going to be instant impact, not only to our quarterback, but to what our offensive coordinator can come up with game-plan wise and how defenses attack us,” Whaley said.
Exhibit B would be the selection of Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round.
“You add in Cyrus Kouandjio when he gets on the field and whenever he steps in to start contributing, you’ll have two bookend tackles for a long time,” Whaley said. “We’re excited about not only now, but into the future.”
Watkins is as much of a can’t-miss prospect as the draft had to offer, but his production will be weighed against the cost of the 2015 first-rounder.
Kouandjio’s left knee was a concern to at least some teams, and potentially a reason he slipped to No. 41. So both selections come with at least some degree of risk. That’s something Whaley clearly isn’t adverse to.
“I think where we are and where we’re trying to go — I can’t say it’s always going to be like this — but I will say I will not be afraid to be aggressive and be bold,” Whaley said.
The Bills’ general manager has done the equivalent of pushing all his chips into the middle of the table on Manuel — then taking his watch off and throwing that into the pot for good measure.
“We do not anticipate bringing in another arm,” Whaley said about the potential of adding another quarterback to the roster, another sign the team is fully committed to Manuel. “At this time we’re very confident with the guys we have on campus.
“We do have some young guys, but they’re experienced in our system. And that was another thought process: If you bring someone else in, they’re just as young or younger and less experienced in the system, so we’re very confident where we are right now.”
Coach Doug Marrone said he expects the entire offense to operate more efficiently in the second year in coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s system.
“Now when you’re talking to them it’s like a light is going off,” Marrone said. “They see it now and you’re able to get the different steps. So from the standpoint of what you’re doing in the classroom, you’re working through the advanced stages now with them. Now it’s a matter of really getting excited and going on the field and having that stuff convert to the field and that’s where it’s the most important.”
While the Bills have mostly added to the offense this offseason — dating back to the signing of left guard Chris Williams in free agency and the trade of receiver Mike Williams — they did subtract a significant contributor Friday by dealing veteran wideout Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers.
Johnson is the only Bills receiver in franchise history to have three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, from 2010-12, but that total dipped to 597 yards in his only season with Marrone and Hackett as he struggled with injuries and missed two games because of the death of his mother.
Just how well Johnson’s quirky personality fit with Marrone is certainly up for debate.
But that all became moot after Watkins was drafted.
“Stevie had a very good career here, but obviously when you bring someone in like Sammy and the young group of guys we had, yes, that’s really it,” Marrone said. “It’s not a knock on Stevie, we brought in Sammy and it was crowded back there. We make decisions on what is best for the team and we move forward from there. We appreciate everything that Stevie has done and we wish him well. It’s a change of atmosphere.”
Marrone said Watkins’ versatility presents a puzzle the offensive staff is eager to solve.
“As soon as we were able to get him … I got together with the offensive staff,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us. He’s excited to get back to work and we’re excited to work with him.”
Johnson’s trade leaves a hole at slot receiver. Marrone said the Bills will use their upcoming organized team activities to best fill that role.
“Sammy can play the slot. Robert Woods, we felt very comfortable with him being able to play the slot and be very successful there,” Marrone said. “We even thought about Marquise Goodwin being able to play in the slot and getting in and out of breaks.”
Marrone and his staff will also have some sorting out to do at running back after the weekend trade with Philadelphia for Bryce Brown.
“I can’t sum up what the backfield is, but I will sum up what one of our philosophies as a team is and that’s ‘competition brings out the best in everybody,’ ” Whaley said. “We want competition — we don’t want people coming in and saying, ‘here is my spot and I’m safe.’ We want people to push people to be better.”
Brown, who will be 23 when the season starts, gives the team solid depth now and insurance for the future with both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson entering the final year of their contracts.
“God forbid you have injury … where are we going to go next?” Marrone asked. “We’re able to go out and get a player who hasn’t had a lot of mileage on him. … I’m excited for him to come in and see what he can do.”
Buffalo native Derek Brim, a defensive back for the University at Buffalo, will sign as an undrafted free agent with the Bills, according to a tweet from Jon Fuller, the school’s assistant athletic director for communications.
That signing has yet to be confirmed by the Bills. Brim, a former walk-on, made 58 tackles, broke up four passes and forced two fumbles in 2013 for the Bulls. He played at Canisius High School.
UB cornerback Najja Johnson confirmed to The News on Sunday that he will sign as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Johnson was a first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection as a senior in 2013 after finishing with three interceptions and nine pass breakups. He finished his UB career with 38 passes defended — one short of the school record.
Additionally, former UB guard Jasen Carlson — a Jamestown native who attended Southwestern High School — has received an invitation to rookie minicamp on a tryout basis with the Chicago Bears. Carlson started the first seven games of the season with UB at left guard before suffering a broken leg against Massachusetts and missing the rest of the year.